Epistle 1st Corinthians 15:51 – 57
Gospel St. John 5:25 – 29
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
This is All Souls Day, a day unfamiliar to those who are not catholic. It comes, as we know, on 2 November, the day following All Saints Day. In the minds of many today, there is a fusion of the two ideas, all Saints and all Souls. Are we not all Saints? Doesn’t everyone go to Heaven? Would a loving God deny entrance into Heaven to anyone at all? When we die, don’t we just go straight to Heaven?
Let us consider briefly the question, “When we die, don’t we just go straight to Heaven?” In order to consider this, think about the readings from yesterday, All Saints Day, in which St. John describes in the Book of Revelation, what he saw in Heaven. Revelation 7:9 After these things I saw, and behold, a great multitude, which no man could number, out of every nation and of all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, arrayed in white robes, and palms in their hands; 10 and they cry with a great voice, saying, Salvation unto our God who sitteth on the throne, and unto the Lamb. 11 And all the angels were standing round about the throne, and about the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, 12 saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen. As St. John makes abundantly clear, the Saints in Heaven are IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD. If you died this very instant, are you prepared to go to Heaven and stand before the throne of Almighty God? Think about that for a minute.
What do we know about God? The Bible is full of information about the nature of God, but let me identify just a few attributes of God here. We know from Holy Scripture that God is all knowing, all powerful, and present everywhere at all times. Perhaps most importantly, we know that God is both Just and Holy. These last two attributes ought to be enough to completely terrify us. We cannot afford to receive justice, because it would mean our utter and eternal destruction. God is Holy, and He hates uncleanness. We are unclean. Are we ready to go forth and stand before God?
Some will say, “Oh, but I am saved by Jesus Christ,” and they are not incorrect. But they only have a part of the story. When we are baptized, we enter into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and are then destined for eternal salvation. Christ marks us as His own, and are indeed saved. But when you look at your life, are you really clean, pure, and ready to stand before Almighty God? Most of us are not. Even though we have not rejected Christ, and we try to follow Him, we remain fallen people, saved only through the sacrifice of Christ. We fail over and over again, but Christ picks us up, brushes us off, and forgives our sin. But we still have a long way to go in the development of personal holiness. Assuming that we do not reject Christ, our salvation is indeed assured, but our holiness in this life is not. I find no place in the Bible where we are assured that we will be able to lead holy lives here before our death. It is the mercy of God, extended through His Son, Jesus Christ, that satisfies our need for justification before God, but what are we to do about sanctification?
Do you recall the following verse from St. Paul? Philippians 2:12 Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. What is he talking about? When he says, “ work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” is he saying that we have to save ourselves? Not at all!! St. Paul would be just about the last one to deny the saving work of Jesus Christ upon the Cross, and yet, look what he wrote to the Corinthians!
Becoming holy, the process called sanctification, is just that, a process. It does not happen instantaneously, but rather it takes time. That time is intended to be our time here on earth, so that by the time we die, we should have achieved full sanctification. How many of us do that? I think it is safe to say that most do not, but they are still saved by the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross. So what happens to them (and us) when we die?
We do not go straight into the presence of God the Father; we are not ready even though our time here below comes to an end. We have to go somewhere else. The Romans call it Purgatory, but I prefer another term, given by Jesus Christ Himself to the penitent thief on a cross: Luke 23:43 And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in Paradise. Whether we call it Purgatory or Paradise, it is the place of the departed Christians after death, a place with Jesus Christ. Roman theology sees it as a place of punishment, a payment for sins committed during life, a purging of sins. I do not see it that way. I call it Paradise, and I see it more like a school, a school where our education in sanctification is completed. Now you will recall that, many students initially don’t like the idea of school before they begin. I recall, as a small boy, being told what a horrible place school was, how they made you sit still in one place for the whole day, made you raise your hand to be recognized before you could speak, and so on. School did not sound like fun at all, and I was not looking forward to going to school. But then, I went any way, rather like the way we will all die some day. After the initial shock, I found that I liked school. The further I went, the more I liked it. (My Dad used to despair of ever seeing the end of my education.) In my mind, this is the way it will be in Paradise. We will have to complete our learning to be holy. It will be fairly easy for some, and more difficult for others. But all will eventually make it through, we will all become holy, because they will have Jesus Christ, right there to guide them every step of the journey. Only after we become holy, under the direct guidance of Jesus Christ in Paradise, will we be ready to go to Heaven.
All Souls Day is the day we remember those who are now in Paradise with Christ. We do not know exactly who is there, and who may have finished the course and gone on to Heaven itself. But remember, the idea of time, of something happening sooner, or something else happening later, is irrelevant in eternity. Eternity is outside of time. Time is for this life only.
So, to briefly address a few of the other points raised at the beginning, let me say first that, no, not everyone goes to Heaven. Only those who have been brought into Christ’s Kingdom through baptism and remained faithful to the end are assured of eventual salvation. We can most definitely reject salvation as a part of our free will, given to us by God, and some in fact do just that. Now some will say, “But what about those who have never heard the message of Christ?” In that regard, we can only say that such a matter is in the hands of a loving and merciful God, and it is not up to us to make that judgement. But for all of us, and those around us where we live, where the Word of God is preached and the Sacraments are administered, we can say with certainty that the only way we will attain Heaven is through continued faith in the mercy of God expressed in the saving work of Jesus Christ. Those who reject the offer of salvation on the terms of God, will most surely be turned away.
We are all called saints in Holy Scripture, meaning that all faithful Christians are on the path to salvation. It does not mean that we are there yet.
Today, we give thanks for the life and witness of the vast numbers of Christians who have gone on before us. We know that their future is secure, that they are progressing towards Heaven itself, if they are not already there. This includes many of our own families, our friends, and others that we have known through the years. It also includes all of our Fathers in the faith, the ones who have handed on to us intact the faith that is so precious to us all. It is because of their faithfulness that we have the Church today with the intact deposit of faith first delivered to the saints by Jesus Christ Himself.
We pray for their eternal welfare, for their rapid advance toward the gates of Heaven itself. We pray that their experience of Paradise is not painful, not torment, but instead a place of grace, of coming progressively closer to Jesus Christ Himself.
Let me close with the words of a Collect for this day, taken from the Scottish Prayer Book:
O Eternal Lord God, who holdest all souls in life: We beseech thee to shed forth upon all the faithful departed the bright beams of thy light and heavenly comfort; and grant that they, and we with them, may at least attain to the joys of thine eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
May the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace and rise in glory.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.