All Saints Day
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Years ago now I was listening to an interview on the radio of a young man in his twenties who had converted to Islam. It might have been on NPR but I can’t swear to that. I was only half paying attention until I heard the young man say that he had been raised a Lutheran. Suddenly I was all ears. When asked why he turned away from the faith in which he had been raised, there was a noticeable pause. I was beginning to think that the station was having technical difficulties. Finally, the young man spoke out a little tentatively. “Well, you know, the church I grew up in was full of nice folks. I have nothing against them. But ever since I was a teenager I was always looking for something more, something I could give my life to. I just figured there had to be more to faith in God than playing Twister and eating pizza in the church basement.” I don’t doubt that there were people of faith worshiping and serving in the congregation where that young man grew up, but somehow they failed to share that faith with him. He didn’t hear Jesus’ call to discipleship in that church’s preaching, teaching or ministry. He never caught a vision of the reign of God worthy of his dedication and commitment. What a tragedy. Here was a young man looking for the Bread which comes down from heaven and all his church had to offer him was Twister and pizza.
I don’t know what actually happened at that church, but I am willing to bet a week’s wages that its youth program worked on a consumer marketing basis. The strategy is simple: find out what the kids want and give it to them. Once we get them in the door, we’ll spring a little gospel on them-not too much and not too fast. Let’s not “turn them off.” A short prayer (very short) before the festivities begin should do the trick. They will pick up faith through osmosis. That’s how you get new members. Sounds like a good plan. There is just one problem with it. It doesn’t work. It has never worked. Trust me on this. I have seen that strategy employed for thirty-two years of ministry and I have yet to see it work. And it should not surprise us that it doesn’t work. Why should it? Anybody can serve pizza and, though it’s been a long time since I was a teenager, I can still think of about a thousand activities more exciting than Twister. The church cannot compete with the mall or the video arcade and it shouldn’t try. Moreover, while I am in a betting mood, I am willing to wager another week’s wages that most of those Twister playing kids in the interviewee’s youth group are no longer involved with the church either. When a church employs consumer marketing instead of making disciples to grow its membership, it gains neither members nor disciples.
As I read the gospels, I don’t find Jesus marketing himself to consumers. He doesn’t promise sightseeing trips for seniors, entertaining worship for adults or lots of fun activities for young people. Jesus promises the reign of God and tells anyone that follows him that the way into it is difficult and dangerous. Coming after him requires nothing less than taking up the cross-and that is no mere metaphor! The way of discipleship is not easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. But the joy of following Jesus, getting to know him and experiencing the reign of God breaking into our world is worth any price. I have a feeling that a church offering Jesus rather than junk food; challenge rather than entertainment; the call of discipleship rather than fun and games would have appealed to that young man in the interview. Had he encountered such a church in his youth, he might be training for ministry in one of our seminaries today.
All Saints Day affords us an opportunity to revisit the many shapes discipleship has taken over the church’s pilgrimage through time. The stories of the martyrs remind us that, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “A man that has nothing he’s prepared to die for has nothing to live for.” Generations of testimony from believers of all times and places can help us rediscover our mission and calling. The saints remind us that we belong to a communion of remarkable disciples from every age whose lives demonstrate the trustworthiness of Jesus’ promises and challenge us to put our own trust in Jesus. Because “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” who will not let us forget who we are and why we have been called together, there is hope for renewal and the potential for our churches to answer Jesus’ call to discipleship in our own time and place. The saints can teach us how to be the Body of Christ so that no one will ever again come into our midst without hearing Jesus’ invitation and challenge to surrender all for the sake of that kingdom worth more than life itself.
There is no getting around it: the Book of Daniel is a strange piece of literature. It is usually classified “apocalyptic” as is the Book of Revelation. Both of these books employ lurid images of fabulous beasts and cosmic disasters to make sense out of the authors’ experiences of severe persecution and suffering. In the case of Daniel, the crisis is the oppression of the Jews under the Macedonian tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes whose short but brutal reign lasted from 167-164 B.C.E. Antiochus was determined to spread Greek culture to his conquered territories and to that end tried to stamp out all distinctively Jewish practices. He compelled his Jewish henchmen to eat pork-strictly forbidden under Mosaic Law-and threatened with torture and death those who refused. Antiochus considered himself a god and was thought to be mad by many of his contemporaries. Antiochus’ most offensive act was his desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem with an altar to Zeus upon which he sacrificed pigs. Though many Jews resisted to the point of martyrdom efforts to turn them from their faith, others were more inclined to submit to or even collaborate with Antiochus.
