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Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Life Beyond the Tears (Revelation 7:9-17)


After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number.  They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language.  They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb.  They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands.  They cried out with a loud voice: “Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.”  All the angles stood in a circle around the throne, and around the elders and the four living creatures.  They fell facedown before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen!  Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and always. Amen.”

Then one of the elders said to me, “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”  I said to him, “Sir, you know.”  Then he said to me, “These people have come out of the great hardship.  They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood.  This is the reason they are before God’s throne.  They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them.  They won’t hunger or thirst anymore.  No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them.  He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

 

It is no coincidence that a hallmark of Christian worship is music.  We sing our theology.  Whether thumbing through the hymnal for time-honored expressions of our faith, or utilizing newer songs that continue to express the timeless message of our faith for new generations, our songs of worship are a treasure trove of Christian theology.

 

On this All Saints’ Sunday, when we celebrate the lives of those who have passed from this life into the church triumphant, as we rejoice in lives that, in God’s love, do not end, I think of the verse from that great hymn, The Church’s One Foundation:

 

“Yet we on earth have union with God the three-in-one,”

“And mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.”

 

 I can’t sing that verse anymore without getting choked up.  It recalls to mind all the saints in my life who have entered into their heavenly home and now rest in the nearer presence of God.  I think of the saints whose lives I have celebrated in funeral and memorial services.  Though death is hard, the tears that well up at those times are tempered with the knowledge that they have been graciously received and embraced by God in the life to come.

 

The scripture we have just read from the Bible’s last book, Revelation, gives us a glimpse of that life – a place of perpetual worship, un-ending fellowship, where the trials and difficulties of this life have melted like frost in the sun.  The promise from God is that there will be no crying, no weeping, no hurt or pain, no sickness, no suffering, and that God himself will wipe every tear from their eyes.

 

What’s more – a reunion awaits all of us in the not-too-distant future.  And, that reunion is closer than we realize.  We don’t have to wait until we die; the reunion can take place sooner than that.

 

Central to our faith, confessed in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, is a belief in the communion of saints.  Friends on earth are connected to our friends above.  Think about the intimacy of friendships and relationships that we experience as families and as a church family – friends, those bonds of love do not end at death.

 

Ashley and I got back on Friday evening from 9 days of vacation, driving ourselves around the desert Southwest, some in Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah, but the bulk of our time was in Arizona.  We didn’t see everything, but 1300 miles in 9 days, we certainly tried!

 

Arizona, you may know, is a beautiful tapestry of Anglo, Native American, and Spanish influence all melding together.  With the build-up to All Saints Day, everywhere we went, we saw signs that people were gearing up for their celebrations of Dia de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead.

 

The origins of the day are for people to remember those in their lives who have gone on ahead of them into death and celebrate their lives – sounds an awful lot like what we do on All Saints,’ doesn’t it?

 

The tradition in places where Dia de Los Muertos is celebrated are for families to spend the day in the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried.  They play games, they sing songs, they pray prayers, they decorate the grave, and they share a meal together, often bringing and leaving some portion of the meal – not as an offering to the dead, as is commonly misunderstood – but as a way to include their departed love in the celebration, acknowledging that though they have died, they are still a part of the family, and when the family gathers together to do what is central to families –sharing a meal – even those who have already passed through the veil between this life and the life to come are still granted a place at the table, and still included in the family’s meal.

 

 I don’t know what you think about that, but it sounds like communion of the saints, to me.  I can’t help but think that perhaps they have a more robust understanding and experience of the communion of the saints than we do.

 

But, you don’t have to come from a Spanish-speaking culture to understand and experience the communion of the saints.  It may not be in the cemetery, but we have a meal, too, you know.

 

Every time we celebrate Holy Communion, The Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the love and grace served in even greater abundance than the large pieces of bread I give you serve to draw us closer to God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit AND to everyone else who gathers at the table.  Communion connects us to Christ, it makes us part of his body in a way that is as tangible as the bread in our hands.  And all those who are connected to Christ are connected to each other.  Those who have gone on to the Church Triumphant are still connected to Christ, and therefore, still connected to us and we to them.  Nothing than divide those who are connected to each other through Christ, not even the seeming finality of death.

