IN NOMINE JESU
"At [Jesus'] coming all men shall rise again with their bodies and shall give an account of their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire" (TLH, p. 53). We confess this truth in the Athanasian Creed, truth found in Holy Scripture, truth from the mouth of the Lord. To repeat words the Lord has first given us, we are confessing what is true and sure. These sentences from the Athanasian Creed are true, sure, and comforting to us who believe the promises of God. Anytime—all the time—is a good time to trust in His promises, to believe His Gospel. The Gospel marches on, trampling on those who would seek to destroy it, the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh, especially when we are in the hour of greatest need, in times of sickness, depression, or mourning.
We have certainly witnessed, and been part of, these times of great need. There have been numerous occasions, besides the sermon on Sundays, that we have been in great need of hearing the Gospel. In the 28 months that I have been here as your pastor, numerous visits have been made to the sick and shut-in, times of great need in which the Gospel was proclaimed, and 17 funeral services have been held, many of whom were sick or shut-ins, times when we have been gathered together to hear the Gospel in our times of grief and, in response to the Gospel read and preached in our midst in those times, give thanks to God, the Lord of Life, for the life in Christ He gave to those whom we laid to rest, for all the saints who from their labors rest. They rest, and we weep. We weep because we mourn. We mourn because we miss those loved ones who have died. Yet our tears are momentary as we weep for those who died in the arms of the Lord. Our tears are temporary because we also rejoice. We rejoice that these souls of the faithful departed are with the Lord; they have passed from death to life. While their bodies lie in the grave, their souls commended to the Lord's care, we rejoice that on the Last Day He will raise us and all the dead, and give eternal life to us and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true, as our Lord tells us in our text, "The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live" (v. 25b). Our loved ones who died in the faith heard the voice of the Good Shepherd in life and will hear Him again on the Last Day as their bodies in the grave and their souls in heaven will be reunited in the fullness and perfection of the image of God once lost in the Garden of Eden. "Oh, what their joy and their glory shall be, Those endless Sabbaths the blessed ones see! Crowns for the valiant, to weary ones rest; God shall be all, and in all ever blest" (HS 838:1), as the medieval theologian Peter Abelard wrote in the hymn we just sang. The joy that is now theirs will one day be ours through our faith in Jesus Christ.
They are now among the saints. We are still sinner-saints. The label of "sinner" still applies to us. The saints now live in perfect heavenly bliss while we still live in this sinful, imperfect world—a world filled with sin, including your sins and mine. The saints now in heaven fought the good fight, the same fight we have been in since we were conceived and born in sin, the same fight we will be in until we die. All too often we seek to fight the fight and face the Foe alone. We forget that for us fights the valiant One, whom God Himself elected. We are no different than those who have gone before us. They too were in this battle against sin and Satan. They stumbled. They fell. We stumble. We fall. They earned what they received, just as we will earn what we will receive, for the wages of sin is death. This is true of each person buried from this house of God. It is also true of many of our loved ones outside this congregation who have passed away. We have certainly seen a lot of wages paid in this regard over the past 28 months. I have officiated 17 funerals, 14 of which were of members of this dual parish. I have led a graveside service for the burial of a stillbirth. Several of us had relatives or other acquaintances who have died during that time; three of my own relatives also died during this same amount of time. There is one thing they all had in common: they all died as the result of sin. No matter how great we think they were, they were still all sinners. They had that in common with us. As sinners, we will one day die; we will receive the just wages of our sin. Our bodies will one day be lying in a casket, facing the altar of the Lord. Our bodies will be buried alongside the bodies of those who died on account of their own sins, as we will be buried on account of ours. This grim reality awaits us.
There is another reality that awaits us, and that is our final destination. Apart from Christ we can only expect a resurrection of judgment—condemnation—on the Last Day, but there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We who walk by faith and not by sight get to look forward to a resurrection of life when our Lord comes again in all of His glory. We believe that He shall come to be our Judge, as our Lord tells us in our text. But we need not fear, for we have been justified by His grace, declared not guilty by our heavenly Father, justified through the blood shed on the cross by His Son, our dear Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He is our Rock, our Fortress, and our Might, the Lord, our Captain in the well-fought fight, who in the darkness drear is our one true Light. You see, our Lord did not merely fight the good fight, nor did He just wage the war. He won the war. He has defeated sin, death, and hell once and for all. By His death He has destroyed death, and by His resurrection He has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers, to the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, to the evangelists and even now all who bear on their brows the seal of Him who died, to our loved ones who have gone before us, to you and to me. Yes, the kingdom of heaven is opened to you, for God through Holy Baptism has called you by name; you belong to Him. You are a child of God, a child loved by God on account of His Son's blood.
This same blood, along with His body given, our Lord desires to give to you today for the forgiveness of all your sins. We need this forgiveness and restoration of faith for we are not yet in heaven. We still struggle with our sins and with the loss of loved ones in this world: "O blest communion, fellowship divine, We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine" (TLH 463:4), as we sang to the Lord this morning. The saints are with Him in heaven, and we sinner-saints are with Him here on earth. The "saint" label has been attached to us, for we have been made holy through the blood of Christ poured out for us and through the Word of Christ proclaimed to us, and by the Holy Spirit we hear the Word and believe in the Father who sent His Son for us, that we would join the saints in heaven.
There is a custom borne of the Scandinavian Lutheran churches. In this custom, the communion rail forms a semicircle in front of the altar, going into the wall on both sides of the altar. Such a railing symbolizes our fellowship with the saints in heaven. On this side of the wall are those who receive the body and blood of the Lord in His Supper here on earth, the foretaste of the Feast to come. On the other side of the wall, then, are the saints in heaven, now enjoying the marriage Feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which has no end. The Feast to come has come to them, as it will one day for us. But they are partaking of this eternal feast with us while we feast on Christ's body and blood. As we will sing in the Sanctus, "Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!" Even as our Lord comes down to us in His body and blood, He brings all of heaven with Him: the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven, including those who have gone before us in the faith, be they your spouse, parents, children, siblings, or grandparents. They are feasting with you. The circle will be unbroken, but one day the circle will not continue on the other side of the wall, for, by the grace of God, we will be reunited with them in heaven, when we shall see our Lord face to face at the eternal Feast, "Then the holy, holy, holy / Celebration jubilee, Thine the splendor, Thine the brightness, only Thee, only Thee" (HS 867:5b). By the Holy Spirit's inspiring St. Paul to write, we are "persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:38-39 NKJV). God grant this in Jesus' Name and for His sake. In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
Pr. Mark Schlamann Our Savior & Redeemer Lutheran Churches, Pettibone & Woodworth, ND
"When you are baptized, partake of Holy Communion, receive the absolution, or listen to a sermon, heaven is open, and we hear the voice of the Heavenly Father; all these works descend upon us from the open heaven above us. God converses with us, provides for us; and Christ hovers over us--but invisibly. And even though there were clouds above us as impervious as iron or steel, obstructing our view of heaven, this would not matter. Still we hear God speaking to us from heaven; we call and cry to Him, and He answers us. Heaven is open, as St. Stephen saw it open (Acts 7:55); and we hear God when He addresses us in Baptism, in Holy Communion, in confession, and in His Word as it proceeds from the mouth of the men who proclaim His message to the people." --Martin Luther (1/19/1538 [LW 22:202])--
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