The following sermon was preached by Dr John Stephenson in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service in observance of All Saints’ Day, 1 November 2018.
You probably know the word penultimate from its occurrence in shortened form as penult in James Voelz’s treatment of Greek accents. This unfamiliar word applies to the scene beheld by John in our first reading. The countless white-robed throng of every imaginable ethnicity, race, and language is not to be confused with the final episode of God’s children being raised from their graves and settled forever in the new heaven and the new earth. That event, says Paul, will be like looking up at the dazzling galaxies people used to see in a clear night sky before the days of light pollution. The saints will all shine resplendently, and yet in such a way that star will noticeably differ from star in glory. The face to face vision of God will coincide with total focus on the uniqueness of each human occupant of the heavenly city.
But as John describes the penultimate phase of God’s dealings with His children, as he spells out the last but one syllable of God’s historical word concerning those who walk the way of life here below, you can’t register the glory of each particular star or glimpse the unique individuality of each white-robed human who gets to celebrate the victory of the Lamb. This passage doesn’t allow us to look into the faces of Mary and John, Peter and Andrew, Lydia and Dorcas, Ignatius and Polycarp, or of any other specific person who has fought the good fight and endured to the end.
Yet perhaps it’s a good thing that John avoids all personal detail in his picture of the vast human host assembled even now on the other side of the altar. Recourse to biography won’t help if you want to know on the basis of this text how All Saints Day applies to you personally. Instead, you need to grasp a particular vital article of faith and then, as you sometimes stumble and grow weary and discouraged in your march through this vale of tears, you may experience an infusion of hope as you realise that a place awaits you at the celebration currently taking place on the other side of the altar.
A generation ago some theologians and pastors of our Church took perverse delight in denying the immortality of the soul and hence also the intermediate state of the blessed as they behold God and the Lamb and delight in the company of the angels and their fellow saints. Some halfway respectable yet sadly half-baked theologians propagated this error, in which context I recall the faces of laypeople confused by this false teaching and visibly relieved when the truth was clearly set before them.
Never forget that denial of the immortality of the soul and of the reality of the intermediate state is a wicked, outrageous, and damnable error, and close your ears to anyone in a stole or clerical collar or with Reverend before his name who broadcasts such lies. Alas, because what goes around comes around, there seem to be pastors and even professors in the Missouri Synod who are toying with this heresy even now, and I fear someone somewhere in Lutheran Church—Canada is engaging in the same dirty trick. Scripture makes it plain that death is not personal extinction, but rather the catastrophic sundering of soul and body, a catastrophe that only becomes one of Tolkien’s eucatastrophes because believers die not into a black hole but into Christ Jesus who awaits us in the place He has gone to prepare for us.
So John spells out a major truth and then he issues a massive encouragement. Was the original great tribulation he speaks of the Neronian persecution? Certainly that horrid incident was part of it, and the great tribulation also includes the persecutions and martyrdoms under Soviet and Chinese Communism, German Nazism, and 14 centuries of Islam. We can’t downplay these horrors, in which context I recall a plane conversation last month with a lovely woman from Egypt, whose mother, a Coptic priest’s widow, was one of a group of Christian women bombed to smithereens by Muslims a few years ago. Life in Egypt as a Christian is certainly an ongoing tribulation, and this young lady and her relatives surely endured great tribulation in their loss, even as they rejoice that their loved one is privileged to be one of the white-robed souls under the altar, a companion of Stephen and James and Ignatius and Polycarp and so many, many more.
All Saints is a powerful reminder of the supernatural, even physical bond we share here below not only with those with whom we are in church fellowship, but also with all who are indwelt by the Holy Trinity, and this observance forcefully communicates to us that the holy fellowship here below is only the visible tip of a most massive iceberg. How should you celebrate All Saints in this year of grace 2018? As you approach the altar ponder the marvellous fact that what is laid out upon the corporal cloth, held in my and the assistant’s hands, and delivered into your body is a greater thing than heaven and earth combined, the God-man in whom lie hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, the living heart of the heaven that is real right now for all who have believed in Jesus and walked the path of life here below.