Happy Moltmann Monday, all! In honor of All Saints Day, I wanted to share with you a snippet of a really fantastic passage from The Way of Jesus Christ where Moltmann talks about the community of the living and the dead. It goes on for a few pages, and I’ve skipped a bunch of paragraphs in between to bring you a few of the best nuggets (bold mine):
Justifying faith in Christ leads believers into the lordship of Christ over the dead and the living. They find themselves in a community in which the frontier of death has been breached. Through Christ’s resurrection, God has thrown open the future to everyone, the living and the dead. The living maintain their community with the dead, for in the community of Christ the dead are not forgotten; they are present…
There is more to the death of Christ than merely the vicarious suffering of sin and absolute death which justifying faith discerns. Through his death, he also became the brother and deliverer of those who have died. It was this which the mythical images about Christ’s descent into hell and ‘the realm of death’ wanted to express. If God himself was ‘in Christ’, then God himself is also present in the dead Christ among the dead…
It was therefore not wrong when in the 17th century Lutheran theologians saw Christ’s ‘descent into hell’ not as the nadir of his sufferings, but as the beginning of his exaltation and his sovereign rule over the universe… Dying, Christ suffered on the cross the hell of forsakenness and absolute death; as someone dead, he became the brother of the dead and the redeeming ancestor, thus opening the world of the dead for the future of the resurrection and eternal life…
The dead are still the dead, and not yet raised, but by virtue of the fellowship of Christ they are already ‘in Christ’ and together with him are on the way into the future of the resurrection.
Ok- I know I probably say this a lot, but what Moltmann is saying in this passage is a HUGE deal. When Jesus died, he willingly chose to be in communion with all of those who have died, and all of those who will die. Jesus died not just to “save us from sin” but to be with us in all circumstances, even death. The cross is our salvation because in it, Jesus goes to the depths of hell for us: he experiences God-forsakenness, and he experiences death. Only when he goes down that far can he rise up and become our savior. Because he is God’s Son, God’s Beloved, God goes with him into those places. And because God goes with him, there is now no place that we can say is “off limits” to God. (As if we could say that before.) As Moltmann says, “the frontier of death has been breached.” And through God’s resurrecting work of his Son, the future of LIFE is flung open to everyone- both the living AND the dead.
So in a very real way, we can profess that God is present to those who have died. And because of our communion with God through Christ, we can say that we, too, are in community with those who have died. Romans 14:9 puts it this way: “For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.”
This is the mystery we try to proclaim at All Saints. We give thanks for those who have handed down the faith to us, we give thanks for the lives of the saints who show us by their example what it might look like to follow God, AND we proclaim that we have this great cloud of witnesses who are, in some way beyond our understanding, still present to us through the communion of God’s enduring love which has overcome even death itself.
When we lose someone we love, we nevertheless remain connected to them. Because they are held by God, and because we, too, are held by God, we are together. That isn’t to say that we don’t feel the pain of separation. As I mentioned last night at Journey, we miss the loved ones we have lost in the same way that we “miss” Jesus, whose presence we long for. We know what it is like to miss someone. And yes, the Spirit brings those no longer with us closer, but we still feel that sting of separation and loss. Nevertheless, we confess to this bigger truth even in the midst of our grief, that we are held in communion together by something far more powerful than death. We proclaim that even death will not separate us- not from God, and not from each other.
To put this another way: Jesus died not only to “save us from sin” but to deliver us from death. And not just personal death, but death in a cosmic sense. Death that extends to all of creation, and even to those who have died before us. I worry that in our American Christian context, we have limited the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to an event that has to do with personal salvation from sin. This is not the early church context at all, and it’s never for one second been the Eastern Orthodox understanding. And this is why Moltmann mentions the Lutheran notion that when Jesus began his descent, it wasn’t the beginning of his suffering but the beginning of his exaltation. He was exalted the moment he descended to the depths of the worst of human experiences. Jesus suffered and died because only in so doing could he really be present to us in all our sufferings. If he did not experience death, how could he save us from the shadow of death that hangs over each of us?
Jesus died so that we may have eternal life. Try to ponder that sentence without attaching it only to sin. Try to think of it just in the way Jesus reorients death itself. And then, imagine this: when people ask, “where are those who have died?” we can say that they are not only held by God and in communion through Jesus with us, but they are also on their way toward God’s future, which is resurrection. Where are they? They are heading toward new creation, along with all the rest of us.