Today is, of course, Halloween, now a day for children to go trick or treating but originally understood as a time when the veil between the worlds was thin, when communication with people who have died might be possible.
Tomorrow is one of the great holy days of the Christian year, All Saints Day, when we commemorate the major saints of our tradition.
And the day after tomorrow is All Souls Day, when we especially remember the “little s” saints, the important people in our own lives who have died.
For us, today is all three. These days go together because, on all three, we remember the past, the people who have already experienced resurrection, and we also look ahead in hope to our own resurrections, to us joining the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, to the final establishment of God’s kingdom.
Now, I don’t know exactly what final resurrection life will look like. As I have said many times, that’s well above my pay grade. Scripture and our tradition give us important hints, but it’s hard to construct a coherent vision of life after death from them.
Here’s an analogy.
Years ago, when I could still more or less make my children do what I wanted them to do, I used the common parenting strategy of counting. I would tell the boys, they better do whatever I wanted them to do before I counted to, say, five. Then I would start counting, as ominously as I could. 1. 2. By the time I got to three, they were usually scurrying.
But one time Benjamin stopped me. He asked, “Daddy, what happens at 5?” I’d never thought about it. Thinking quickly, I admitted that I didn’t actually know, but I assured him it would be bad, maybe really bad. Benjamin accepted that, and got back to doing whatever it was I was trying to make him do before I reached 5.
When I think about the afterlife, it’s like that exchange, except in reverse. I ask the question, “God, what happens after we die?” And I imagine God saying, “Don’t worry about it. All you need to know is that it will be good, really good.
Mostly that’s enough for me.
Still, I wonder.
I think first about people. Who will we see there? What will that be like?
Probably we’ll see a LOT of people. After all, God loved us enough that, when we were still in a state of sin and rebellion, God became incarnate, served people who mostly misunderstood or actively opposed him, and submitted to a horrible death on the cross, all to open for us the way to eternal life.
I have to believe that a God who loves like that, who forgives sinners like that, who shows such mercy and compassion, will let some surprising people in.
I imagine myself in heaven, newly arrived, wandering around, checking things out, bumping into people I knew. I imagine myself saying to some of them, “Really! You’re here. I would never have guessed.” Some of them are likely to say the same to me.
It being heaven, we’ll then laugh together and give thanks to God for showing grace to both of us.
Other conversations might be harder. What about when we see people who hurt us, or whom we hurt? It is heaven, so whatever wounds we have given or received will be healed. But unlike some people, I don’t think we’ll simply forget all the bad stuff. Certainly, Jesus remembered being denied and crucified.
So, I imagine one of the first things we’ll have to do is apologize to the people we hurt, and forgive the people who hurt us. In some cases, that may not be easy.
And not just because of the big hurts. I imagine going up to Carrie, who can now see all my old innermost thoughts, the many times I was petty and mean-spirited, all the things I tried to conceal. That may be an awkward conversation.
But God’s grace and God’s healing power will surround us, and strengthen us, and help us to let go of our hurt and our anger and our pride. God’s love will make it possible for us to love even the most apparently unlovable people. And God will make it possible for others to love us, despite our own failings.
Seeing people we have loved, being reunited with them for all eternity, having all things made right—that’s a big part of Christian hope. That’s a big part of what we celebrate today, as we recite the names of people we have lost and still long to see, as we commemorate the communion of saints, big and little s.
But Christian hope is bigger than that, too.
When people die, we sometimes say they have entered into God’s nearer presence. The first time I heard that expression, I thought it was a little odd. I have come to love it.
God is with us always. We are in God’s presence now. But Christian hope teaches us that after death we will enter into God’s presence in a new and considerably more powerful way. That’s what it means to say God’s nearer presence.
What must that be like?
I come back once again to the picture of God at the end of the book of Job. God reminds Job just how big creation is and therefore how big the Lord of creation is.
We know considerably more about creation than Job did. People in Job’s day thought creation was a few thousand years old. We know it’s more like 12 billion. I have no idea how big they thought creation was, but we know the universe is billions of light years across. I can’t wrap my mind around numbers like that.
Our God, the God we know in Jesus Christ, is Lord of the whole thing.
As I imagine arriving in heaven, it’s a little like walking from a shady house onto the beach in the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of summer, on a clear, sunny day. As we are bumping into people and having whatever interactions we are having, we have to wear sunglasses and keep our eyes partly closed because the light is just too intense.
Finally somebody says, “you’re probably as ready as you’ll ever be.” And up comes the sun itself for a conversation. The light and the heat are totally overwhelming, but in a good way.
Out of the center of all that magnificence comes Christ’s voice of love, saying “Welcome, Harvey. Welcome each of us. I can’t tell you how much I, God, have been looking forward to this moment, when we can really be together. Enter into the joy of your eternal Lord.”
There is no way to describe that moment. But maybe we can imagine what we might feel.
Humility, for sure. In the presence of God, any illusions about our own importance will melt away.
Probably embarrassment at all the many things we prioritized over God, things that we now see don’t matter nearly as much as we thought.
But love most of all. God’s love pouring over us and into us. Our own love for God reflecting back.
That’s my image of where we are heading.
And so, on this All Saints Day, I thank God for Jesus Christ who is the way to eternal life. I thank God for all those who have preceded us on the way. And I pray that God will continue to support us on the way, and bring us home at last. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan