All Saints’ Sunday • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG Some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb and said, “Take away the stone.”
Today is the Sunday after All Saints Day, on which it is our tradition here at Saint James to remember not only the great saints of Christian history but also our own personal saints — our friends and family members who have died and rest in Christ. We remember them with images: the icons at the altar representing the saints in glory who meant so much to the universal church, and the photographs on the bulletin board here, representing our loved ones who have meant so much to us, and to this particular church.
These images are a help to our memory — and whenever a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist Protestant challenges me with, “Why do you have pictures of saints in your church?” I am always happy to reply with the question, “Don’t you have pictures of your loved ones in your house or at your work? Well this is the House of God, and the place where the work of God begins, and so we keep pictures of the members of God’s household and workforce to remind us of the fact that they belong to him as much as they belong to us! They remind us of the core of the Christian faith: that death is not the end.”
No, my friends; death is not the end. In a very real sense death is the beginning. That may sound a bit odd, as we are usually accustomed to thinking about life leading up to death. Many people, in fact, think that death is the end — atheists who have no belief in God at all, or those who believe that there is no more to us than simply the physical stuff that makes us up, and who see death just as the ultimate breakdown of the human machine, like a car whose engine has stopped working, with four flat tires, goof for nothing but the junkyard.
As I’ve noted before, the stuff that makes us up — what our bodies are made from — is constantly changing, even though we experience continuity in who we are. Every breath I take, I draw in oxygen from the atmosphere, and I exhale carbon, each little carbon atom neatly ushered off by two oxygen atoms. When I eat, I take in nitrogen and carbon and phosphorus and who knows what other chemicals that used to be part of some other plant or animal, and they become part of me. And as cells in my body die and are replaced, I am in constant flux and change. The “me” of today is literally physically not the “me” of yesterday, nor will it be the “me” of tomorrow. Most of the cells that have made up my body down through the years died a long time ago — and even some of the ones I carry around now, like the ones that make up my hair — or what is left of it — and the outer surface of my skin, are dead now and just waiting to fall out or rub off. This is the nature of biological life. Each of us is in constant transition.
This conveyor belt of life is the biological life that ends at death. Ultimately all of the cells that make up “you” and “me” will die, and “you” and “I” will be clinically dead before that, since it takes the these cells and systems working together to keep us alive with what the doctors call life. Some of our cells will keep on trying to work — for minutes or even hours — after our hearts have stopped and our brains have stopped functioning.
Yet we know that this is not all there is to life — just as there is a “you” or a “me” that somehow continues to exist in spite of the changes in our bodies. I spoke last month of that long-running play about young lovers, “The Fantasticks.” That play ran for 42 years, and you can well imagine that the actors who played the young lovers
on opening night eventually had to be replaced with even younger actors, as did the older actors too. And yet the play continued to be the play — it continued to exist as such in spite of the change in the actors who made up the cast. Our bodies are much like this: new cells coming into existence to replace the old dying ones every minute of every day.
Now, you might well observe, that just as the play always has to have actors — so too don’t we have to continue to have a body if we are to continue to exist? And the Christian answer to this dilemma has always been Yes. Some religions and philosophies think of the soul as a disembodied ghostly sort of thing that floats around and only temporarily “inhabits” a body. But that isn’t the Christian faith: our creed makes no reference to the immortality of the soul, but rather speaks of the resurrection of the body. Some in the early church insisted that the body that would rise would literally be the body you happened to die with — like Lazarus. The problem with that being that much of what goes into making up one person at any given moment also becomes part of someone else’s body through the very air we breathe. Some in the early church, like Saint Augustine, recognized this problem, and surmised that God would make up the difference by creating new bodily substance — but of course that goes against the whole idea of it being the same body.
Rather than getting tangled up in such speculation, even on the authority of someone like Saint Augustine, it is better to follow the Scripture — isn’t it always? — and follow Saint Paul’s understanding of this, as he wrote to the Corinthians: what dies — when we die — is a physical body, but what rises — when we rise — is a spiritual body. And spiritual here does not mean something less real or less substantial than the physical — but more so. It is the Spirit that gives life.
What is spiritual is strong enough to last for ever — this is why death is the real beginning, the beginning of eternal life, the life that lasts, the life of the Spirit we share with God himself, for as Jesus told the Samaritan Woman, God is Spirit, and as Saint Paul assures us, when we are raised we shall be like him. This is why death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things — the merely physical things of which the cosmos and everything in it is made— will have passed away. Scientists tell us that all matter will one day dissolve, and the physical universe will fade into nothingness as even protons and electrons give up the ghost; and the physical will cease to be. But the Spirit, and what is spiritual, will endure. God in Christ will make all things new — including the gift of new spiritual bodies that will give new life to our being and loving and doing in and with the power of God, who is Spirit.
I mentioned that musical play, The Fantasticks, but this continuing existence in spite of the change in physical make-up is equally true of any play or piece of music. Bach’s Partitas for Violin have been played on countless violins; Beethoven’s symphonies have been played and will be played by countless different orchestras — and each of us is a precious creation of God, more precious than the most important composition by any great composer. You might say, that the cosmos, the physical world, is the mechanism by which God makes souls. The physical body is the first draft, the working score, so to speak; the spiritual body is the eternal performance.
We will at our death take a rest from being performed, but will at our rising in the Spirit find our song sung out to eternity, in the holy city, the new Jerusalem. Death is only the intermission, and the new life that comes at resurrection will begin the true and lasting concert of real life, as we join with all the saints who have gone before, in song around the throne. This is the life that will never end, where the goodness and uniqueness of each one of us, perfected by God and refined by means of this earthly life, like gold as though by fire, will run like sparks through stubble, as we join to sing to Christ the Lamb of God who is the light of the City: as the old Appalachian hymn sings so well, “And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on; and when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on. And when from death I’m free I’ll sing and joyful be, and through eternity I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on, and through eternity I’ll sing on.”+