The early chapters of the Book of Daniel tell the tale of its namesake, a young Jew by the name of Daniel taken captive and deported three hundred years earlier by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. This is Daniel of lions’ den fame. Stories about Daniel’s faithfulness in the face of persecution under King Nebuchadnezzar and later under the Persian rulers are retold in the new context in order to give comfort and encouragement to Jews struggling to remain faithful under the reign of Antiochus. It is as though the author were saying, “Look people, we have been through this before. We can get through it again.” The latter chapters contain apocalyptic material that, like Revelation, has given rise to no end of speculation over what it might have to say about when the world will end. That concern, however, was far from the mind of the author of Daniel. His concern was with the present suffering of his people and sustaining them as they waited for a better day.
Our text for this Sunday comes at the very beginning of the apocalyptic section of the book. Daniel is visited by “visions in the night” during which he observes four great beasts coming up out of the sea. At this juncture, the lectionary takes a flying leap over the graphic descriptions of each of the beasts. That is unfortunate because we need to meet them in order to understand the promises made to Daniel at the end of our reading. I therefore invite you to read verses 4-14 before proceeding any further. The first beast is described as a lion with eagles’ wings and is identified by most Hebrew Scripture scholars with the Babylonian Empire which destroyed Jerusalem and took many of the Jews into exile in 587 B.C.E. Vs. 4 The second beast, a bear with three ribs in its mouth, is identified with the empire of the Medes. Vs. 5 The third beast is a winged leopard corresponding to the Persian Empire under Cyrus who, as you may recall, conquered the Babylonians and permitted the Jews to return from exile in Babylon to their homeland in Palestine. Vs. 6 The fourth beast is nothing like any living animal. More vicious and destructive than the beasts before it, this animal has iron teeth and ten horns. Vs. 7. It represents the Greek Empire founded by Alexander the Great. The ten horns represent ten rulers who succeeded Alexander, ruling various parts of his empire. The little horn speaking “great things” is our friend Antiochus.
Also omitted from our reading are the “planting of thrones” and the descent of the “Ancient of Days” and his host of thousands. Before him “books” are opened and judgment is passed upon the nations. The fourth beast is destroyed and consigned to flames, but the remaining kingdoms are merely deprived of their jurisdiction. At this point “one like a son of man” is given dominion over all the nations of the earth. His kingdom, we are told, will not pass away. Now we are finally in a position to understand the full import of the words spoken to Daniel by one of the heavenly host: “These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom forever, forever and ever.” Vss 17-18. It might now appear that the “saints” or faithful Jews are helpless pawns in the struggle between these great empires. But appearances can be deceiving. In the end, it is not any one of the kingdoms asserting power over the earth that will prevail. The kingdom of the Most High will finally rule the peoples of all nations and tongues through the agency of his messiah.
The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: Who determines the outcome of history? From a modernist point of view, history is the confluence of innumerable currents that can be influenced for better or worse by human activity. The Book of Daniel offers us a radically different outlook. According to Daniel, history is God’s project from beginning to end. The kingdom of God comes in its own good time without any help from us, thanks just the same. The people of God can live an anticipatory counter-cultural existence of humble obedience under that reign even now and so bear witness to it. But they cannot hasten its coming anymore than the kingdom’s adversaries can prevent it.
That said, witness is important and faithfulness invariably leads to conflict with the surrounding culture. The fiery ordeal faced by the people addressed in the Book of Daniel is hard for most of us to imagine. Yet in more subtle ways, I believe that disciples of Jesus are faced with decisions that require them to take a stand for or against Jesus. Even in a society where being a disciple of Jesus is not against the law, following Jesus still means taking up the cross. The good news here is that persecution, failure and even death do not constitute the end of the game. God promises to work redemption through what we perceive to be futile gestures of faithfulness in a wicked and ruthless world. So too, our gospel lesson points out that lives spent struggling against starvation, poverty and injustice for Jesus’ sake will not have been wasted.
Most biblical scholars date this psalm on the later side, most likely during the period of Greek dominance over Palestine discussed under the reading from Daniel. The psalm is distinct from most other psalms in one important respect. Although many psalms cry out to God for vengeance against enemies, the psalmists do not undertake vengeance on their own or seek to execute retributive justice on God’s behalf. Psalm 149, however, prays concerning the faithful, “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to wreak vengeance on the nations and chastisement on the peoples, to bind their kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron, to execute on them the judgment written decreed.” Vss. 6-9. There is no question here that the people of Israel are being called to take part in executing God’s judgment against the nations of the world that do not acknowledge him. More troubling still is the interpretive history of this psalm. It was used as a battle cry by Roman Catholic princes during the Thirty-Years War and also by the radical Anabaptist, Thomas Munzer, in his violent crusades.
