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Dear Fellow Saints of God,
We often complain that the world is a mess. We often wonder how it can get much worse. We talk as if it is worse now than it has ever been. In some ways maybe it is. It’s probably worse than it’s ever been in our lifetime. Evil and lies can be spread around the world in seconds through social media, that’s a fairly recent phenomenon. But, at least for us who live in the USA, it’s not as bad as it was for the Apostle Paul, and the Apostle John, and many of their fellow believers living in the Roman empire in the first century. Tradition says that the government tried to execute John by having him drink poison, but he survived. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it is true that he was exiled to the island of Patmos to keep him from preaching and teaching about Jesus. He tells us that himself. Others, like Paul, were not exiled, they were executed. In his vision John sees them. He sees the souls of those he knew, maybe Paul and his brother James, and maybe some he didn’t know; he sees the souls of people who had been beheaded because they were preaching about Jesus and because of their refusal to give in to pressure to worship any other God but the true God; he sees their souls safe, living and reigning with Jesus in heaven. The second death has no power over them.
Imagine what a comfort this must have been for John, and the churches who would read this letter! As he thought about people he knew who had been threatened, imprisoned and then executed, he might have felt guilty. After all he was the one who taught these people about Jesus and encouraged them to stand firm in their faith and that’s what got them executed. He might have wished it was him instead of them. He might have wondered if they had remained faithful unto death and received the crown of life. But he doesn’t have to wonder anymore. God allows him to see them. Their souls are in heaven. As Jesus told Martha, even though they died, they continued to live. Though he might miss their company on earth, he saw clearly that they were in a better place. They were living and reigning with Christ.
As we celebrate All Saints Day, as we think about Grandparents, Parents, Siblings, Spouses, friends and neighbors who have died believing in Jesus, we too are comforted as John was. The promise that Jesus gave to Martha still applies to us today. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Whoever lives and believes in him will live, even though they die. Although we don’t have the benefit of a vision of heaven and seeing the souls of our loved ones safely gathered around the throne of God, we have the promise of God himself that all those who die trusting in Jesus are taken by the angels to Abraham’s side. We are reminded that Jesus says of us, blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed, even though we can’t see what John saw we trust God’s promise.
The Bible is very clear, especially the words of Jesus in his story of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus, that when you die your soul goes immediately to heaven or hell. People are destined to die once and after that to face judgment. Jesus told the dying criminal, today you will be with me in paradise. Once your soul leaves your body at death there is no changing where it ends up.
On All Saints Day, certain groups encourage people to pray for the souls of their loved ones who had died. Such a prayer would be an exercise in futility because their fate was decided the moment their soul left their body. Notice that John was not told to pray for the souls of the martyrs he saw. I’ve also witnessed a ceremony which was intended to set the soul of the person who had died free- another exercise in futility because that person’s soul was already in heaven or hell and nothing anyone did on earth was going to change that.
This ought to remind us how important it is that we not only pray for, but talk to people, especially our loved ones, about Jesus the only way, truth and life, while they are alive. I suppose thinking your prayers or ceremonies help the souls of those who have died might seem to assuage some guilt over not praying for them or talking about Jesus with them while they were alive; or it might be easier because when they are dead, they can’t argue or talk back; but the bottom line is that it can’t do them any good. Pray for your loved ones and talk to them about Jesus while it can still do some good, while they are still alive.
John was told, blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them. What does that mean?
What is the first resurrection? In John 5 Jesus explains what the first resurrection is. He says, Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. The first resurrection comes when we hear the voice of Jesus in the word and Sacrament. Paul says that through our baptism we are united to Jesus in his resurrection, we are raised with Christ. Pauls says that we were dead in transgressions and sins and were made alive with Christ. The first resurrection isn’t something that happens on the last day, or a thousand years before the last day. It happens any time anyone hears the voice of the son of God, the good news that Jesus is their savior, and through the power of the Holy Spirit they are made alive, brought to faith in Jesus as their savior. Already now, right now as they are still living in this crazy, messed up world, they are blessed and holy. They have the blessing of God’s unbreakable promise that he is working in everything for their good and that nothing can separate them from God’s love. They are holy. Right now, while they are still living here on earth, they are saints, not because they don’t sin, not because they seem to have performed a miracle and done a lot of good things, but because their sins have been covered by the righteousness of Jesus and washed away by the blood of the Lamb.
You and I are blessed and holy right now. Because of Jesus, the second death has no power over us. Because we are sinners descended from sinful Adam and Eve, the first death does still have power over us, we will all die physically someday. But, when we do, our souls will continue to live. They will live and reign with Christ until he comes again in glory on the last day and puts our souls back into our resurrected, glorious bodies. Because of Jesus we don’t have to fear the second death which John describes as being thrown body and soul into the lake of burning sulfur with the antichrist, the devil himself, and the beast. Because of Jesus the second death has no power over us, we don’t have to fear eternal punishment. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
The world is a mess but many have had it worse than we do. It was worse for the Christians who lived when John did. But remember that the places in our world today where fellow believers are being persecuted, and even executed, are growing. We should not expect it to get better. Jesus said that it would be so bad near the end that even the elect would be deceived if that were possible. Our hope and comfort isn’t in politics or powerful people who promise to make things better, in mortals who cannot save. Our hope and comfort is in God who calls us blessed and holy because of Jesus. Our calling, as those who have been brought to faith in Jesus, is to be priests of God; to declare the praises of the one who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. He has made us who were born dead in sin alive in Christ. If declaring his praises brings us trouble, as it did John, and Paul, and the martyrs John saw in heaven, let it be a reminder that those who are friends of God, priests of God, have always been enemies of the world and treated as such. If they hated our Lord and Master, Jesus, they will hate us too. If a fellow believer dies, or if it ever happens that a believer we know is executed for their faith, we have the comfort of knowing that they are among those John saw around the throne of God living and reigning with Christ. And although none of us looks forward to the day of our death, we have the comfort of knowing that in Jesus, the second death has no power over us.
The world is a mess, but take heart, Jesus has overcome the world. In him, you are blessed and holy, saints of God now and forever.