Remembering the Dead: Preparing to Preach on All Saints Sunday

Reading Time: 4 mins

We give thanks to the Lord for His victory over death and the grave both for those who are now with Him in glory and for ourselves even as we press forward in faithfulness awaiting the Day when our eyes will see Him.

November 1 is All Saints’ Day. Many congregations transfer the celebration to the following Sunday. It is good and fitting for Christian congregations to keep this festival which also serves as something of a portal into the last Sundays of the Church Year with their emphasis on the last things: death, Christ’s return to judgement, Heaven and Hell, and the promise of a new Heaven and a new Earth. The Lord Jesus Christ will bring His redemptive work to culmination. On All Saints’ Sunday, we remember with thanksgiving those blessed fellow-believers who died in the Lord and are now at rest even as we wait with them for the Last Day and the resurrection of the body to eternal life with Christ.

The Augsburg Confession sets the observance of All Saints’ Sunday in evangelical perspective:

“Concerning the cult of the saints they teach that the saints may be remembered in order that we imitate their faith and good works, according to our calling. Thus, the emperor can imitate the example of David in waging war to drive out the Turks from our native land. For both of them are kings. However, Scripture does not teach calling on the saints or pleading help from them. For it sets before us Christ alone as mediator, atoning sacrifice, high priest, and intercessor. He is to be called upon, and He has promised that our prayers will be heard. Furthermore, He strongly approves this worship most of all, namely, that He be called upon in all afflictions. I John 2 (:1): ‘But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father…” (AC XXI:1-4, BOC, Kolb/Wengert, 59).

We give thanks for the way of God’s grace in Christ in their particular lives even as we imitate their faithfulness in our various vocations.

Preachers preparing to preach on All Saints’ Sunday would do well to read and ponder a 1957 essay by Hermann Sasse, “Remembrance of the Dead in the Liturgy.” In this article, Sasse deftly moves through the history of dogma, noting how remembrances of the dead as part of the Church’s prayers of thanksgiving, shifted to intercession for their eternal fate. Sasse notes how prayers for the dead developed in light of theories regarding postmortem cleansing of souls in Origen.[1] Later on, the development of the doctrine of purgatory would accentuate the practice of prayers for the deceased. These prayers would find a home in the Canon of the Mass as the Sacrament would come to be seen as a sacrifice for the sins of the living and the dead. This practice is both unbiblical and contrary to the central doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Lutherans rightly reject the invocation of the saints. Sasse reminds us, Apology XXIV:94, which is sometimes romantically cited as an endorsement of intercessions for the dead, is actually about the remembrance of deceased Christians in prayers which are a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Yet, Sasse notes Evangelical-Lutherans do rightly to remember the blessed dead in the liturgy. We do this every Lord’s Day as we are gathered around the altar with, “angels, archangels, and with all the company of Heaven,” to acclaim Him who comes to us in His body and blood. On All Saints’ Sunday we are especially reminded how, “the church of the New Testament knows itself to be a colony of the citizens of Heaven.”[2] With our citizenship in Heaven (Philippians 3:20), we are pilgrims who have no abiding city in this old dying world but look forward to an enduring polis which is yet to come (see Hebrews 13:14). Yet, even now, Sasse recalls we have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God with multitudes of angels, the assembly of the first born, and the congregation of the spirits of the righteous ones made perfect through the blood of our meditator, Jesus (see Hebrews 12:22-25). We on earth sing the Sanctus with the heavenly choirs. Heaven and Earth are united in Christ Jesus.

Therefore, Sasse says, “It is from this understanding of the church and the Divine Service that we are to understand the earliest form of the remembrance of the dead. If the ecclesia scattered abroad in the world are spoken of under the image of the ancient world order as ‘colonies’ of the ecclesia in Heaven, then the Church on Earth and the Church in Heaven is one, as Hebrews 12:22 puts it, ‘the Church in an alien land’ (paroikia) and ‘the Church in the homeland’ (patris).”[3] Wearied by the changes and chances of this life, wounded by our own sin, and hounded by the attacks of the evil one, we do indeed feebly struggle as those who have completed the race now dazzle in the glory of a light with no ending. But we colonists still living as exiles on Earth are one community with those who are forever alive in the homeland. “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine” (LSB 677:4).

So, “One can only speak of thanksgiving for those who have finished their course and of the prayer that the Lord strengthen the living for martyrdom. This is the form the remembrance of the dead takes throughout the second century. It corresponds precisely with what Luther and the Lutheran Confessions teach concerning the remembrance of the dead in prayer.”[4] We give thanks to the Lord for His victory over death and the grave both for those who are now with Him in glory and for ourselves even as we press forward in faithfulness awaiting the Day when our eyes will see Him. Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1) we wait with eager anticipation as we eat and drink Christ’s body and blood acknowledging how, in this Sacrament, we are given the forgiveness of sins which carries with it the promise of the resurrection of our bodies. In this communion we are, therefore, bold to pray:

“Gracious God, our heavenly Father, You have given us a foretaste of the feast to come in the Holy Supper of Your Son’s body and blood. Keep us firm in the days of pilgrimage that, on the day of His coming, we may together with all Your saints, celebrate the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.” (LSB, p. 212).

[1] Hermann Sasse, “Remembrance of the Dead in the Liturgy” in Letters to Lutheran Pastors, Vol. III, edited by Matthew C. Harrison (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2015), 34.

[2] Sasse, “Remembrance of the Dead in the Liturgy,” 37.

[3] Sasse, Remembrance of the Dead in the Liturgy,” 38.

[4] Sasse, Remembrance of the Dead in the Liturgy,” 39.