What then can we say about this psalm? First, the psalm is entirely consistent with Israel’s conviction (and that of the church as well) that God is one and admits of no rival. Judgment is always the flip side of salvation, but only God is competent to judge. With this the psalmist is in agreement. Although Israel is called upon to execute judgment, the judgment to be enforced is that which is “decreed.” Vs. 9. Until such time as God makes clear to his people precisely what is just and how his justice is to be implemented, Israel must refrain from taking action against those “judged.”
Second, as the First Letter of Peter reminds us, “the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God…” I Peter 4:17. Just as the line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart, so every heart must undergo judgment. No one can claim to be entirely on the side of God such that there need be no reckoning with sin. It appears, then, that the execution of judgment to which Israel is summoned in Psalm 149 is an eschatological event, that is to say, it points to a time when righteousness, wickedness and justice are made to stand out in unmistakable clarity. For disciples of Jesus, such a time cannot come until the revealing of the Son of Man.
Third, disciples of Jesus read this psalm the way they read all of Scripture: through the lens of Jesus. After all, we are not baptized into the name of Joshua son of Nun but into the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was never shy about telling his disciples when to go beyond the written word in obedience to God. Thus, the Scriptures limit retribution to exacting from the wrongdoer only the price of his wrong. If someone knocks out your tooth, you don’t chop off his heard or burn down his house or murder his family. You get the value of a tooth, no more and no less. But Jesus tells his disciples that they must go further than the Hebrew Scriptures. They are not to seek retribution of any kind. They are to turn the other cheek when stricken and forgive up to seventy times seventy in any given day.
Finally, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, God’s judgment comes chiefly through God’s word. When the prophet describes the reign of God’s messianic king, he declares that he “shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” Isaiah 11:4. When John of Patmos describes how Christ appears to exercise his reign at the close of the age, he tells us that “From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations…” Revelation 19:15. In short, God does not employ violence to implement his reign. He speaks his Incarnate Word and sends fourth his Holy Spirit to transform hearts and minds. Thus, however Israel may have once interpreted the injunctions in Psalm 149, disciples of Jesus must interpret them consistent with Jesus’ call to confront an evil and unbelieving world with God’s offer of compassion, forgiveness and the promise of a new creation. The two edge sword we wield must be the sword of the Spirit.
The problematic sections of this psalm should not obscure the overall theme which is a call to praise God with melody, musical instruments and even dancing. Worship is supposed to be joyful, exuberant and strenuous. We Lutherans could use more than a little of that in our worship practices!
For an excellent summary of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, see the article of Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament on enterthebible.org.
Verses 15-23 constitute one very long sentence in the original Greek text. The old RSV preserves that sentence structure in its translation to the consternation of anyone who has ever tried to unpack these important passages. Thankfully for this Sunday’s readers, the New RSV has broken the reading down into several sentences. For all who have the patience to work through them, these verses provide a beautiful articulation of the Christian hope encompassing life here and now in the Body of Christ and life as it is folded into the “glorious inheritance of the saints” with Christ in the “heavenly places.”
There are more sermons in these verses than any preacher could exhaust in a lifetime. The particular verses that caught my eye this time around are the last two, vss. 22-23, pointing out that the church, Christ’s Body, is the “fullness of him who fills all in all.” It is mindboggling, albeit true, that each little congregation gathered around the Word and Sacrament is the fullness of Christ. It is Paul’s prayer that his hearers will come to understand the hope to which they have been called and the wealth of their inheritance. Though it does not appear that Paul himself was the author of this epistle* and we know little about the congregation or congregations to which it is addressed, it seems evident that the audience is predominantly gentile. Thus, Paul wishes to impress upon his hearers the deep and profound treasures of the covenant into which they have been brought by invitation through Christ Jesus.
