Who From their Labors Rest

All Saints Day – Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

Today we remember the saints in Christ who came before us.

For most of us, the saints that we remember today are not famous men and women from days of old. Most of the A-list saints have their own days on the calendar, which we routinely ignore. We would probably find it edifying to learn more about those heroic and exceptional Christians who went before us, but that’s not really what this day is all about. For most of us, the saints we remember today are the ones close at hand: parents or grand-parents, pastors, teachers, friends and mentors in Christian fellowship.

One of the most significant contributions of the Protestant Reformation is the recognition that all God’s people are saints, declared righteous and set apart for God’s purposes not by the heroism or praiseworthiness of their own actions and choices, but solely by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Those who respond to God’s call by sacrificing their lives or living among the neediest of the needy or proclaiming the Gospel in some distant land are worthy of emulation, but so are those who live faithful lives as parents or spouses, business leaders or farmers, doctors or librarians – or Soldiers. In short, there is no vocation necessary to life in this world which is less honorable than another. There is no hierarchy of “really dedicated Christians” who launch themselves into heroic tasks and those who live more ordinary lives. There are only those who know and follow Christ and those who don’t. There are only those who are more faithful and those who are less faithful to God’s particular call and work of grace in their lives.

All Saints Day remembers the millions of departed faithful Christians who will never get their own day on the calendar, but who are responsible for almost everything that happens in the Christian church. They weren’t perfect, to be sure, and it would be wrong to over-sentimentalize or over-glamorize their lives. Yet it is through millions of ordinary, imperfect Christians that the Gospel is proclaimed and disciples are made. Even as we give thanks for their lives, we give thanks for the grace of God even more.

In some ways, our appointed texts for “All Saints Day” are strange because they focus on our future hope and our present experience of God’s power in Jesus – and not on the heroism or character of our spiritual ancestors in the faith. Of course that’s right where the focus should be – on God.

The Old Testament and Epistle readings for All Saints Day both look forward to the death of death. Both texts remind us that we are ultimately looking not for improvements in human history or even the perfection of society in love, but the transformation of all creation: a new heaven, a new earth, a new Jerusalem, where every tear is wiped away. The former things have passed away and all things are new.

John’s story of Lazarus is set against this background of eschatological expectation. Martha says of her brother, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (11:24).

Jesus proclaims, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (11:25-26).

Martha affirms her faith that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (11:27) but still cautions Jesus against the opening the tomb (11:39). Despite Martha’s protestations, Jesus calls Lazarus forth from the grave and restores him to his family.

The resurrection of Lazarus is a sign of the future kingdom’s present presence. The power of the future resurrection is already present in the man from Nazareth, but the future is not yet.

Most of us will not see our loved ones rise until the resurrection on the last day. Believers may feel like both Martha (11:21) and Mary (11:32) – that their faith in Jesus had in some way let them down. “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died.” We’ve seen the resurrection power of God at work in Jesus. We’ve seen the future break into the present in miracles and wonders. With the crowd, we question, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (11:37).

We live with tension between the future and the present in this world. There is joy in our hope, but there are tears in our grief. It’s significant that even Jesus wept (11:35). The power of death in this life is real. From time to time we see the power of God’s future temporarily break into this world, but for the final consummation we still wait in impatient expectation.

Beside the grave, as we lay departed saints to rest, I say something to this effect:

Listen, I tell you a mystery. We will not all die, but we will all be changed. For this perishable must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. Then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: Death has been swallowed up in victory …

Into your hands we commend your child, in the sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. This body we commit to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. They will rest from their labors.

As a result of our hope, we can pray to the Lord:

Give us such faith that by day and by night, at all times and all places, we may without fear commit ourselves and those dear to us to your never failing love, in this life and in the life to come. Amen.

The coming general resurrection at Christ’s appearing is the ground of our hope and the foundation of our faith. That day will mean the death of death and the metaphysical transformation of all creation. In this age, our hope sustains us as we cling by faith to the one who is the Resurrection and the Life.