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✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Death is our enemy. The Scriptures make that very clear. In 1 Corinthians 15, St. Paul writes that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” As I have often preached to you before, God did not create us to die. It’s our fall into sin that brought the curse of death. The new agers like to talk about how death can be a beautiful thing, just another step in the journey of life. But those who talk that way are ignorant. Death is ugly; death is painful; death is a destruction of the body and the life God created.
However, Jesus has brought a new reality to our death. Though it remains the enemy, now that Jesus has embraced our death by His cross, there is something good about it as well. A church father named Ambrose once said, “We should have a daily familiarity with death, a daily desire for death.” What he meant was not that we should be morbid or suicidal—that we should look for ways to die, or be careless with our health, or simply give up on life. What Ambrose meant is like the words of St. Paul in Philippians, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
What that means is that we should not be so tied to the things of this life, to living in the here and now, that we think death is the worst thing that could happen to us. Instead, we should always remember that in Christ death is a deliverance for us—a deliverance from the ravages of sin, a deliverance from being run by our passions, a deliverance from all sorrow, grief, and heartache. What’s good about death is that our sinful nature will be finally and forever gone from us, and so also will all of the effects of sin’s curse as we await the resurrection of our bodies on the Last Day.
This is what the cross of Jesus has done for us–by it He has turned our enemy, death, against itself into something that works good for us in the end. For in Him, death is now the doorway to life. So let us be careful to get this right. Death is not just an escape from the harsh realities of this world. Much more it is an escape to the comfort of life in God’s presence. You often hear at funerals people say how the deceased “is in a better place.” And that’s fine–though I’m not a fan of cliches like that, since most non-Christians could agree with that statement. I’d rather say something like the deceased is with a better Person, with the Redeemer Jesus. He’s the One who makes heaven what it is. A heaven without Jesus at the center is just a fairy tale. That’s how St. Paul could speak of being hard pressed between wanting to live and wanting to die, for his desire was to depart and be with Christ, which is far better.
Today’s reading from Revelation gives us a beautiful picture of what we are escaping to, in contrast to where we are now. It is written that those who have died trusting in the Lord will live with the Lord. He who sits on the throne will dwell among them. They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not scorch them; 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. No more sorrow or crying or pain.
That is what we must learn to long for and set our hearts on. And that vision should govern how we live. When it does, then our eyes will not be captivated by what we desire that really doesn’t last that long. And our minds will not controlled by how much or how little we have. And our hearts will not be lusting after whatever feeds our appetites. Instead, when we live with the vision of Revelation, with the mindset of Paul, then we will live for others and for the things of the world to come. And then we will live fearing nothing, except losing life with God and the kingdom of heaven.
God saves us from death through the death of Jesus. His death is so good, so strong, so effective that it converts and transforms our death to be like His. We are baptized into Christ’s death, and so we are also baptized into His life and resurrection. Death no longer gets the last word, because we are in Him who conquered death and the grave. So even though death still causes us to mourn–for it is still the enemy that tears away our loved ones from us–yet we do not mourn as those who have no hope. We also rejoice at the death of those who are in Christ. We celebrate their victory. We look forward in hope to their resurrection. Those who worship Jesus are not gone forever. They have just gone before us. So death is no longer something to be avoided at all costs, for the Son of God Himself did not think of it as being beneath His dignity; nor did He seek to escape it. Like our Lord, then, we also can embrace it when it comes. For He is the One who brings good out of evil, joy out of pain, life out of death.
The saints know this. And by the way, when I refer to saints, I am referring to all Christians. A saint simply means “a holy one,” one who has been forgiven and made holy in Christ. Saints are not only those who have died who are with the Lord, but also us who are still alive, who believe in the Lord. All Saints Day refers to the saints in heaven and the saints on earth, all Christians Day.
However, usually when we talk about the saints, we do mean those who have died, and especially those whose lives were illustrations of God’s grace and who gave us an example of faith to follow. In particular there are two kinds of heroes of the faith whom we usually refer to as saints. The first are those who were put to death because of what they believed and taught, because they clung to their Lord more than to this life. These we call “martyrs,” a word which literally means “witnesses.” The second group are those who were not put to death, but who still suffered ridicule or persecution for righteousness’ sake. These we call “confessors” because they confessed the faith. Like the martyrs, the confessors also suffered much for the Faith. The martyrs gave testimony by how they died, and what they died for; while the confessors gave testimony by how they lived and what they lived for. The martyrs witnessed to the Faith with their blood; the confessors witnessed to the Faith with the purity and steadfastness of their confession. And so, because of their blood, the martyrs are commemorated with the color red; and because of their pure confession and steadfastness, the confessors are commemorated with the color white, as we have on the altar today.
Yet the colors red and white are both the same in the end, aren’t they. For what does it say of the saints in Revelation? “These are the ones who washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Do you see the colors? Red makes everything white. Robes are made white because they’ve been washed in red blood. But not just any red blood. It must be the red blood of the Lamb of God Jesus Christ, who was sacrificed to take away the sin of the world; the same Lamb of God who will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters.
That is what the martyrs and confessors and indeed all Christians have in common—the red blood of the Lamb which makes them, which makes you white and pure, cleansed from all sin, before God our Father. So it is this blood of Christ, poured over you in Holy Baptism and poured into you in the Lord’s Supper; it is this blood, which was shed and poured out for the salvation of all men, and even the whole creation; it is this blood that binds all saints together in the one true faith, and which gives us courage to follow in the train of those who have gone before us. The red blood clothes us in white, as it is written in Isaiah, “Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool.” The Lamb’s wool, his robe of righteousness, covers us.
That is how we are blessed, according to Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel. We are blessed because we are wrapped up in Him who is the fulfillment of all of these beatitudes. For wasn’t Jesus poor in spirit—by giving His riches to take on the poverty of our sin and death? Didn’t He mourn—especially when He wept over His people who turned away from Him? Isn’t He the meekest of all men, and did He not continually hunger and thirst after true righteousness? Isn’t He the very definition of mercifulness and purity in heart? Is He not the peacemaker, who reconciles God and man in Himself? And finally, of all men who ever lived, wasn’t He the most persecuted and reviled for the sake of righteousness?
To be blessed, then, is to live in Christ by faith, to have your life look like Christ’s–to be poor and humble in spirit, to mourn the sad state of this world, to be merciful even to those who don’t deserve it, to be persecuted for the sake of the Gospel, and ultimately to die. Even death is a blessing now in Christ. For through Him, yours is the kingdom of heaven.
And that kingdom of heaven is here for you now in the blessed Sacrament of the Altar. For Christ is here with you and for you with His true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. And so by partaking of the supper, you are with Him. And that is heaven on earth. Angels and archangels and all the company of heaven are joined with us.
So, fellow saints of God, let us endure in the faith in this time of tribulation. For the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us. Let us embrace death in Christ, that we may also embrace His life forever.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
(Much of the above was adapted from a sermon by John Fenton.)