In 2014 a movie came out called Heaven is For Real. Maybe some of you have heard of it or even seen it. It is based on the experience of a four-year-old boy named Colton Burpo, first recounted in a book by the same title. The central scene takes place in an emergency room of a hospital. Having suffered a ruptured appendix, the boy clung to life by a thread. The ER doctor told the attending nurse not to encourage the boy’s parents, because he didn’t expect the boy to live. But the boy surprised everyone by his sudden turn around. After regaining consciousness, he turned to his dad and exclaimed: “Dad, do you know that I almost died?”
Colton later proceeded to relate his near death experience to his parents. He claimed that he looked down on them in the hospital. He told his dad he saw him in the hospital chapel, praying to God for his life. He told his mother that he saw her in the waiting room, weeping. He then described for them how he passed through the gates of heaven, how he met and stayed with his great grandfather, how his little sister greeted and welcomed him. In an interview, Colton later related that he wanted to stay, but that Jesus had come to him and said: “you need to go back.” He and his parents interpreted it as an answer to his father’s prayer for his boy’s life.
What was remarkable to his parents is that everything the little boy described was accurate. His dad was in fact in the hospital chapel crying out to God. And his mother was in fact in another room crying. And even though he never saw a picture of his great grandfather, he was able to describe his features. And he had no way of knowing about his sister, whom his mother had miscarried before he was born.
Colton’s story inspired the imaginations of many. But there has never been unanimous agreement on what these near death experiences really tell us, what they really mean for us. Skeptics, of course, dismiss the idea of a heaven. They say that the idea of a final reunion with loved ones is the mere projection of a desire, the representation of a wish fulfilled. It is no more than a coping mechanism to help people deal with catastrophic loss. They further point out that these stories are marketed for high dollar amounts, making some people very wealthy. The story of Colton’s experience, for example, spent three years on the New York Times Best Sellers List, selling millions of copies. And that was before the release of the movie. Today one can find on YouTube thousands of videos in which people recount what they saw during their own near death experiences. Are they not also hoping for a big payout? We may suspect that they are.
Indeed, the skeptics have a point. We cannot test the validity of these experiences. No human being has revived after the cessation of brain activity. Biological life decomposes with death. This is a universal law of nature that admits of no exceptions.
To us death shows itself to be a formidable power. It is a power that we fear, because it separates us decisively from all that we know and love, whether we are ready to be separated or not. But Christ is a greater power. Or rather he possesses a greater power. Of this we are convinced, even if we are unsure about the stories of all the Coltons that we read in books and see in movies and videos, because it is a conviction produced in us by the Holy Spirit.
In our gospel lesson for this All Saints’ Day, the author wants to make this point about Christ’s greater power unmistakably clear. In the central scene is Jesus’ contest with death. He is at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, together with Lazarus’ loved ones, who are all weeping.
Parenthetically, this public outpouring of grief probably would have made most of us feel uncomfortable, since, for the most part, we are more reserved with our emotions at grave site services. But in the world of Jesus’ day it would have been regarded as natural. Indeed, in the early Christian community it was considered a mark of spiritual maturity. The Apostle Paul says that, because we all belong together as members of one body, that is, the church, “we ought to rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” And Jesus himself said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
The procession of mourners in Bethany that day certainly affected Jesus. He himself cannot help but be moved to tears by what he sees around him. Did you ever notice that crying is contagious? Even when they see the tears of actors on the screen in a sad movie, moviegoers will often also cry themselves. Jesus is troubled when he sees the tears of the people. Their sorrow amplifies his own sorrow. The scene may and should recall for us the Old Testament prophecies about him: “In all their distress, he too was distressed.” “He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”
We read further that he is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. It is not clear, however, that this translation effectively conveys Jesus’ reaction. Scholars tell us that in the original language the verb “to be deeply moved” really means to “snort like a horse.” They tell us further that it was used to describe the sound a war horse makes when it’s preparing itself to go into battle. That is evidently how the great sixteenth century reformer John Calvin understood it. In his comment on this passage, he observes:
Christ does not approach the tomb as an idle spectator, but as a champion who prepares for a contest; and therefore, we need not wonder that he groans; for the violent tyranny of death, which he had to conquer, is placed before his eyes.