 

If you read a little further in Revelation, you’ll see another description of heaven as a great banquet, a wedding feast, a dinner party.  A good meal is a sign of the kingdom of God!  A good meal is a foretaste of heaven!  As a pastor, I’ve been to more covered-dish suppers and funeral meals than I can remember.  I’ve seen things combined in casseroles that don’t belong together, and things suspended in gelatin that should never be suspended in gelatin.

 

On more than one occasion, someone will say, “Well, we don’t know what else to do, so we brought food,” but can I tell you, making and sharing a meal is exactly what we should do!  It’s a way we show concern and care, and it’s a way we stay connected with each other, even beyond death.

 

Imagine the Lord’s table as standing in that mysterious place between this life and the life to come.  Picture two chairs at the table – one on the front side and one on the back side.  That front chair is for us – it’s where we take our place at the table.  That chair is easy to see and accessible.  But what about that chair on the back side?  It’s a bit harder to see, but it’s there.  It’s for those saints who have gone ahead of us into the fuller presence of God.  Our communion liturgy witnesses to the reality that we worship and fellowship among “God’s people on earth and all the company of heaven.”  And so, we in this life take our seat on this side, and our friends who have gone on into the life to come take their seat on the other, with Christ, the host of the meal, at the center. 

 

We are at the same meal, reunited with loved ones as we all connected in Christ, and yet we know that their reality is different from our own.  Our life still contains its fair share of suffering and difficulty, tragedy and tears.  But our friends seated in that other seat – their life no longer includes pain and suffering and tears.  It doesn’t lessen that reality for us, or make our grief any less real.  You’ve heard the saying, “Time heals all wounds,” but there are some wounds time will never heal completely.  Those of you who have lived longer than I have carry wounds that time has not healed.  Lessened, perhaps, but not completely healed.  The fact is time doesn’t heal wounds – God does – and some wounds will only receive complete healing in the life to come.  If you want to know what Heaven looks like, it looks like healing.  It looks like mighty and powerful God intimately wiping away every tear from every eye.  That doesn’t take away our pain, but perhaps it gives us some hope about what our loved ones on the other side of the table now know and experience.

 

As we prepare to come to the Lord’s table today, let us think of those who are in that seat on the other side of the table.  Joining us as we feast and dine with Christ, filled and sustained with his love and grace, are James Knight, Chic Aydelette, and Bobby Stanley.  Today we break bread again with Minnie Mitchell, Susie Wall, and Dalton Davis.  Today we share the cup with Calvin McGuire, Mable Jones, and Jean Thornton.  Not only today, but every time we come to the Lord’s table.

 

Not only each of these, but all the saints who have gone on to the Church Triumphant.  In that banquet in heaven, I imagine it much more like a covered-dish meal than a catered affair.  The body of Christ is a place where each member brings their best to the table, that’s true whether in heaven or on earth.

 

This year, I think of Ashley’s Papa Buddy, and his famous biscuits and coconut cake hitting the table.  I always think of my grandparents, and Ashley’s grandparents, and my Mom.  I know they’re joining us from the other side of the table, and are already experiencing the fullness of that banquet from that place where God has wiped every tear from their eyes

 

As we prepare to come to the Lord’s table today, who is it you have pictured sitting at the table from the other side, and what are they bringing?  Not even so much the food, but their characteristics and traits?  Think of the impression they left upon us, what of them still lives and grows beyond death, because it lives and grows in each of us.  Think of how the world today is a little better reflection of the kingdom of God because they walked among us.

 

Today, as we light candles and see their light and feel their warmth, may we sense the presence of those represented by each one.  Today we dine with Christ, one another, and even those who have gone on before us.  Today, a bit of heaven has come to us, and it’s as real as the bread in our hands.

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