The Church has celebrated the Festival of All Saints since at least the 8th century. While there are many layers of meaning to the observance, remembering those who have died is a big part of the day. In a culture that seeks to avoid death, we embrace it and hear that “our tears will be wiped away” that “those who mourn will be comforted.” It seems a far-off promise when the wounds are fresh or when long-standing. Perhaps the tears and the mourning are all we have left to remember; maybe we feel we must hang on to them to hang on to our loved ones. Where are the dead – now? The answer is revealed in Christ and the mysterious communion of saints. Christ is Lord of the living and the dead, and that knits us together in this very moment.
So, I was thinking that as we celebrate this season of the resurrection in the church, I should say something about the relationship between the promise of resurrection and the reality of death. It has been my experience that Christians tend to fall into a couple of camps on this matter. First, we know the story of the resurrection, we know we are supposed to believe it,and we turn out every year to sing song’s about the resurrection of Jesus, but we have no sense of what that has to do with us. Death is the final word for our lives and no matter what the Church proclaims, death is a terrifying reality. Second, we grab hold of the resurrection and we apply all sorts of other cultural beliefs deny death. We think that death really never applies to us because we go somewhere else. In other words, we either give death the final word or we deny that death is 100% real for all of us.
So, I was thinking – actually agonizing – over a fresh way to talk about this and to draw us to be able to accept face death and have resurrection hope. I started to read once again my favorite theologians and preachers for some inspiration. Then, a friend posted the article below on Facebook. It is by one of my mentors, one of my friends, one of the teachers who shaped me as a teacher and preacher about as much as anybody. It is written after he received word that death was close. Realizing that I can’t speak any more eloquently than Dear Walter Bouman, I share with you his thoughts on facing death and resurrection hope. And Walter… even in death you teach and inspire me. — Pax Christi – Pastor Tim
November 2005 issue of The Lutheran Magazine
So, I was thinking my first order of business in this blog post is to say “Thank you!” I asked for input about whether this was a helpful resource in your faith journey and your answers were gracious, affirming and informative. Just what I needed to know as I think about what to think about in the days and weeks ahead!
Some of the feedback encouraged me to keep thinking as I have been. So, I will continue to look around the headlines and the culture and see where faith seems to have something to say. Some of you had some ideas for specific topics and I will work hard to come up with meaningful thought about these things. A couple of you offered that you wanted to hear more about biblical insights, perhaps from the weekly lessons. That makes me think that maybe a separate blog about the lessons might be helpful — weigh in on this if you think it an interesting project.
So, I was also thinking that this is Holy Week – the holiest time of the Christian year in many ways. It is a time like no other to ponder what Christ means to us in our daily lives. It is a time to intensify our worship pattern as we gather on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and for the Vigil on Saturday at 7 PM to walk with our Lord as he loves us with every drop of life and beyond.
I am, each year, reminded of an ancient part of the observance of Good Friday called the “Solemn Reproaches.” Each reproach begins with the voice of our Lord – “O my people, O my Church, what more could I have done for you? Answer me.” Then the prayer proclaims some of the many ways God has blessed us and loved us. And the people say, “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us.” It is all we really can say in response to the question. God blesses. We rebel. God blesses, we forget. God blesses.
Let me leave you with two of the Solemn Reproaches that stick with me:
O my people, O my Church, what more could I have done for you? Answer me. I opened the waters to lead you to the promised land, but you opened my side with a spear; I washed your feet as a sign of my love, but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.
O my people, O my Church, what more could I have done for you? Answer me. I lifted you up to the heights, but you lifted me high on a cross; I raised you from death and prepared for you the tree of life, but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.
Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us.
May the God who loves you enough to do all these things bless you with grace and mercy this week, and all the days of your life.
So, I was thinking that it is time for me to take a stab at furthering the conversation about the cultural trend to “love Jesus and hate the Church.” But, I am also thinking (and feeling very deeply in my bones) that this has been a week that has been about more important things than cultural trends. On Monday, we laid to rest a blessed saint after a long battle with cancer. Today, the congregation will host a visitation for a member, not long into his forties, who died from the same hated enemy, cancer. Today, I learned that my seminary advisor, friend, mentor and teacher, Paul Fransen, died. Death is around every corner, it seems. It leaves a wake of grief and tears, pain and anguish. And I realized as I looked at what death had brought to the table this week, there in the midst of it all was the Church.
In the wake of death, the Church gathered on Monday to sing, pray, serve some food and offer a presence in the midst of the grief and death. Today, members of the Church will stand with a family as they weep and remember providing presence, food, a prayer and a kind word. In the next week or so, the Church will gather in Columbus, Ohio to do the same thing to say good-bye to a third saint. People, people of Christ, will do whatever they can to confront death with acts of kindness and hope. I have witnessed this “non-violent protest” of death countless times in my ministry — every pastor does. This is the communion of saints, the body of Christ, the Church being Jesus to those who wrestle with death. So, with all its warts and foibles, I find it hard to hate the Church because no matter what you think, the Church and Jesus are inextricably bound together. It would be no surprise to say that Jesus was “somehow” present in all these confrontations with death. But it is the Church of Christ that puts His flesh and bones in the room, at the graveside, among the tears and pain.
Now, you know I am not being naive. My last post on this subject owns the failures of the Church. The problem is, if we take Jesus seriously we have to take Jesus’ followers seriously. If scripture is to play a role in defining who Jesus is (and there is really not much in the way of alternative sources that are authoritative) one has to acknowledge that Jesus and the Church are deeply connected. The Church is the “temple,” (2 Cor. 6:16); the “bride of Christ” (Rev. 21:2) and the “body of Christ” (Romans 12:5). Now, temples can surely decay, Hosea’s bride was a harlot, and the body is at least physically capable of showing the marks of sin and death. But this does not negate the relationship between Christ and His Church. Jesus gathered flawed disciples around him – church. In Matthew 6, Jesus said “wherever two or more gather in my name, I am with them.” — two or more, gathered = church. In fact – and this is perhaps the biggest challenge – Jesus’ promise to be present with us comes in Word proclaimed and sacraments celebrated — acts of the church.
Perhaps the confusion rests in the definition of the Church. If you define the church as a human institution or organization with budgets, administrative structures, policies and procedures, then we are no doubt quite far from what Jesus was talking about. If however, you define the Church as that place, that moment, where God in Christ and the people of God come together, something much more dynamic is at work. As Lutherans, we define the Church as follows: “(We) teach that one holy church will remain forever. The church is the assembly of the saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly. And it is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere. As Paul says [Eph. 4:5,6]: “One faith, one baptism, on God and Father of us all…” (Augsburg Confession, Article VII)
This understanding of Church is not an effort to define structures or systems. There is no mention of keeping the membership roles of an organization, nor is there concern for buildings or bureaucracy. Contrary to what most of the culture thinks about the church, the church is not a thing; it is the encounter of God and people as they gather around the means of grace – the gifts of God. Church is an event. This definition guards against two things. First, it doesn’t reduce the church to a repository of dead propositions about God. All too often the church is portrayed or presented as an dispenser or protector of some version of truth. Second, this view of the church mitigates an idea that the church (or its leaders) stand in the place of God. This dynamic treatment of the Church also asserts that the Church matters because it is the place of encounter between God and people.
The encounter between God and people that is the Church drives God’s people out into the world where we we live out the Word and become a sacramental presence. Church keeps happening in every move we make. Certainly, it might be countered that while the event called church can at times change the world as it moves into the street, it is also true that this event called church can also all too easily end at the door of the building where the gathering happened having no impact at all on the world. This is not a sign that Church does not happen, but rather is a testimony to the provisional character of the church – it is flawed, broken, simultaneously sinner and saint. So, let’s not throw the saint out with the baptismal water.
What does this all look like? Well, right now it looks like people who encountered Jesus in Word and sacrament in the sanctuary are at this moment in the kitchen arranging food for a grieving family – the encounter with God will continue. Right now, it looks like death’s best effort to be the last word will meet resistance as people gather to pray and proclaim God has the last word. Right now, it looks like the Church is being the people of Jesus. You can’t have the savior without the saved; the redeemer without the redeemed; the Jesus without his Church.
Pax Christi, Pastor Tim