All Saints Day
November 6, 2016
“The Church Triumphant”
Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, "Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?" And I said to him, "Sir, you know." So he said to me, "These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple. And He who sits on the throne will dwell among them. They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." Revelation 7:13-17
There is only one church. The church here on earth is called the church militant and the church in heaven is called the church triumphant. But these are not two churches. There is only one church. In the Gospels Jesus calls her the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. In the Creed we refer to her as the Communion of Saints. The saints on earth and the saints in heaven belong to the same fellowship. They are all in fellowship with Christ who is the head of the church, which is his body.
We do not pray to the saints in heaven, but we pray with them. Their praises and ours are joined together in perfect harmony. As the minister says in the words introducing the singing of the Sanctus,
The church on earth fights the fight of the faith against the devil, the world, and her own sin. Because she fights she suffers. If she didn’t fight she wouldn’t suffer. But then she wouldn’t be the church. She would lose her faith. The church that marries the culture becomes a widow. The true church is the bride of Christ. She belongs to him alone and she will not look at another man. The true church is the mother of all the faithful. To her is entrusted the gospel and the sacraments of Christ. They are the most precious treasures we have on earth because through the gospel and the sacraments Christ comes to us, forgives us all our sins, rescues us from death, delivers us from the power of the evil one, and gives us eternal life.
These treasures are despised by the world. A message of an innocent man’s crucifixion on a cross, a washing at a baptismal font, the eating and drinking of bread and wine: what are these? What do they have to do with the lives we are living? The world cannot see that the crucifixion of that innocent man is the forgiveness of our sins, the washing at that font is our rebirth to eternal life, and the bread and the wine are the body and blood of Jesus Christ that seal our salvation and set us at peace with God. The world cannot see or understand these things, so it mocks what it doesn’t understand.
The church on earth suffers. She is persecuted. She goes through affliction. The word used in our text is tribulation. It means suffering. Some say that the church will not go through the great tribulation. They invent strange doctrines about the end times that feature Jesus rapturing his saints out of this world into heaven while the world goes to hell in a handbasket. The Christians remain above the fray untouched by the troubles of this world.
Don’t you believe it! We read in Acts 14:22, “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God.” The notion that Christ will rapture his church out of this world to keep her from the great tribulation that will come upon the world confuses the church militant with the church triumphant. The triumph of the church is in the future. Here below she must suffer, even as her Lord suffered for her.
Corrupt politicians, a weak economy, endless wars, social insecurity, immoral laws, and the descent of public morality into the sewer – and on and on it goes. It will get worse. Besides that, there is the common sin that infects us all as we suffer the natural consequences of doing wrong when we should have done right. That’s the greatest burden we Christians have to bear because we know what is right. God told us in the Ten Commandments.
The great tribulation is the death throes of a dying world. It is God’s announcement that the end is near. Listen to Jesus describe it in Matthew 24,
If during the terrible suffering that comes upon the world the church’s blood is shed, that’s the cost of discipleship. The church doesn’t earn her place in heaven. It is the shed blood of Jesus that wins heaven for us. As we read in our text for today:
Jesus told Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Then he went to the cross and shed his blood to purchase his kingdom. The church is those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
We don’t escape sin while living here on earth. God has prepared a place for us where sin cannot enter. We are washed here on earth. The washing of Holy Baptism is a washing in Christ’s blood. From his pierced side flowed water and blood. By the washing with water we are forgiven by Christ’s blood. And where does that put us?
It puts us in the presence of God. As we read:
God dwells with his church. He does not leave her. When Islam invades the Christian world and subjugates her; when the Communists imprison and murder Christian preachers for preaching the gospel; whenever the church suffers in this world because she is Christian God is with her.
The difference between the church on earth and the church in heaven is not that God is with the church in heaven but not with the church on earth. He is with his whole church. The difference between the church on earth and the church in heaven is not that Christ shepherds the church in heaven but not the church on earth. He shepherds – he feeds – his whole church. He leads and he feeds his whole church: the church militant here on earth and the church triumphant in heaven. The difference is that what the church has here on earth she has by faith. The church militant lives by faith. Faith lives under the cross and under sufferings. In heaven there will be no suffering. There will be no pain, no failure, no sin, and no death. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
To live under the cross means that we believe what we cannot see, feel, or experience. Our Redeemer is hidden from sight. We know the power of his blood. His innocence bore our sin and removed it, opening up to us the door to heaven, making us righteous, setting us before God as saints. This is what the Holy Spirit seals to us. This is why we confess with confidence that we are a communion of saints.
But we cannot see it. I see sin and death. So do you. So does the world. But, while we must wait until we get to heaven to wave the palms, we wear the white robes here below. All Saints Day is not just a celebration of the victory of the saints in heaven where death cannot touch them and they experience the fullness of joy. It is a celebration of the victory of us saints below, not that we experience it, but that it is ours through faith and our faith will not disappoint us because it is grounded in God’s holy Word, which cannot err or deceive us.
Living under the cross is living under the shelter of Christ’s blood. It is forgiveness of our sins. It is righteousness before God. It is victory over every spiritual enemy we have. It is through faith. This is why we need the gospel and the sacraments of Christ. These are God’s appointed means of grace by which he sustains us in the faith. Our faith isn’t our own doing. It is, as St. Paul reminds us, “the gift of God.” It is the sure and certain confidence that we shall stand before God in heaven where we will never hunger or thirst for anything, but will always be satisfied. No heat will beat down on us to rob us of our strength. We will be eternally refreshed with cool, pure, life-giving water. There will be no regrets, no memory of sin, no guilt, no shame, and no feelings of inadequacy. There will be fullness of joy forever and ever.
The church in heaven and the church on earth are united as one holy body of Christ. The Bible doesn’t give us any suggestion that they can see us or hear us. The saints in heaven are not angels. They are human beings, like us. But they are resting from their labors. They live where sin cannot enter. Where there is no sin there is no burden, nothing of which to be afraid, nothing that brings pain, and, above all, there is no death.
Twenty one years and two days ago my father died without warning of a heart attack. He was 71 years old. It was the most devastating event in my life. I was very close to my father. Not only was he my dad; he was my teacher. He was the best theologian and the best teacher of theology I have ever known. He died on a Saturday. The next day we celebrated All Saints Day. Pastor Strawn preached about heaven. It was to me the best sermon I ever heard him preach, but, objectively considered, it probably wasn’t. He always preached good sermons. It was that I was on the edge of darkness looking at death up close and personal. I needed to hear God’s word about heaven.
We treasure God’s word because it is God’s word that brings us heaven here on earth. Here heaven is ours by faith. We know it and we believe it but our knowledge and faith struggle under suffering and the cross. In heaven faith will give way to sight. There will be no more suffering, no more pain, and no more death. God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
Rolf D. Preus