Epistle Reading, 1 John 3:1-3
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
I think you can tell most of what you need to know about a church and about what they believe, teach, and confess in that church by attending a funeral service. Watch what happens in the service. Hear what the pastor says, look at what he does. A funeral tells you so much because it deals with the most fundamental questions of life and death, of salvation and eternal destiny, of who God is and what his relationship is to us. In other words, a funeral service is where the rubber really meets the road.
So there is much to learn about a pastor and his teaching or a particular church body by attending a funeral. What hope is given to those who are gathered, and what is the basis for this hope? Are doubts dealt with head-on, or are they actually made worse, is uncertainty actually increased? What does it all mean – life and death? Is the joy we have in Christ Jesus expressed in the midst of the sorrow felt by the loved ones who are there? Are they directed to the good works and life of the person who is deceased – that the departed was a very fine person who did his or her best – or are they directed only to the work of Christ, and to Baptism? You will find a variety of answers to these questions, and unfortunately even in the Christian Church you will find a host of competing teachings and confessions.
This is all very relevant for us to consider on this observance of All Saints Day. All Saints Day was actually two days ago, right after that day we call Halloween, All Hallows Eve, the Eve of All Saints. Now, the Reformation didn’t get rid of the saints – we just stopped bothering them. For Lutherans rightly reject the invocation of the saints – calling on them, pleading with them, hectoring them for things in this life, because of course Christ is our one mediator before the Father. All Saints Day is also like a portal into the end of the church year which is just three weeks away, and as we move into advent the readings will focus our attention on these “rubber meets the road” topics: death, Christ’s return to judgement, Heaven and hell, a new Heaven and new earth. In these things we will hear time and again how Christ will bring His redemptive work to its final culmination. So on All Saints Day we remember the blessed dead who have gone before us, especially commemorating those who departed this last year. They are now in the presence of the beatific vision that St. John describes, they are part of the heavenly chorus who are “standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.”1
But on this day we should also be reminded that every Sunday is like “all saints day” for us as we gather in the Divine Service, for we remember these same saints in our Liturgy every week. Here in this little parish heaven punches through to earth in the Divine Service. Today and every Sunday we gather in the banquet feast that is also ongoing in the heavenly places, which we acknowledge and praise in the Service of the Sacrament praying “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” before we launch into the ancient hymn of the Sanctus. The praise is sung by people and angels, the praise is for the Lamb who was slain on Golgotha, who is present in heaven and on earth. The saints pray with us, we are all part of the one Universal Church, militant on earth and triumphant in heaven.
So when we hear the words of St. John this morning from the Epistle reading, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are”2 I can’t help but think of this heavenly and earthly Church as the family of God. For to say we are made God’s friends is not enough. No, John says that we are called children of God. Why? Because of the love the Father has given to us, namely that Christ loved us in this way, that He rendered perfect obedience to the Father, who gave to us His Son to redeem us from sin, death, and devil. God loves us even while we were mired in sin, with no way out to save ourselves. Such is the personal and loving nature of our Heavenly Father. Such is his love that we are called his children.
The World Did Not Know Him
Of course, the world doesn’t see it this way. “The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”3 The world cannot understand how one who is born into and become used to to sin has nevertheless been received as a son or daughter of God, called a child of God. So the world looks at Christians and says, “Ah hah! Hypocrites! How is it possible to be called a child of God while sins are still present?” This is the judgment of the world, this is the logic of the flesh. No, the world does not know you, but you know the world. The world cannot understand how God really works because they do not know of him who sent Christ into the world in order to save us, yes while we were still sinners. We can be called “children of God” because that’s what really happens in Baptism – we are raised from death to life, from darkness to light, and made part of the family of God as his adopted sons and daughters.
And so we are God’s children now along with the saints who are already in the presence of the throne of Heaven. This is all because of God’s love for you. And even though on many days you might not especially feel like a child of God, nevertheless this is true and right, even though you are still in the flesh and still feel the flesh. But this should not disturb you, for St. John says, “what we will be has not yet appeared.”4 In our earthly pilgrimage from the bondage of sin, through the healing waters of Holy Baptism, to the promised land where we will be with Christ forever, we live with this constant tension between the now and the not yet. For now we see the things of God that are hidden to the world revealed to us through eyes of faith. And the world, the flesh, and the devil are constantly seeking to cover those things back up, to steal away the faith which you have been given, and the hope that springs from that faith. You see, this hope in the things that God has promised us – the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, is more than wishful thinking. The hope the Apostles speak of is not “Gee, I sure hope so” but “Yes, I am sure of it!” Luther says, “Therefore we are children of God not by seeing God but through faith.”5
Surely this hope of faith is one of those rubber-meets-the-road moments that I mentioned earlier. Because, to be sure, we are all handed over to death eventually. But at that moment the covering will be lifted and “we shall see him as his.” St. Paul teaches us, “12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”6 And not only will we see Christ, but the St. John says “we shall be like him.” Faith in his Word and in Christ grasps hold of this promise of what we will be like. God is life, and therefore we shall live forever with him. God is righteous, therefore will shall be filled with righteousness. God is immortal and blessed, and so we will enjoy everlasting bliss in that vision. The ones who have gone before us already have what we yet hope for, the bliss of Heaven. “4They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”7
But St. John does not let his hearers detach this vision of Heaven from Christian experience and, yes, responsibility. The sure hope that we have in this life along our earthly pilgrimage actually has implications for the here and now. In other words, in our waiting and hoping, our lives should reflect the name that we have received, the name in which we hope. The last of the three verses in our Epistle says, “3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”8 St. John immediately urges the Christian to bear fruit either through love and through hope. We love because He first loved us, and whoever has this hope of seeing Christ and being with Him and like Him daily seeks to mortify the flesh, to put it to death – to beat down the ways of the world, the flesh, and the devil that would seek to rob us of that very hope. The Apostle James writes, “8Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”9 So here is another of the “rubber-meets-the-road” moment on this All Saints Day. The Augsburg Confession makes clear that we should not call upon the saints in Heaven nor seek help from them. However, “the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith. Moreover, it is taught that each person, according to his or her calling, should take the saints’ good works as an example.”10 We should walk in a manner worthy of our calling, as those who have been sanctified – that is, made clean – by the work of the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament.
So our All Saints celebration now comes into proper focus. We who might grow weary of the battle in this life look to the promise of the next life we have received in Christ. And we remember that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and have already taken their place in the Heavenly Divine Service. In faith we have this hope, not just for ourselves, but for our loved ones who are now safe in care of Jesus. So “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”11
1 Re 7:9.
2 1 Jn 3:1.
3 1 Jn 3:1.
4 1 Jn 3:2.
6 1 Co 13:12.
7 Re 22:4–5.
8 1 Jn 3:3.
9 Jas 4:8.
10 Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 58.
11 Mt 5:12.