Today the church is doing an important thing: remembering the saints. We do this every year on All Saints’ Day, which is November 1st, and we celebrate that day on the Sunday that follows November 1st. We call the names and ring a bell for those who have died in the past year—AND it is this congregation’s tradition to also ring a bell for those who have been baptized in the past year.
Christians confess that baptism is what makes us children of God and siblings of one another. Baptism unites us with all believers in the Body of Christ, and as Lutherans, we understand that the Body of Christ includes the Communion of the Saints, which is all the believers who have ever lived. We are connected with even our loved ones who have died.
Today people have been invited to share names of those loved ones in the faith, and their names are written on slips of paper and placed inside the baptismal font, where the water is poured that tells the story of creation, the story of salvation of God’s people, the story of each one of us. Today we will welcome in baptism Eleanor Joan as our sister in Christ.
In baptism, we die and rise again with Christ, and maybe we feel a little strange talking about sending a little child into baptism to “die in Christ.” But as people of faith, we look at life and death with a broader vision. We look to Scripture for words of truth about life and death: a feast of rich food with well-aged wines—you know, the good stuff—and the utter destruction of death itself. God will wipe away the tears from our faces. In Revelation, we receive the vision of not just a new, restored earth but a new heaven too. The one on the throne says “See, I am making all things new.”
Jesus surely knew these visions. He knew the Scriptures of prophecy from Isaiah, the feast of God. So why, when Jesus hears about his friend Lazarus being sick, why, when Jesus knows he has the power to heal sickness, why would Jesus wait until after Lazarus dies to go visit? And then why would Jesus cry, mourning with the family of Lazarus?
Doesn’t Jesus know about heaven? Doesn’t Jesus have his eyes on the end-game of redemption? Why get invested in human pain and suffering? Why get involved? Why waste time on things that will not last, like human life?
Jesus’s tears let us know that God values human life. God is not far away, dispassionately observing a world set in motion long ago. God comes so close: into human flesh, knowing the pains of being human, even the sting of sorrow at human death.
Whether or not Jesus showed up at the house of mourning with a plan in motion to raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus still mourns. Death is still real. Jesus cries tears for his friend, the loss of his life, the gift of his friendship. I mean, if Jesus is allowed to cry, isn’t it okay if we also cry sometimes?
And look closely at the Scripture: where did Jesus attempt to comfort the bereaved family members with a word of false hope? Where did Jesus say “At least Lazarus isn’t suffering anymore”? Or did Jesus say “Lazarus is in a better place now.” Or worse: “God needed another angel in heaven.” Did you find those words in the Scripture? No? Good, because it isn’t there.
Jesus is not afraid to sit with the sadness and the pain of death, and he shows us the way. We’re allowed to be human, not in spite of our feelings but very much with all of our feelings. We can know the truth of eternal life, and we can celebrate the resurrection hope in which we place our faith, and we can still cry when there is mourning. It’s one of those neat things about being human: we can have multiple contradictory feelings going on at the same time.
In the same breath, we can cry out, God, how could you let this happen? And we can feel grateful for the time we spent with our loved one. And we can be angry that we didn’t get more time together, or we can be sorrowful at the way that person died. We can reason about what’s fair or what’s just, we can take action for peace, we can protect human life. We can give thanks to God for mercy and grace. All of this can go on simultaneously.
Simultaneously—at the same time. Simul Justus et peccator—at the same time, saint and sinner. Martin Luther used these words to remind us that we ourselves are at the same time saints—redeemed and made holy—and we are also sinners—undeserving of forgiveness.
Maybe that’s confusing, and maybe sometimes we would rather be just saints—or maybe some of us would rather reject the saintliness and only be sinners, I don’t know—but we can have both of these things going on at the same time.
Isn’t this a testimony that the world needs to hear? One year ago, we were mourning the deaths of one million people who died of Covid-19; this year, it’s five million people who have been lost to Covid-19. Doesn’t this grieving world need the gift of hope that the church can share? This message of hope can nurture people in humble love of human life AND proclaim a future beyond death, a future promised by a creator God who loves creation.
In our embrace of human life, the church can say yes, it’s okay to grieve—Jesus did this, too. Somehow grieving is itself a mystery: embracing grief and giving it space doesn’t create more grief. It doesn’t get worse—you actually feel a little better. That’s healing. The world needs our witness, now as much as ever.
We can continue to point to Christ and to the cross as our sign of hope in the face of death, and we can trust God’s promise to save us, and we can still cry with those who mourn. We bear the healing name of Christ in a hurting world. We are sinners and Christ makes us saints, and we receive this truth with humility, undeserving of God’s grace.
In this humility is our strength to reject hatred and violence, to trust God’s grace and to rest in God’s promises, to give thanks for the saints who have showed us the way to God’s love, to work for justice on this side of eternity because life is precious, and to look forward to the day when we are reunited in the presence of God, in a new heaven and a new earth.