“Those that Go Ahead of Us”
(Previously given at Kowloon Union Church)
This is a very important week in our Christian faith. Wednesday is Reformation Day, when Protestant communities will mark the 501st anniversary of the nailing of the 95 Theses on the doors of that Church in Wittenburg, Germany. This started the process that eventually divided European Christianity into two main groups: Catholic and Protestant.
But Luther never intended to leave the Catholic Church—he just wanted to change it. In his 95 Theses he listed what he believed were mistakes or abuses by Catholic clergy. Particularly, he had a problem with the selling of indulgences. These were basically bits of paper—like certificates—that were supposed to reduce the amount of time a person had to spend in Purgatory. You probably already know that for Catholics, Purgatory is the place where some (probably even most) people go to be cleansed of their sins. It is basically Heaven’s “waiting room”. It reminds me of the hospitals in Hong Kong, where you have to get a number like “B237”, and then wait for that number to be called. So basically, if you bought an indulgence, when you died you would get a lower number, and that meant you could get to heaven more quickly. Needless to say, Luther had a big problem with this.
Now today, over 500 years since the Reformation, many churches with a Protestant heritage, such as Christ Temple, like to present themselves as an ecumenical community. All are welcome to come and worship with us, and all are welcome to our communion table. But the Reformation had a lasting effect, and as a result there are clear differences between us and Catholic communities. You probably already know that Martin Luther helped develop the Protestant understanding of what we call the “doctrine of justification.” This doctrine is meant to explain how we, as sinful human beings, are redeemed in the eyes of God. In Luther’s understanding, we are justified—or saved—by faith alone, not by our good works. Jesus Christ is our salvation. There is nothing that we do ourselves—whether it be hard work, or following all the rules, or being charitable—that can save us. We cannot buy our way into heaven. We certainly can’t pay the local clergy for a special certificate that says we can go to the front of the queue in Purgatory. Just as it was Bartimeus’ faith that gave him sight, it is our faith and our faith alone that can heal and save us. The good thing about all this is that it also means that we don’t have to worry too much about making our situation even worse. We, like all other human beings, are already sinful, and there is not much we can do to make ourselves more sinful. We are already at the very bottom of the pit, and only God can bring us to the surface. But this also means that no matter what, God will not abandon us. Looking back on our Old Testament reading for today, it was not Job’s own sins that caused him so much misfortune—misfortune just happens. But because of his persistent faith in God, Job’s wealth and his family is ultimately restored to him. Through Christ Jesus, salvation has been opened up to all, and this salvation is fairly and evenly distributed, regardless of what sins we may have committed.
But by focusing solely on the Reformation belief in the power of faith, we have lost some of the traditions that we once shared with other Christians. For the Reformers, if something wasn’t clearly mentioned or discussed in the Gospel, or if something seemed contrary to the doctrine of justification by faith, then in their eyes it became unnecessary (or worse it became idolatrous). As a result, our practice of faith has been simplified and shrunken. Out of the seven sacraments important to Catholics, Protestants really only recognize two of them—baptism and communion. Catholics also emphasize the importance of venerating the Saints. Here I mean “Saints” with the capital “S”, by which I am referring those very holy Christians who did something truly special, like die for their faith. Like St. Valentine or St. (Mother) Theresa. Protestants talk about these Saints on occasion, but with far less reverence; rarely do we recognize the special days or feasts dedicated to their memory, or expect miracles from them. More significantly, Protestant tradition does not believe in Purgatory. Instead we have a pretty simplified understand of the afterlife. You either go to heaven—the good place—or the bad place. And honestly we don’t like to talk too much about the bad place (I’d like to think nobody really goes there). Because of this maybe we feel there is far less need to pray for the souls of the dead. Catholics, on the other hand, do pray that those stuck in Purgatory may be finally admitted into heaven.
Ironically (and probably intentionally) the day Luther nailed his 95 Theses up was actually a very important day in the Christian tradition called All Hallow’s Eve, better known to us as Halloween. If you remember, Luther had a big problem with indulgences—the idea that people could buy their way into heaven or buy their loved ones way into heaven. So, it’s fitting that Luther would criticize the way people think about the afterlife, on a day when people have already started to think about the afterlife! Halloween is a time when we confront those things that scare us the most. And one of the things that scare us the most is death. Not just the act of dying, but the thought of what happens after we die.
Now the very next day—November 1st –is All Saints Day, the time of the year where we remember those in our community that have died. But “Allhallowtide”, the whole holiday that includes Halloween and All Saints Day, is celebrated differently by Catholics and Protestants. As a Methodist growing up, we usually recognized this holiday by reading the names of those who have died over the past year, but that’s about it. I honestly don’t remember much about All Saint’s Day or All Saints Sunday. Instead, I was always far more excited about putting on my Spider-Man costume and going trick-or-treating on Halloween.
