In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
God has given us good things in creation. They are ours to enjoy in their proper place. Christians should not be strangers to the joys of fine food and wine, sexual intercourse, music and dancing. Even mindless fun like video games or baseball have their place. We should delight in them all. But these pleasures, food, drink, sex, and baseball, are severely limited. They quickly vanish. Why would we store up treasures here? They pale in comparison to the greater gifts and joys of mind and soul.
All the pleasures of gluttony and lust are overrated. They are fleeting and unsatisfying. Part of this comes because they corruptions of good things. A man does not have the right to lust after his wife. For lust seeks not to love and serve but to use. It is not as inappropriate inside of marriage, nor as destructive, as it is outside of marriage. But it is still selfish and harmful. Men seeking to gain their lives lose them. Men seeking to gain pleasures find them just out of reach. Pleasures of the flesh, be they intoxication, food, or tingling skin, never last. Like the cliché about Chinese food, you’re always hungry again an hour later. Nor will we be satisfied with the same Chinese dish an hour after we’ve eaten. We are always on the prowl for new adventure. The pleasures are never as pleasant as the fantasy anyway, and while they do not last, the guilt does. Men destroy themselves in seeking these vain things and they sell their souls cheap. Repent.
The joy of marriage is not in bed. It is on long drives and at the dinner table. Two become one flesh in all things. The time spent in copulation is a very small part of it and if it is not connected to heartfelt affection it is just two animals rooting about in the mud. Marriage is companionship and the raising of children. God gave Eve to Adam as a helpmeet and the mother of all, not as something to use. Man and wife find purpose and value in service to one another and to their children, even in sacrifice. So also there is some value in numbness and escape. But it is far deeper and longer lasting, as well as without danger or guilt, in a good novel or movie or plain, fun secular music than it is in alcohol. Pleasures of the mind always beat pleasures of the flesh. Novels are better than drunkenness. Conversation is better than sex.
Nonetheless, nothing in this world, nothing in the physical realm, nothing even of the mind, can compare to the contemplation of God and His holy Word. Theology is the best pursuit of men. All the arts and sciences are gifts from God. They all have their place. Theology doesn’t do much good when you’re arteries have 95% blockage or the mole is malignant. Nor will theology repair a broken timing belt or failing fuel injector. But it is the highest and best pursuit of men. It is where men are what they were created to be, like the holy angels. For that reason it has never been a spectator sport and there are no amateurs. You are to be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is in you. No one else can believe for you. So while I’m preaching you’re judging. You’re listening and comparing what I say to the Word of God and the Voice of your Shepherd. You add your “amen’ only if what I say is true. That is also the way of the Church’s prayers and even of the Body and Blood of Jesus. Listen closely at the rail and you’ll hear “The Body of Christ’ in one voice and then “Amen’ in another. Some people say it out loud. You don’t have to, but some do. Whether you say it out loud or not reception of Our Lord’s Body and Blood is a confession of unity and the truth of what the Celebrant says. He says: “the Body of Christ’ and you say, out loud or silently, but usually in Hebrew, “Truth,’ that is “Amen.’ Or as Luther would translate, “Yes, Yes, it is so.’
God’s Word satisfies those who are thirsty and hungry for righteousness. It satisfies their souls, deep down, where it counts. In a strange way the Word satisfies yet it also increases the thirst. Every preacher worth his salt pursued the ministry for the sake of this thirst. Godly preachers love God’s Word and Theology and desire to spend all their time in it. Those who love people should not go into the Ministry. They should join one of the helping professions where they can do some good. Whether this love of God’s Word threatens to consume you so that you pursue the Ministry or not, you do love it. You know what I am talking about. It is why you’re here. Strangely, God’s Word never grows old. It is never mastered. It is shallow enough for a child to wade in and understand, yet it is also deep enough for giants to drown. It satisfies in a way nothing else can. You have heard God’s Voice and rejoiced in it. You know your Lord. For by His Word in the Bible, in preaching, in the Holy Communion, Holy Absolution, Holy Baptism, and Holy Liturgy, God bestows a kingdom on you whom men count as poor. He comforts you who mourn and gives the earth to the meek and mercy to the merciful. He purifies the hearts that see Him by faith and calls you peacemakers His sons. That is why you are blessed. It is why you are here today. It is not because you are poor, mourning, meek, and hungry. Those afflictions afflict unbelievers as well. You are here because God bestows His kingdom upon you., because you bear His Name. He comforts, satisfies, and is merciful to you. He gives you creation, even the earth itself, and His kingdom. He blesses you. Guilt departs. Shame is removed.