Although Paul makes only scant use of the Hebrew Scriptures in Ephesians (another reason why most scholars tend to think the target audience was principally gentile), there are many echoes of Old Testament texts throughout the letter and in Sunday’s reading in particular. Verse 22, where Paul remarks that God has “put all things under his [Christ’s) feet,” reflects the language of Psalm 110:1 and Psalm 8:6. Thielman, Frank S., Ephesians published in Beale, G.K. & Carson, D.A., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (c. 2007 G.K. Beale & D.A. Carson, Baker Press) p 815. Psalm 110 is likely a coronation hymn for Judean kings and so it is not surprising that Paul should allude to it in speaking of Jesus’ elevation to God’s right hand. That Jews in the first century gave the psalm a messianic interpretation is suggested by the use Jesus made of it in his disputation with his adversaries. See, e.g., Mark 12:35-37. Clearly, early Christians interpreted the psalm in this way. Hays, R.B., Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, (c. 1989 Yale Press) 163-66. Similarly, Psalm 8 speaks in poetic terms of human domination over creation. Jewish interpreters of the Second Temple period believed that Adam’s right to rule the world had been transferred to Israel and that God would one day give to the righteous remnant of his people the glory of Adam. Thielman, supra, p 816. Paul also spoke of Christ as a “new” Adam in his letter to the Romans. Romans 5:12-21. As such, Christ is entitled to reign not merely over the earth, but may properly be placed “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” Vs. 21.
*I will nevertheless continue to refer to the author as “Paul.” Though perhaps not the actual author, his thought pervades the letter. Besides, it is a lot less awkward than referring repeatedly to “the author.”
This excerpt from Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” has some striking similarities to the “Sermon on the Mount” as presented in the Gospel of Matthew. See Matthew 5-7. It is generally accepted that both sermons are drawn from the same basic written tradition commonly called “Q.” But there are also significant differences and it is not clear whether these differences stem from variations in the source material or the editing of the gospel writers. In my own opinion, it is likely a matter of both/and rather than either/or. Clearly, some editing on the part of the gospel writers is at work. In Matthew, Jesus speaks from the mountain top evoking the image of Moses while going beyond Moses in many of his teachings. Luke’s Sermon is spoken on level ground. There appear to be three groups present: The twelve apostles Jesus selected just previously in vss. 12-16; “a great crowd of his disciples;” and “a great multitude of people.” In both cases, Jesus’ teachings are directed specifically at his disciples-not to the general public. Whereas Matthew contains more “beatitudes” than does Luke (Matthew 5:3-11), Luke includes four “Woes” not found in Matthew. Vss. 24-26.
It is important to emphasize that Jesus is speaking chiefly to his disciples here. Jesus does not make a virtue of poverty. There is no blessing in starvation. But for all who become impoverished for the sake of following Jesus and living for God’s reign, there are blessings that outweigh the woes of poverty. Similarly, weeping induced by suffering for the sake of Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims will likewise be outshone by the joy of experiencing God’s reign. So too, all who prefer wealth, comfort and security over Jesus’ invitation into the reign of God will someday understand the opportunity they threw away. They will have good reason to weep and hunger for that precious lost chance.
New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias argues forcefully that the Sermon on the Plain/Mount was the body of an early catechism for Christian ethical training. Jeremias, J., The Sermon on the Mount, (c. London, 1961) pp 30-35 cited in Ellis, Earle E., The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary (c. 1974 Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 111. The commands given in the sermon presuppose an understanding of the gospel and merely spell out the shape obedience to that gospel must take. The kingdom’s coming is God’s doing and, as such, an act of sheer grace. The challenge for the children of the kingdom is to live now under that gentle reign. By so doing, they ensure that when the kingdom comes it will be welcomed joyfully as salvation rather than met with fear as judgment. As another commentator puts it:
“The sermon [on the Plain] is a description of the life of the new Israel, which is also life in the kingdom of God. In its fullness the kingdom belongs to the End, when God’s purposes are complete, and so throughout the Beatitudes there runs a contrast between the conditions of the present and the conditions of the future. But the good news which Jesus proclaimed was that the kingdom was already breaking in upon the present, so that men could here and now begin to enter into ultimate blessedness. Thus the Beatitudes were not merely a promise but an invitation.” Caird, G.B. Saint Luke, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. G.B. Caird 1963 pub. Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 102.
The call to love enemies, throw blessings at curses and forswear all resort to violence and coercion form the radical core of discipleship. These words are not meant to apply only to folks with nothing between them but white picket fences. These are not ethics only for church picnics and potluck suppers. The enemies Jesus calls us to love are not simply obnoxious neighbors, rude checkout clerks or inconsiderate drivers. Enemies are people that hate us and would kill us if they could. Jesus’ enemies tortured him to death. He died praying for their forgiveness-just as he teaches us to do here. Never does Jesus act violently, teach violence or condone violence under any circumstance. Over the last several years I have become convinced that non-violence is at the core of the gospel and that Christian support for state sponsored killing (euphemistically called “military action”) and the mainline church’s reluctance to condemn it constitutes a stark betrayal of the gospel. I think it is high time that my own denomination in particular take a serious look at the faithful and courageous Anabaptist witness to peace throughout the ages. It is time to re-evaluate our centuries old adherence to “just war” doctrines.