by Daniel Harrell
I missed Confirmation Sunday last week as I was in North Carolina attending my fortieth high school reunion. I hadn’t been back to Page High School in Greensboro, North Carolina in decades. Go Pirates. At our reunion I embraced classmates I’d not seen since high school, most of whom I would have likely never seen for the rest of my life. This is Amy Wheeler, my prom date. Here we were in 1979. We’ve changed a lot and in a lot of ways—but not that it mattered. Unlike earlier reunions where people mostly compare careers and complexions and measure achievements and children’s accomplishments, by the time you get to forty years you’re just glad to see each other. And more than that, due to the upsides of social media, my classmates gifted me a Page High School blanket to symbolize the ways they’d followed me and wrapped me in their compassion over Dawn’s death. The comfort was real. It meant so much.
Is this what heaven in like? What keeps us going when we’ve lost, or lost track, of people we love is the resurrection hope of reunion with no comparisons or competing, but only warm embraces and memories of what was good and beautiful and mattered most. Today is All Saints Sunday, coming right on the heels of Halloween, where we dispel every ghoul and goblin of fear and despair with the bright light of eternity—an eternity we rehearse for every Sunday in worship. Some church traditions elevate saints to a higher plane—a place reserved for those who’ve lived especially godly and virtuous lives worthy of a special heavenly abode.
Protestants don’t do saints in this elevated sense. Turn to Paul’s letter to Romans and sainthood proves much more pedestrian, thankfully. There’s nothing we can do on earth to earn heavenly stars in a crown once we die. Jesus paid it all, we sing, thus Paul can address every Christian in Rome as “God’s beloved who are called to be saints, who belong to Jesus Christ.” Most notably, the saints in Rome to whom Paul writes aren’t even dead yet.
I missed Confirmation Sunday last week due to my reunion. But I enjoyed Tony’s sermon and his lessons about our Congregational heritage and practice. Admittedly, we partake of Congregationalism a bit a la carte. The early Puritans and Pilgrims wouldn’t have done Confirmation (too Catholic) nor would they have ever set apart a Sunday for All Saints because we’re all saints all the time. The Puritans didn’t even do Easter. Jesus rose already, so everyday is Easter. The same with Christmas. Too pagan, said the Puritans. Christmas was technically illegal in Massachusetts until 1859. As the Puritans liked to point out, “They for whom all days are holy can have no holiday.”
I should probably add that the early Congregationalists weren’t especially keen on heaven as mainly a place to reunite with your loved ones either. Setting aside the logistics of ever finding those who’ve gone before amidst the billions already there, the Bible never explicitly mentions any reunion or recognition. There are innumerable multitudes of people from every nation and language, but they’re all there to see Jesus and not each other. Turn to Revelation and you see previews of a new heaven and a new earth, of living water and trees of life and an eternal city with metaphorical pearly gates and streets of gold, but no sun or moon or nighttime. Jonathan Edwards envisioned the light of the heavenly world to be perfectly different from the light of the sun, or any light in this world, “exciting sensations or ideas in the beholders perfectly different, of which we can no more conceive than we can conceive of a color we never saw… a sort of light immensely more pleasant and glorious, in comparison of which the sun is a shade and its light but darkness.”
Scripture promises no sorrow or suffering in heaven, and specifically no more death, which is problematic if you’re expecting heaven to be anything like life on earth. Organic life requires death, so for death to be no more, means a totally divergent reality from anything we currently experience. We like to imagine a kind of continuity between this life and the next where we get to do for eternity all the things we enjoyed most here, whether it’s golf or sunsets or walking the beach or eating whatever we want with the people we loved. But as CS Lewis once wrote from the grief of losing his own wife, “Reality never repeats.” “The thing I want is exactly the thing I can never get. The old life, the jokes, the drinks, the lovemaking, the tiny heartbreaking commonplace. On any view whatever, to say ‘my wife is dead’ is to say ‘All that is gone.’ It is a part of the past and the past is the past and that is what time means, and time itself is one more name for death, and heaven itself is a place where ‘the former things have passed away.’”
Instead, we’re promised what Jesus calls Paradise and what the prophets and Paul and Revelation refer to as New Creation. Here in Romans, Paul says whatever we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory to be revealed to us later, that creation itself groans for its own redemption. Jonathan Edwards spoke of this redemption as “our highest exaltation, the utmost intimacy and fullness of enjoyment of God.”
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus got embroiled in a silly discussion over who’s married to whom once we all get to heaven. “You obviously know neither the Scriptures or God’s power,” Jesus replied. “For in the resurrection people neither marry nor are given in marriage (ergo the line in the marriage vows, “until death do us part”). Instead, Jesus said, we “are all like the angels.” Now before you let your imagination run wild with visions of wings and harps and flying around in the clouds, remember that in the Bible angels are mostly about one thing: just praising the Lord. Does forever worshipping God sound like an eternity of going to church? If so, it will be unimaginably wondrous church. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, riffing on Isaiah: “No eye has seen, nor ear has heard, nor the human heart ever conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” We have no idea how great it will be.
In my own grief, I sometimes long for Dawn to miss me as much as I miss her—but how could she? Why would she? Such longing only makes me miserable, why would I ever want that for her now? Were her life’s hardships and her cancer not miserable enough—not to mention being married to me? And yet whatever she suffered is incomparable to the happiness she now enjoys in Christ, an everlasting delight enlarging her heart and overrunning her with joy and rendering even her happiest happiness on earth as nothing to be remembered or ever enter her mind.
