Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. All Saints’ Day is another one of those perennial preaching occasions that leaves preachers struggling against writer’s block as they stare at the blinking cursor on their computer screens. On festival days that recur annually, how do you impart fresh insights from texts that are well-worn and over-familiar? Just to pile it on a little more: How do you preach on All Saints’ Day without making it seem like you’re preaching a mass funeral?
So today I’m taking a different approach. I want to correct a few misconceptions that Jesus’ followers often have about the afterlife and why our hope in Christ is so much better. I hear people profess these theological faux pas with great regularity, especially after a loved one dies. As Pastor Jeff Gibbs points out in his article, “Five Things You Should Not Say at a Funeral”: “These are things which, strictly speaking, are not true. More importantly, these are things which theologically speaking, are not true. And so we ought not to say them.” But because it’s difficult to correct people’s theology when they’re already in tears, perhaps All Saints is more fitting. Today I want to address the misconceptions that our departed loved ones watch over us, protect us, and hear our prayers.
A few weeks ago, Pope Francis tweeted: “Today we give thanks to the Lord for our new #Saints. They walked by faith and now we invoke their intercession” (@Pontifex).
This tweet went viral because the hashtag #Saints belongs to the New Orleans Saints NFL team. Of course, Pope Francis was not invoking the intercession (or interceptions!) of football players by his inadvertent hashtag, but he was implying that the newly canonized saints of the Catholic Church were waiting to hear our prayers. I replied to the pope’s tweet with this Scripture: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).
Christians shouldn’t pray to the saints. We have no promise in Scripture that they even hear us, let alone answer our prayers. Jesus Christ is our one mediator between God the Father and humanity. Jesus bridged the gap between heaven and earth when he stretched out his hands on the cross and prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Even now, after his ascension, Jesus still prays for you: “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:34). And were that not enough for you, the Holy Spirit “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). With 2 out of 3 persons of the Trinity praying for you, and the other (the Father) hearing your prayers, why would you ever need to pray to a dead person? And why would Pope Francis encourage you to do the same? (Aside: By the way, the pope still hasn’t replied to my tweet. If the pope in Rome doesn’t even listen to me, how can I be certain that St. Francis or St. Joseph will?).
I’m certain that most of you agree that we shouldn’t pray to the saints. Even the word “saint” is a misnomer, as though the Catholic Church may confer special status on believers who finished their course in faith. In reality, the word “saint” can be used in reference to any Christian, as “Saint” Paul often did in his epistles (e.g., Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:2). Saint is just a fancy word that means “holy” or “set apart.” All believers are made holy by the blood of Jesus. As we read today, “Who are these, clothed in white robes and from where have they come? …These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:13-14).
If you believe in Jesus, his blood washes away your sins and makes you clean. You’re holy! You are a saint. If you’re baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, then you are God’s child, and you are holy—again, you are a saint! There are saints in heaven and saints on earth. Martin Luther famously said that we’re simultaneously saints and sinners (simul iustus et peccator), which proves how wonderful is God’s grace.
Now I recognize that I’m probably preaching to the choir here. Most of you know we shouldn’t pray to the saints. But then we say things like, “Grandma is watching over me” or “I know that your mom smiling down on you.” This popular piety is not found in Scripture.
Yes, I know there is the inspiring, imaginative passage in Hebrews 12, which speaks of the “great cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us, but there is very little evidence elsewhere in the New Testament that our Christian loved ones watch over us or visit us after they die. In fact, the opposite is true. For example, in Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Father Abraham tells the rich man in hell that there is a “great chasm” fixed between heaven and hell (and presumably the earth between), which prevents anyone from traveling from the Bad Place to the Good Place (or the opposite direction, for that matter). (Aside: This “great chasm” is the basis for C.S. Lewis’s novel, The Great Divorce, which you should probably read this week).
The damned in hell and the saints in heaven cannot speak to us or visit us. My mom and dad are not with me. Nor do they watch over me like guardian angels. First of all, God appoints angels—not dead relatives—for that purpose (cf. Ps. 91:11-12). The idea that our loved ones watch over us from heaven is actually a hangover from paganism when people used to worship their ancestors.
In fact, the Bible seems to indicate that the saints at rest in heaven have little or no awareness at all of events happening down on earth:
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (Rev. 6:9-11).
The martyrs in heaven wonder how long it will be before God avenges their wrongful deaths and punished the wicked. This question indicates a lack of awareness of events happening on earth. The saints in heaven do not know the status or plight of the saints on earth. They don’t know how close the Last Day is. And God doesn’t tell them. Instead, he tells them to rest—similar to how, when you’re on a long road trip with your kids, you encourage them to take a nap in order to make the time go by “faster.”
No, the saints in heaven neither pray for us nor visit us. But they are doing well. They are at rest with the Lord, awaiting the Day of final resurrection, when Christ will return to make all things new (Rev. 21:5). They are “away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). But God is not yet done with them—or us. “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved” (Rom. 8:23-24a).
When the new creation comes, there will be no more hunger, no more thirst, no more pain, no more death, no more tears. Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, will dwell in our midst and “shelter [us] with his presence…. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their Shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:15c, 17).
Yet even before that great and glorious day, Christ is with us. He is always with us. “Behold,” Jesus says, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b). If you live, Christ is with you. If you die, you are with Christ. Either way, Jesus is with you every step of the way through life and death and into new life again. So there is no need for the spirit of Aunt Tilly to walk beside you or for Mother Cabrini to pray for you. Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, died and lives for you. He will never leave you or forsake you. He promises to pray for you and answer your prayers in his name. Thank God, Jesus watches over me! I can think of no one better for the job. In the name of Jesus. Amen.