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.
Remember. Never forget. These are the calls, perhaps even commands, of September 11 ever since that fateful day in 2001 when towers fell, lives were lost, and the world changed. We should indeed remember and honor those who died; and we should never forget the “heroes” (we call them saints in the church) who ran toward the destruction, risking their lives – which many of them lost – to save others.
The church is good at remembrance, we do it all the time. We remember saints (those flawed followers of Jesus who set an example for us to follow) on the day of their death. We remember the life of Jesus in our liturgical calendar.
At the center of our life together, we gather around a table with bread and wine “in remembrance” of Christ’s death on the cross and His resurrection. The mystery of faith that is proclaimed as we remember is, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Notice how this remembrance looks forward, not back, at an event that continues to shape us. Notice how remembering the tragedy, pain, and death on the cross serve to fuel present and future hope. Remembrance at the table of Christ does not revisit the past grief, nor does it work to stoke unresolved blame or anger over the past event. The remembrance of the Last Supper is an active remembrance that builds hope and celebrates the new life that arises in the wake of tragedy and pain. That is instructive for our efforts to remember; to never forget 9/11.
If what we remember, what we will not forget, is the rage and anger that filled us all that fateful day; if all we can remember is our grieving hearts and our longing for retribution; if our memory provides for seeds of hate and revenge, then our remembrance serves no purpose other than to enslave us.
If however, we can remember with all solemnity those who died in the attack and find compassion for the world through hearts open to pain; if we can remember those who gave their lives to save others, and glean from that a reminder of how we should face the current destruction of this world with courage and grace, we will have remembered well and hope will be the result.
Our world, at this moment, groans in pain through one disaster after another; it suffers under the divisions we place between each other. Remember that day in 2001 when, in the midst of all the destruction and loss, people came together and loved one another. God brought hope out of the ashes. God is doing that all the time.
copyright © Timothy V. Olson, 2017
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