This is not especially comforting to me here and now, but it’s not supposed to be. Still, we don’t have to wait until we die to get a taste of heaven. As all saints, we’re as good as resurrected already. “The night is far gone and the day is near,” Paul reminds us in our Romans text for this morning. “Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Armor also gets translated as weapons of light, but as we’ll later sing, we’re not talking guns and swords “loud clashing” but “deeds of love and mercy.” Paul speaks of deeds of love as debts we owe; the only debit in the ledger of life.
“Owe nobody anything except to love one other,” he writes, “for the one who loves another fulfills the law.” By law, Paul means the Torah, typically summed up by the Ten Commandments. And by fulfilled, Paul means accomplished, not finished, but fully obeyed. Because love does no wrong, you can’t break the law.
Paul alludes to the second tablet of the Ten Commandments here, those focused on being a good neighbor: no adultery, no murder, no stealing or coveting what belongs to your neighbor. He sums them all up with that otherwise obscure verse from Leviticus, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” our theme for this year of the Good Neighbor. Jesus vaulted “love your neighbor as yourself” into its prominent role of summing up the law; Paul simply follows suit.
Paul goes on to list a few other transgressions to lay aside, reminding me a little of high school: reveling and drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness, quarreling and jealousy. I remember drinking a little too much and getting into a fight at the State Basketball Championship (where we beat the team led by James Worthy). Making out with the woman who organized our reunion in her basement after homecoming.
We may chuckle over such peccadilloes now—and thank heaven iPhones and social media didn’t exist then—but there are (and were) plenty of places where drunkenness and infidelity and sexual abuse and dissension and envy aren’t funny at all. Christians get criticized for being Puritan prudes, our ethics only for the sake of spiritual superiority and suppressing joy. But true Christian ethics promote love of Christ and neighbors and enemies, seek foremost the kingdom of God with its justice and goodness and beauty and peace for all people, exemplified and empowered by God’s love for us in Jesus who died for our sins. This debt of love we can never pay back but only pay forward—a debt but no burden, a joy and totally doable because of the Holy Spirit in us.
By emphasizing “loving your neighbor,” Scripture sidesteps concerns of overgeneralization. “Loving everybody” doesn’t count if you’re not caring about an actual person in need. Neighbor literally means the person nearby you can see. “Loving your neighbor as yourself” sidesteps concerns over being taken for granted since you’re not called to love others except in those ways you’d love yourself. Just as you make time for yourself, take interest in yourself, do what’s best for yourself and make excuses for yourself―so you should take time for your neighbor, take interest in your neighbor, do what’s best for your neighbor and cut your neighbor slack.
Jesus tacks on more radical behaviors such as truth-telling, cheek-turning, forgiving your foes and laying down your life for a friend. The temptation here is to treat Christian love as idealistic—too heavenly minded for earthly good, so virtuous as to be out reach. Since we’re only human, better to confess your sins, get your grace and get on with what you were going to do anyway. Except that Jesus didn’t die for your sins so you could just sin some more. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul exhorts—but not like you put on a Halloween costume and pretend to be somebody you’re not.
Many of you commented and liked Violet’s Halloween costume I posted on Facebook. A lover of chocolate, she went as a Lindt Chocolate Truffle wrapper, because, really Dad, she said, “how could I have not eaten the truffle?” There’s some theological truth in this. Putting on Christ is more about about putting Christ in us. We take into our bodies the body and blood of Christ at communion. Our faith is no costume but a whole new creation. Ethics don’t get trumped for the sake of self-serving outcomes, but shine brightly and honorably and outwardly as Christ’s love and light for the world.
We do this because we “know the time,” Paul writes, even if we forgot to turn our clocks back. “Now is the moment to wake up from sleep. Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” Paul’s urgency was fueled by a belief that Jesus could show up any moment, one way or another. Dark/light, wrong/right, day/night—the choices are stark, but not hard. “The night is far gone,” we read, “the day is near,” a reference, no doubt, to “the Day of the Lord,” aka Judgment Day, when our excuse of being only human gives way to our true humanity, our calling as saints in that communion of saints destined to love God and enjoy him forever. Unspeakable glory has yet to be spoken, but we don’t have to wait for a foretaste. We envision eternity in every momentary glimmer of true love and generosity toward others, in the deep contentment and joy we wish would go on forever.
Dawn was never so content as when she knew her last day was near. Full of faith and no fear, it was remarkable to behold her gratitude and peace and her enlarged capacity to forgive everything, including me. Jesus paid it all, she knew, so she didn’t owe anybody and nobody owed her. Her only debt, and ours, is to love.
From the Puritans: O Lord of Grace, All thy lovingkindness is in thy Son, with all thy saints, we bring Christ to thee in the arms of faith with a full heart, I urge his saving Name as the One who died for me. I plead his blood to pay my debts of wrong. Accept his worthiness for my unworthiness, his sinlessness for my transgressions, his purity for my uncleanness, his sincerity for my guile, his truth for my deceits, his meekness for my pride, his constancy for my backsliding, his love for my enmity, his fullness for my emptiness, his faithfulness for my treachery, his obedience for my lawlessness, his glory for my shame, his devotedness for my waywardness, his holy life for my unchaste ways, his righteousness for my dead works, his death for my life.”