All Saints’ Day
November 1, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church – New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
Regarding the saints, the Lutheran Confessors wrote, Our churches teach that the history of saints may be set before us so that we may follow the example of their faith and good works, according to our calling (AC XXI.1). It’s good to remember the saints before us—whether it’s St. John, Apostle and Evangelist, or our own sainted Grandma Schulz—to remember how we got here, and to see their works and their faithful endurance under suffering and the cross as an example to our own Christian life (although the saints should never be the object of worship or prayer). All Saints’ Day is often conflated with tomorrow’s traditional observance of All Souls’ Day, wherein those Christians who have died in the previous year are remembered.
It is good to give thanks to God for the faithful who have gone before us, for the faith that He gave and the works that He worked in them. But today instead of a meditation on the saints, I’d rather invite you to meditate on where the saints reside: heaven. Heaven is a word that everyone knows, but many don’t understand. The popular understanding of Heaven is more often formed and informed by pagan philosophy or pop spirituality than it is by Scripture. The Bible, however, speaks of heaven in a number of ways, from the skies above to the eternal residence of the faithful. The eternal heaven, to which the Scriptures point the faithful, is not a spiritual location far from earth, but actually a new earth along with a new heavens.
The Eternal Home of the Christian Is a New Creation
The first time the Scriptures speak of heaven is in the very first verse. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1). The heavens, therefore, are a part of creation, not eternal in the sense that God is eternal. Furthermore, on the second day of creation, God orders the heavens by separating the waters above from the waters below and setting the firmament, or the sky, in between them. This is called “the heavens.” In Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, the word for the heavens is derived from the word for water, meaning the heavens are a watery place. And that is certainly within our own experience, especially when you walk outside on a muggy summer day and the wet just sticks to you. The New Testament also speaks of the heavens in this way. Jesus invites us to look at the birds of the heavens for evidence that God continues to care for His creation (Mt 6:26), the heavens simply meaning the sky.
Further above the atmosphere, “the heavens” can also refer to everything above the earth. So the sun, moon, and stars reside in the heavens, and are called heavenly bodies.
Some Christians also consider St. Paul’s personal story, that he was taken up into the third heaven (1 Cor 12:2), to refer to a place beyond all the stars—something like a heavenly penthouse. This is how much of protestant pop spirituality considers heaven. There’s a praise and worship song whose chorus goes: God of wonders, beyond our galaxy, You are holy! But this is a false view, influenced more by pagan Greek philosophy and a poem written by Dante in the middle ages. Because God is not far away, He is near to all who call upon Him in truth, says Psalm 145. Which is good, because we don’t live among the stars.
In the New Testament, Jesus begins to speak of heaven in a different way. Especially in Matthew’s Gospel, He speaks of the kingdom of heaven. His first public preaching in the Gospel are, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Mt 4:17). Twice in today’s Gospel He says that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the blessed. He tells a number of parables concerning the kingdom of heaven. Here, the kingdom of heaven is not a part of creation, but rather the gracious activity of God in Christ.
An old teacher of our Lutheran Church wrote that it’s impossible to fix a location for heaven. It’s not a place out there beyond the stars; Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is near. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of heaven because it’s not limited by borders and rivers and oceans and fences and treaties. Just as the same sky above is shared by all nations, so the kingdom of the heavens goes to all nations.
In English this doesn’t come through very clearly because our word “kingdom” means a static location. But in the Biblical languages, it’s a noun derived from a verb, a thing that is based upon an action. The kingdom is wherever the king is doing his king thing. So the kingdom of the heavens, the kingdom of God, is wherever God is present in Christ with His gracious reign.
This creates a startling juxtaposition here among the kingdoms of the world, which is highlighted by the beatitudes that are the prelude to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Beholding the crowds, He went up into the mountains, and when He sat down His disciples came to Him. And opening His mouth, He began teaching them, saying, “Blessed be the poor in spirit, for theirs is the reign of the heavens. Blessed be the mourners, for they will be comforted. Blessed be the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed be they who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. Blessed be the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed be the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed be those who do peace, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed be those who have been persecuted on account of righteousness, for theirs is the reign of the heavens.
“Blessed are you whenever they insult you and persecute and speak every evil upon you falsely on account of Me. Rejoice and rejoice greatly, for your reward is great in the heavens, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you”
First, Jesus highlights the hiddenness of His kingdom. Blessing, or blissfulness, is not for the healthy, wealthy, and wise, but for the poor, the suffering, and the persecuted. Second, the kingdom of heaven is yours right now. The promises of relief from present suffering are all future promises. But the beatitudes are bookended by the promise that the kingdom of heaven is yours right now.
And so the reign of Christ is hidden under suffering and the cross, because the One who reigns over heaven’s kingdom is the King who was enthroned on a cross. But in His kingdom, death is never the final word because the Crucified is also the Risen. Mourning becomes comfort, hunger and thirst for righteousness is satisfied, the meek inherit the earth, the merciful are shown mercy, the purified in heart will see God, and the peacemakers are adopted as God’s sons. That’s the pattern of God’s gracious reign in Christ, a pattern of death and resurrection.
Even after Jesus rose from the dead, His disciples were still looking for Him to establish an earthly kingdom—heaven on earth—up until His ascension. This is another way in which heaven is understood in Scripture, that is, the place to which Jesus ascends. But again, trying to locate this as if it’s a geographical place is futile. Jesus’ ascension wasn’t spatial—from point A to point B—but was an ascension to a higher existence, so that He might fill all things and give gifts to men, writes St. Paul (Eph 4:8-9). In other words, Jesus ascended to heaven to sit at God’s right hand in order to continue His gracious reign in the sacramental life of the Church. He ascended to heaven so that when you hear His Word, you hear Him speaking. When you are baptized, your heart is purified by His blood, and when you eat the bread and wine, it is truly His body and blood, no matter where you are.
This is also the heaven to which our souls go at death, though the Bible says relatively little about this state. Jesus calls it Paradise for the thief dying on the cross next to Him. Lazarus finds it a place of comfort with Abraham. It’s a place of rest, though not unconscious soul sleep. It’s a blissful existence free of sin and suffering. In this sense this heaven is no different from the kingdom of heaven on earth, except it is no longer hidden under suffering. It’s simply being in the presence of and fellowship of Jesus, who sits at God’s right hand.
But dying and going to heaven is not the end goal for the Christian. God created you with a body and does not intend for you to spend eternity without a body. He Himself took a body, suffered and died in the body, rose in the body, ascended in the body, and now sits at God’s right hand in the body. And so He will also raise your body for eternal life on the Last Day. This is the end game for the Christian—the resurrection of the body and a new creation.
This is the eternal heaven (perhaps the third heaven that St. Paul received a vision of) which is not a spiritual place in the clouds or beyond the stars. It’s new heavens and a new earth—creation recreated. The book of Revelation pictures it as a city, a new Jerusalem, with gardens and streams and pillars and God’s throne in the midst. It’s this creation, only rid of its sin and corruption. It’s the inheritance for the sons of God, the place where we see God face to face, the place of mercy where the righteousness of God satisfies every hunger and thirst, the place of comfort. Rejoice and rejoice greatly, for your reward is great in the new heavens and the new earth.
So then, this All Saints’ Day we don’t look forward to dying and going to heaven, but we rejoice to be in heaven right now, and we look ahead to the revelation of God’s eternal kingdom in the new heavens and new earth.
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W. Ehrhard