But for Catholics the celebration of Allhallowtide is more complex and arguably more important. You first have Halloween, the day before All Saints, which probably began as a Pagan holiday. Then of course you have All Saints Day, and that is the day you remember those have reached heaven. But the very the next day is All Souls Day, and this the day you remember and pray for those who have died, but have not yet reached heaven: here again, we are talking about Purgatory. We are talking about the waiting room. In Mexico, a predominantly Catholic country, they have the Dia De Muertos, or “Day of the Dead” on November 2nd. Some of you have probably seen the movie “Coco.” Don’t worry, if you haven’t I won’t spoil it for you. In the movie, you get to see what I think is a good interpretation of Purgatory. The dead lead lives very similar to what they had one Earth. This can be both comforting and frightening. It would be nice to think that, after we die, we can still do all the things we used to do. On the other hand, if our lives weren’t so great on Earth, it probably wouldn’t be so fun if they were like that in Purgatory, where we would still have to survive difficult world. What’s more scary is that the dead in that movie rely on the living to remember them—this is what sustains them. If their living relatives forget about them, they just disappear. It’s scary, but it is also meaningful. There is this everlasting connection between the living and the dead in Mexican-Catholic culture that we don’t have the Protestant tradition.
Now having said all this about Reformation Day and All Saints day, I don’t mean to suggest that Catholics don’t believe in the doctrine of justification (they do). Nor do I mean to say that Protestants never remember the dead. I think we think quite a bit about those who have died. When we lose a loved one, it is heartbreaking and it can take a long time for us grieve. But in some ways we also quickly sever our connection with the dead. We stop our communication with those who have gone before us. When someone dies, we hold a short funeral and that is sort of the end of the relationship. We are sad, but this sadness has little to do with the actual person that we’ve lost. What we mourn, what we are sad about, is the loss of the connection, something that is part of ourselves. Whether it be sadness, anger or peace, what we feel has less to do with the person who died than with our own pain. It’s actually a very selfish feeling, but that doesn’t mean there is anything wrong about it.
We could say the same thing about faith. We are encouraged to concentrate on how God’s grace works our own lives, and to mind how the law is written on our own hearts. What others do is up to them. What’s more important is that I am a faithful Christian. But the doctrine of justification doesn’t mean that we don’t care about our choices and our actions. Nor does it mean we are not to care how these choices and actions affect others. Quite to the contrary, through our faith we receive God’s Spirit, and because we receive the Spirit we are able to live more compassionate and less selfish lives. It is through God’s grace we are able to do good works and to support each other and our community. I think the Christ Temple community is a good example of how this kind of grace works. Unfortunately, for too many Christians, it has become more important to think and behave self-centeredly when it comes to faith. We only think: Is my faith strong enough? Is my heart pure enough? Will I go to heaven? By doing this we lose sight of how our individual choices and actions relate to those around us.
And here I am referring not just to the living, but also to the dead. Too often we think that, after someone dies, and after we have had their funeral, our relationship with them is over for the most part. But I think we still have a continuing spiritual relationship with the dead. More than that, I think we have an obligation to them. What we do can affect those who went ahead of us, just as they can still touch us in our lives.
But after the Reformation we lost this kind of spirituality. We are focused on our own, living faith, and disconnected from those who went before us. As a result, we don’t think enough about our continuing relationships with deceased family and friends. Fortunately, this spirituality is something we can re-learn. We can relearn it not just Catholics and their prayers for the dead veneration of the Saints. We can also learn it from Chinese culture! In Hong Kong, the spiritual bond between the living and the dead is just as strong as between living persons. To give you an example, the Wednesday before last was the Chung Yeung festival, a time when Chinese families visit the graves of their ancestors. As with many other cultures, it is common to leave flowers out of respect, but in Hong Kong people will do a lot more. They will leave fruits for the dead to eat in the afterlife, or even burn money made out of joss paper for them to spend. There are rituals to ward away bad spirits, and prayers to free the souls of deceased loved ones from Hell. People pray to receive their ancestors’ blessings and some believe that the dead can grant wishes or bring good (or bad) luck.
As Protestants, we don’t really believe in this transactional relationship with the dead. We leave flowers but don’t leave food offerings or burn joss sticks. We don’t expect our ancestors to bless us with good luck (but they certainly can if they would like!). But at the same time, our relationship with the deceased remains important. Our ancestors, our forebears, lived the life that we are now living. They already know of our desires and struggles, because they had them too. Furthermore, however difficult life may seem to us today, it was probably a lot more difficult for our ancestors. Because they went ahead of us on the same journey, their wisdom and their blessing means so much.
This week gives us two things to think about. On the one hand, it is a time to reflect on the meaning of our faith. Are we strong because of what we do, or are we strong because of what God has done for us? But it is also a time to remember another source of strength—that is, those around us: our family and our friends. And not just those family and friends who are living, but also those who have gone ahead of us. Those that have gone ahead of us have left us the gifts that allow us to lead the lives we have today. They gave birth to us. They provided us with food and shelter. They founded this church. It’s thanks to them that we are so lucky to be able to be hear the Word of God and share fellowship in a community like Christ Temple. Because of this they deserve not just our respect, but also our remembrance. The dead are not far away from us. They are close. Part of our Christian faith is remaining connected to the loved ones who lived before us. Faith is remembering those who made it possible for us to have faith. Amen.