One of my favorite hymns for All Saints Day is by Hans Brorson, the eighteenth-century Danish hymn writer. It comes into English with various titles, but in the Lutheran Book of Worship, it’s called “Who Is This Host Arrayed in White” (LBW #314). Its title is pulled from John’s vision of heavenly worship, where he sees “twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments” (Rev. 4:4). The song they sing around the throne is much the same that Isaiah hears in his journey into heaven: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev. 4:8; see Isa. 6:3).
Those familiar with the historic liturgy will know that this song of praise comes right before the consecration of the bread and wine. This heavenly song descends to earth at the Lord’s altar, because it is here where the body and blood of Christ are truly present in the bread and wine for the forgiveness of sins. This meal is heavenly life itself. The Lord’s Supper is heaven on earth, though in a form we don’t expect.
The fact that heaven is something that comes down to earth resists some of the usual ideas about what eternal life really is. A beloved bible passage like Hebrews 13:14 might be used to support another image of heaven: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” The idea of heaven that’s so common is that of a place far above and far away. To die, physically, is to go to that place – the true home of all friends of God. After all, as Paul says, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:20).
Think of some of the things you might hear in funeral eulogies or at the reception afterward. When people die, we’re often told that “they’re in a better place,” or now the deceased has become “one of God’s angels.” There’s no doubt that the dead in Christ are held in God’s presence, awaiting the resurrection. And there’s nothing wrong with angels either, but Scripture gives us no indication that humans are made into angels at death.
What these ideas about death indicate is our own discomfort with creatureliness. We’re uncomfortable with being human. We’re uncomfortable with being embodied creatures, and so we invest hope in the idea that someday we’ll escape the constraints of embodiment. Never mind that this escape upwards toward God had something to do with the fall in the first place: the temptation of Adam and Eve is that they can become like God if they eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 3:5).
Instead of listening to what God says about us – that our embodiment is a good thing that he intended from the beginning (Gen. 1:27) – we wrongly associate our bodies with the realities of sin and death that we experience in daily life. To have a body means to die; to escape from the body means to escape death. Many pastors roll their eyes at the kinds of things said at funerals. But there are also sophisticated versions of these ideas that share the same discomfort around the body that shows up at funerals.
A false concept of human immortality – what Luther called the ambition to become like God (ambitio divinitatis) – is quite common in Christian accounts of eternal life. What salvation really is, we are tempted to think, is transformation into the likeness of God. Some, like the great St. Athanasius, will say that “God became man so that man might become God.” What’s meant here isn’t the erasure of all distinctions between God and human beings. But embedded within the idea known as deification or theosis is the same embarrassment with creatureliness that shows up at funerals.
Now, the ancient notion of union with God in salvation is a venerable and time-honored tradition in the church. And my intention isn’t to misrepresent this teaching by charging deification with a denial of the resurrection, or an idolatrous belief that human beings will disappear at some point into God – never to be seen or heard from again. There are extreme elements of Christian mysticism that go this direction. But it’s important for those of us in the tradition of the Reformation to always pay attention to the desire of the old Adam to have a religion on Adam’s terms. And it’s the ambition of our sin-captive flesh to ascend upward into divinity. It’s also an ambition that the gospel confronts.
This is not the true religion of Christ – the one who did not set down a ladder for us to ascend into God’s presence, but who came down among us. He came first in the womb of Mary, being born Bethlehem’s stable. But the miracle of the incarnation doesn’t stop with Christmas. Jesus continues deeper still into our flesh. He takes our humanity first but continues by collecting his band of disciples. Throughout his ministry, Jesus takes up the burden of human sin and wickedness. He takes it into himself in a journey to Jerusalem that ends at the cross. Even more upsetting to the old Adam than a human God is a God who makes himself a sinner. That kind of salvation is a foreign concept to the flesh and its false piety.
So what is salvation for? Is it our ladder into God’s presence? What the gospel promises is not escape from our humanity, but resurrection from the dead. What God wants out of you is not that you be transformed into his likeness, but that you live as the creature he made you to be. Luther once asked a rhetorical question of himself: what is a human being? Paul gives him the answer: to be human is to be justified by faith. The word of forgiveness comes with a promise that “on the last day he will raise me and all the dead and will grant eternal life to me and all who believe in Christ” (SC II 7).
To be raised from the dead is to become human again – for the last time. This reconfigures our ideas of heaven: like in the Lord’s Supper, where the eternal banquet of Christ comes down to earth, so also the kingdom will be established in creation. There will be a new creation in which we will be what God creates us to be: recipients of his generosity, kindness, and mercy in Jesus Christ.
So, who is the host arrayed in white that John sees? It is the communion of saints gathered at the throne of the Lamb. We partake of that feast for now, especially where Christ gives his body and blood in his Supper. And we will partake of his feast eternally in the new creation. There, we will be true human beings, and our song will be “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3). God alone will be holy; and his holiness will fill the expanse of his new creation.