In approaching the tomb, then, Jesus prepares to wage war against death. He intrudes upon it and attacks it. The scene resolves itself with four commands. Take away the stone! Lazarus come out! Unbind him! and Let him go! These commands demonstrate Jesus’ authority over the situation. Only the greater can command the lesser.
Thus we see Jesus wage his successful battle against his enemy, because it is our enemy, which is death. For death is a power, but Christ is a greater power.
On All Saints Day we call to mind all those who have died in the faith. In this congregation there are two who are dear to us, Sue Reglin and David Hanson, who died in the faith this past year.
But to say that we call them to mind is not to say that they live on only there. That would mean that they would cease to exist when we cease to exist. That is why the church on All Saints Day points not to the saints, not even to Colton Burpo, but rather to Jesus Christ, who is more powerful than death and therefore overcame and defeated death. He demonstrated this supremely in his resurrection from the dead. He is the living one. Behold, he was once dead, but now he lives forever and ever. And he holds the keys of death and hell. Which is to say that he has authority over them, as we have already seen in his unlocking of the tomb of his friend Lazarus.
Christ, the conqueror of death, our last enemy, is given iconic expression in our first lesson appointed for this All Saints’ Day. It tells us that our reunion with all the saints, with all our loved ones, is not accomplished by near death experiences. Rather, it is accomplished by an act of the sovereign Christ, to whom all power and authority, on heaven and on earth, is given.
We don’t have sufficient language to describe such an act, which has no parallel in human history. We can only rely on the images and symbols that are meant to inspire and expand our imaginations. At any rate, it is a beautiful image, one that represents the ultimate hope of the church.
The author envisions a future in which the first heaven and first earth pass away. We cannot say if he means that God will destroy and then remake them, or renew them as they are on a grand scale. What we can say with confidence is that when Christ’s reign is no longer hidden, but is manifest for all to see, Christ will do away with the old things, which are represented by the sea.
That to us seems odd, until we learn that in the biblical world the sea can serve as a symbol of evil and chaos and destruction. For example, in the creation story, when God begins to create, the world is a dark, watery chaos. God begins his creative work by asserting control over this chaos. The Psalmist cries out in his distress in language that evokes the threat represented by the watery chaos: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the deep mire, where there is no solid ground; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.” The prophet Jonah cries out to God in similar language, when he is hurled into the sea, when the engulfing waters threatened him, and the deep surrounded him.
What this means to say is that someday, perhaps very soon, God will eliminate everything that now threatens us with chaos, including illness, violence, climate change—all that causes mourning and crying and pain. Death will be no more. It will be replaced with the fullness of God’s presence, portrayed under the image of the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It is at that time that the goal of the covenant will be fulfilled: “He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”
This is our hope. At that time, all those who belong to Christ, both those who have gone before us and those who come after us—all the saints, will, in the language of the Westminster Catechism, truly glorify God and enjoy him forever.
It is a beautiful image, one that is meant to encourage us to press on in our sojourn here on this side. For good reason, does the tradition refer to us here and now as the church militant, that is, the church that has still to engage in the struggle against all that opposes her progress in this world, including the sin among her own members.
But we don’t engage in this struggle on our own. That power that is greater than that of death, the power that is in Jesus, or rather is Jesus himself, is with us and among us and in us. When John sought to encourage those to whom he was writing in his first epistle, he reminded them that “greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” Jesus is present when we gather, he is present in the reading and proclamation of the scriptures, he is present in the liturgists and preachers who lead our worship, and he is present in the elements of the bread and wine at Communion. We have a living fellowship with him even now. And even now we sense the indestructability of this bond that unites us with him, a bond so strong that not even death can dissolve it. And so we can trust him to bring us to our goal, where the church militant is transformed into the church triumphant. Amen.