For all that, we have not yet quite arrived. You know this joy, this watery hope of the promise made in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. But still we are poor, meek, mourning, persecuted, and the like. These things are not our blessings. The blessings are what God does through the Son in comforting, satisfying, and being merciful to us. That is what “for’ in the sentence: Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs in the Kingdom of heaven’ means. But this day we celebrate and remember the saints who have arrived. Not so much the hero saints, as our own saints, our own departed loved ones. A large part of what we celebrate is the continuing companionship, the continuing presence of our faithful departed.
*We can do this if we realize first the presence of our living Lord. As we seek and find Him we find them. They are with Him. They live with Him, are gathered around Him day and night. Where He is, where He has promised to be, they are. The saints too are a part of the Church. We don’t worship them, but we do worship with them. They worship the Risen Christ face to face. We worship the same Risen Christ under the veil of bread and wine. At the Holy Communion we are linked with heaven, with the Communion of Saints, with our own loved ones who have gone before us. That is what the “Communion of the Saints’ is. We commune with the dead. Of course, they are not really dead. Jesus lives. So do they. They are in Christ. They are with Christ. Where He is, they are. Our closest meeting place with Christ is at the holy communion. So that is also our closest meeting place with our dead who are in His keeping.
There is some good in tending graves. Moses carried Jacob’s bones back to Israel. But what I really want to do is take the widows and widowers by the hand, away from the grave, out through the cemetery gate, in through the door of the church, right up here to the Altar; and there put them in touch, not with the dead body or remains of their loved ones, but with the living soul who is with Christ at the Altar! It is not the body the widows miss the most. It is the souls, the person of their lovers.
Our human nature needs more than the assurance that some day and in some way we shall again meet our loved ones ‘in heaven.’ It is true. We will. But there is more. When death is viewed in the light of the Communion of Saints and Holy Communion we know the presence of our dead. That allows a healthier bereavement. For while our loved ones have left us and gone on a long journey, we are still in touch with them. There is a place where we can meet: at the Altar. Let it thrill us then, let it fill us with godly joy and peace, let our hearts beat with anticipation when we hear the words of the Holy Liturgy: “with angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven.” Our loved ones who have fallenh asleep in Jesus are there with that great company of heaven, the Communion of Saints. They are with the Lord. The nearer we come to Him in the Holy Communion, the nearer we come to them. We, too, are members of the Body of Christ. We, too, are His saints, living cells in that spiritual organism, partaking and sharing in the life of the other cells, as we share the Body of Christ Himself.
There is nothing fanciful or unreal about this. It is the most real thing in all the universe for it is God’s promise. Of course, we still miss our loved ones. We would miss them if they were gone on a business trip as well. But now, since they are what some people call “dead,’ they are closer to us than ever. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We miss their physical presence bitterly. We mourn. We weep. As also Jesus mourned and wept for we would hear their voices, feel their touch, and the like. But we do not mourn as those without hope. We are blessed for Christ Himself comforts us. Our separation is temporary and it is not complete. We have not lost them. And when our sense of loss becomes too great, when despair threatens and tempts us, we can always go to our meeting place at the Altar. We can come and receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, be forgiven anew, be preserved in this holy faith so that we may follow where they have gone. We can come and communion with saints and enjoy their companionship once again.
Jesus Christ is the heart of our religion. He loves and cares for us. His Body and Blood link us not merely to Bethlehem and Calvary. They link us also to the whole world beyond the grave. They link us to Easter. For His Body and Blood are risen from the dead and in the Holy Communion He brings us into Himself. He stoops down to earth and the seen meet the unseen, the Church on earth and the Church in heaven is one. Angels sing with the Church triumphant and with us, the militant and the suffering, as God dotes upon His beloved Bride. Praise be to Him.
In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
*The Presence: An Approach to the Holy Communion by Berthold von Schenk (Ernst Kaufmann, Inc. : New York, 1945) 2nd printing, pages 130-132. All of this from the * on is from von Schenk’s book, often word for word. I couldn’t quote it directly because of tense and person, but also because of wanting to be more free in the preaching of it and that required using my own words. You can read the original text here: http://www.redeemer-fortwayne.org/blog.php?msg=1273#msgtop
Pastor David Petersen