During my four years of seminary, I had a hard time answering the telephone, especially when my family was on the other end. Whenever they would call, I would wait a second, take a deep breath, and prepare for the conversation.
Now, I’m not preparing to preach a sermon about how we are called to be obedient to our parents, or even how we are to honor our mothers and fathers. Those are relevant topics for another day and another time.
The reason I prepared for the conversation is because I lived in fear of “the call.” It was the phone call I would receive moments after a family member passed away. It was a call I received at least five times during my four years at Asbury. I played a part or led in the funerals of four of those family members.
In 2007, my first year at Asbury, we lost my Aunt Doris. She was instrumental in keeping my name in the good graces of the church that I grew up in, which helped to secure some funding for books through the first couple of years of seminary.
In 2009, we lost my Uncle Jimmy. He was one of several men in my family that I considered as a “father figure” growing up. I always admired him, because he had this deep fascination with the world around him. I think it inspired my fascination with the world and the larger issues that exist in our culture, communities, country, and world.
In 2010, we lost my cousin Amy, who was just a few months younger than me. Her life was young and tragic, but also redemptive. She spent most of her life chasing the thrills of drugs, but in the end, she was working on being clean and knew Christ as her Savior.
In January of this year, we lost another uncle, Bill. He was one of the first in my family to open up to me and see me as a pastor. He was a good man with a great laugh and love for life.
These are memories that I take joy in recalling today. Death is something that is common to us all. We each have lost someone in our lives who was close to us. As well, at some point we will all pass from this life onto the next.
But, today, we have hope. This hope is that we are part of a communion of saints which includes this life, but also extends into the life beyond. We are all part of a great body of believers who are united by something greater than death. That is the love of Jesus Christ and his blood that cleansed and made us right with God.
Today, we honor the saints who have passed away. Those people who have played a role in our lives, and have shaped us to be the people we are today. We honor husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, cousins, aunts, uncles, and many others, who all loved us, cared for us, and shared their life with us. Their lives were special and we miss them.
Here these words of comfort, they are still with us. That is because life does not end at death, but begins.
This seems like an odd statement. Death ends life, doesn’t it? At least that is what it seems to us, in the here and now. When we die, it ends our life as we know it. But, death not does have the final say. It is not the end, but only the beginning to a fuller life that we all will experience in heaven.
In heaven, we will stand in the fullness of the communion of saints and be in the presence of the risen Lord as one body, unified together. That’s the picture we see in our New Testament passage for today from Revelation. We see this imagery and symbolism of a great multitude, a great crowd of believers standing together as one body of saints worshiping the Lord. Think about this for a moment. Everyone worshiping together, in one loud voice, with praise and thanksgiving directed toward God because of His great gift of grace and salvation for us all. As the old hymn goes, this is a glorious day.
But let’s unpack this image for a moment.
John tells us there will be people in this great multitude from every nation and every tribe. Every group of people imaginable will be there worshiping the Lord. It’s this imagery that shows us the dual aspect of this idea of the communion of saints. It includes the living and the dead.
Of those who are living, we are all in communion with each other. We share a common unity in our humanity and the fact that we are made in God’s image. For all the things that make us different, for all the things that tear us apart and separate us, there is something that we can find in common with each other. God loves us enough to create us. Even more, God loves us enough, even in our disobedience, to send his Son to bring us back into fellowship with the Father through his death and resurrection.
This word communion reminds us that we are in relationship with God. We are called to have a deep and personal relationship with God, and allow God to abide in the center of our soul. Out of that relationship, we are called to be in communion with the saints who are living. Those who are in fellowship with Christ are called to be in communion with one another and with all people. Galatians 3:28 says that we all one in Christ, and this never more so than when we talk about the communion of saints. The body of Christ knows no boundaries. It knows no ethnic walls. It knows no political division. It reaches across our walls and our distinctions, it breaks through our prejudices and our insecurities, and proclaims Christ died, resurrected, and exalted.
The image we see in Revelation is the fullness of the kingdom. This image is of a beautiful day, when we will all live in peace and accord with one another. A day when there will be no strife, no war between cultures and races, no animosity, but something more beautiful. There will be a day when all of us together, as the body and community of Christ, will worship together and proclaim “Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!” It may not happen today, but the kingdom, in all its fullness, will come.
There is something else that is striking about this imagery we get in Revelation 7. Our friends, our family members, those saints who are gone on before us, are alive and worshiping the Lord and our worshiping with us today. Former Anglican bishop and scholar N.T. Wright said, “Since both the departed saints and we ourselves are in Christ, we share with them in the communion of saints. They are still our brothers and sisters in Christ.” Through the love of the Holy Spirit, our family members and friends are here with us today. Even more, they are participating in the grand worship that is occurring in heaven. As we sing to the Lord, they are singing directly to the Lord.
Their life did not end, but it began. It began because death does not destroy life. As Thomas Oden writes, when we die we are raised to “a higher sphere of communion in which the praise of God is the focal event.” When we pass away, we who believe in Christ get to experience something quite beautiful, which is life with Christ.
It’s a beautiful life the saints in heaven are living, and we, one day, will surely live. It’s a day where there are no tears. There is no pain. There is no mourning. There is no illness. There is no disease. There is no frustration. There is no anger. There is no violence towards anyone.
What exists in heaven is a life lived for God in worship. Beautiful worship in the presence of the Lord. Peace and harmony because we live in the presence of the king.
Our faith in the cross and in Jesus Christ ensures that we will experience New Jerusalem one day, just as our saints who have passed away are currently enjoying it. We will see the promised land. This is our hope that we can hold onto in these times of mourning, of pain, and hurt.
It’s not easy to remember our saints. Even though we have the confidence of knowing that they are not forgotten and that they are worshiping the Lord today, we want to be with them. We want to share life with them.
So let’s hold onto that hope that one day we will share life with them. Let’s hold onto the hope that the kingdom will come, and the communion of saints will live in its fullness.
But, let us never forget the lives of the saints and how they have touched us. Today, as we celebrate communion, I invite you to find time at the altar to remember the lives of the saints who have touched you. Remember and give thanks to the Lord for their life, and rejoice in the promise that we will worship the Lord in the presence of all the saints one day.