In Paradisum

Text: Luke 23:43
Date: Last Sunday Proper 29 + 11/24/13

On the last day of the church year we are taken to the cross to hear the last word concerning the entire Gospel we have heard and rehearsed in the past twelve months. We do not repeat the entire great and holy week nor even of the entire six hours of the crucifixion. Rather, today we join in with the weeping women following Jesus in procession. “Daughters of Jerusalem,” He says, “do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” Here He was already declaring the fact that the death He was about to experience would not be strong enough to hold Him. He was already relying on the prospect of His resurrection from death and by His resurrection breaking the hold of death for all who believe in Him. So, “do not weep for me.” Then when He says, “but weep for yourselves and for your children,” He shows that life in this world, as long as we carry this body of sin and death, we will experience all sorts of troubles. But for those Christians whose bodies finally give out and die the scriptures say at that moment the soul is completely free of sin. The idea of a purgatory is pure invention. On this truth Martin Luther therefore called death the last “purgatorium” of the soul. The old American Negro Song by J. W. Work which Martin Luther King, Jr. made so memorable is true:

Free at last, free at last
I thank God I’m free at last
Free at last, free at last
I thank God I’m free at last.

The original version of this song could have been written especially for this day and this sermon as it continues speaking the sure hope of the resurrection.

Way down yonder in the graveyard walk
I thank God I’m free at last
Me and my Jesus going to meet and talk
I thank God I’m free at last.

On my knees when the light pass’d by
I thank God I’m free at last
Tho’t my soul would rise and fly
I thank God I’m free at last.

Some of these mornings, bright and fair
I thank God I’m free at last
Goin’ meet King Jesus in the air
I thank God I’m free at last.

On today’s revisit to the cross, then, we are next joined by two criminals who are crucified along side of Jesus who, first, prays for His persecutors, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What do they not know? They do not know that God was using their very evil, murderous intent to unleash the forgiveness of all sin for them and for the whole world! Still we hear the mocking of the rulers and the soldiers who mock the claim that Jesus is, as the inscription over Him said, “the King of the Jews.” All year long from the very first word of Advent we have been echoing the words of the Palm Sunday crowd, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.” Today we are reminded that, for all the joy we may have discovered in following Jesus as our King, the last most powerful word of this King is from His cross. And what is the last most powerful word?

One of the criminals believed, as he said to the other criminal of Jesus, “this man has done nothing wrong.” Indeed. From His very conception and birth in Bethlehem to this moment this man, the man Christ Jesus, has lived the perfectly holy, sinless life in fulfillment of the whole Law of God. He alone, therefore, deserves and merits freedom from sin and death. Yet what do we see? Here He dies. He dies, however, not for His own sins (of which there weren’t any), but for the sins of the entire world, all sin ever since the Garden of Eden to beyond His first visitation to this day, even all your sin, all of it! “This man has done nothing wrong.” As the crowds who once witnessed Jesus’ restoration of hearing and speech to the deaf mute said, “He has done all things well” (Mark 7:37).

Finally, we wish to make the repentant criminal’s prayer our own, saying, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and hearing our Lord’s own promise for ourselves, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” I wish to leave you with this blessed hope.

The Bible gives us great comfort as to the state of Christian souls between death and resurrection, comfort as we remember those who have gone before us and comfort for ourselves at the prospect of our own deliverance.

Of the souls of believers we are told not merely in general that they are in God’s hand, but also in particular that they dwell with Christ and in Paradise. The word “paradise” is a loan word from old Persian, meaning an enclosure as a park surrounded by a wall. So it is used to describe the original bliss of Adam and Eve before sin entered the picture and also of the future life in the resurrection and the new heavens and earth. But it is also used to describe the state of the souls of the redeemed in the intermediate state between death and resurrection.

The departed souls of believers are in a state of blessed enjoyment of God. Martin Luther spoke guardedly of the state of the soul between death and resurrection saying only that a sleep of the soul which includes enjoyment of God cannot be called a false doctrine. As we have already said, at physical death, we are completely freed of sin and delivered from the slavish shackles of death. We are free at last. And that’s because of the blessed death of Christ our Lord. By His blood there is no more payment, atonement or purging of sin. Only those who reject the salvation Christ has won will be, as St. Peter said, “kept in prison,” a place of punishment (1 Pet. 3:19-20). Believers are and will continue to be “with the Lord.”

So it is of the greatest comfort to know that when we on earth sing the eternal Sanctus “with angels and archangels” that we do so also “with all the company of heaven,” many of whose names we know. Though they have no direct knowledge of particular things or happenings on earth anymore in the sinless freedom of Paradise, it is here at the altar of God and in the Holy Communion that we remain in closest company with them and they with us.

In the traditional Christian funeral mass the final song at the casket of a departed loved one is the “In Paradisum.” Here is the blessing, then, of the King who comes in the name of the Lord:

In paradisum deducant angeli:
      May the angels lead you into paradise,
may the martyrs receive you in your coming,
and may they guide you into the holy city, Jerusalem.

May the chorus of angels receive you
and with Lazarus once poor
may you have eternal rest. Requiescat in pace.