ALL SAINTS SUNDAY
Psalm 34:1–10, 22
1 John 3:1–3
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.
All Saints Day has a special poignancy for me this year. My wife lost her father in August-who was in many respects a second father to me and to each of my children. Ernst died at the ripe age of eighty-six. Though difficult for all of us who loved him, we could celebrate thankfully the many years we had with him and all that he gave to us. Just a month before we lost our grandson, Parker, who lived all of one day. It was considerably harder to see in that event anything worth celebrating. Yet celebrate we did because the value of a life is measured not in chronological time, but in the quantum of love given and received therein, however long or short it may be. By that measure, Parker has outlived many adults in our world who have known too little love and affection.
In our creeds we confess belief in both the resurrection of the body and the communion of saints. There is an inherent conceptual difficulty here. Neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor the New Testament know anything of an “immortal soul.” According to the Bible, human beings are mortal. When they die, everything dies-body, soul and whatever other part of us there might be. Nothing survives death. If there is life after death, it is only because God graciously raises the dead as he did Jesus. Because God does not give us “half a resurrection” restoring only our souls, we enter confidently into the sleep of death anticipating the Day of Jesus Christ when we will be awakened to life eternal.
But what about the communion of saints? What about that great cloud of witnesses cheering us on spoken of in the Letter to the Hebrews? What about Jesus’ declaration that God is not God of the dead, but that all the saints live to him? What do we mean when we speak of the “saints in light?” Seems to me that we have to hold these two apparently contradictory assertions in tension, namely, our belief in the resurrection of the body at the last day and the communion we share now with the angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. I firmly believe that I will be reunited with Ernst and Parker at the day of resurrection and that I will be able to embrace them and speak to them face to face. Just as firmly I believe that in some way too wonderful to comprehend, I am united with them now in a communion that transcends time and space anchored in Jesus Christ, who both sojourns with us throughout our lives and waits for us at the end of our journey “with just one more surprise.” See Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 732.
That communion has both a horizontal and a vertical dimension. By baptism all believers in Jesus throughout the world are united as One Body, one church. Our loyalty to Christ and his church trumps whatever loyalty we might have to family, race or nation. That is the horizontal dimension. The vertical dimension connects all disciples of Jesus living this side of eternity with the saints in light, those believers who have died. On this day it is important to keep both dimensions in view. The saints that have gone before us offer encouragement, support and examples of faithfulness to follow. The saints currently traveling with us offer us opportunities to practice faithfulness, compassion, forgiveness and generosity, all of which the Holy Spirit uses to shape us into the kind of people capable of living joyfully, faithfully and obediently under God’s gentle rule. Whether they are speaking to us out of the distant past or beckoning to us from God’s future or living in our midst, the saints reflect in ever greater clarity and beauty the face of Jesus Christ.
My experience with The Book Revelation has always been bitter-sweet. Whenever I announce that I will be holding a Bible Study on Revelation, the initial response is enthusiastic. I find, however, that interest soon wanes when it becomes clear that I will not be announcing the end date for civilization as we know it, the identity of the antichrist or who can expect to be raptured as opposed to being “left behind.” The disappointing truth for many folks is that Revelation does not hold the key to predicting the future. It does nevertheless hold many other fascinating and edifying treasures often missed by those intent on using it as a crystal ball. For a good general overview of Revelation, see the Summary Article by Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Our lesson for Sunday is one of several self-contained liturgical interludes between the visions given to John of Patmos from chapters 4 through 22. See also, Revelation 4:9-11; Revelation 5:6-10; Revelation 11:16-18; Revelation 15:2-4; Revelation 16:4-7; Revelation 19:1-8. This hymn of praise, along with the surrounding narrative, was the inspiration for the old Norwegian hymn, “Behold, A Host Arrayed in White.” See Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 425. John of Patmos is given a vision of a “great multitude” too numerous to count. Vs. 9. These words echo the calling of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 in which the patriarch is assured that God will make of him a “great nation.” See Kelly, Balmer H., Revelation 7:9-17, published in 40 Interpretation (July 1986) p. 290. That nation is precisely what John is looking at. It is a nation made up of every country, tribe and people yet its allegiance is to “God who sits upon the throne, and the Lamb.” Vs. 10. The political import of this vision is clear. The people called into existence by God and the Lamb, not the Roman Empire, will reign. God, not Caesar, sits upon the highest throne. All rule and authority belongs not to emperor, but to Jesus Christ, “the Lamb.”
We were first introduced to the Lamb in Revelation 5:1-5. He is the one being in all heaven and earth worthy to open up the scroll through which John must enter into the visions soon to be revealed. Though announced in the court of heaven as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Revelation 5:5), this being appears as a lamb that was slain. Revelation 5:6. This strange juxtaposition, the slain Lamb as the “conqueror” over the vicious predatory beasts to be revealed, is the key to understanding the Book of Revelation. Just as it is the crucified Jesus through whom God’s suffering love overcomes the violent reign of Caesar, so also through the suffering endurance of the seven churches addressed in Revelation 1-3 God’s gracious will for the world is both revealed and actualized. Contrary to appearances, the enduring reality is the life of the fragile, persecuted and demoralized churches-not the Roman Empire.
The great multitude robed in white represents the struggling churches as they truly are: loyal subjects of the triumphant Lamb. They have “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.” Vs. 14. This is not to be understood as substitutionary atonement. This “washing” in blood refers to the churches’ sharing in Jesus’ suffering under the cross of Rome. They have come out of the “great tribulation,” that is, persecution under the reign of Caesar. Vs. 14. The image of white robes might very well be an allusion to baptism as well. The use of white garb for the newly baptized is evidenced very early in the life of the church and might well date from the New Testament era. The thrust of this vision is clear. Things are not as they seem. Presently, it appears as though Rome rules supreme and the churches are powerless victims. Caesar’s violence appears to have the upper hand. In reality, however, the patient, suffering love of God revealed in the slain Lamb is destined to outlast the empire. It is precisely through such suffering love that Caesar meets his defeat.
The song making up verses 15-17 evokes numerous images from the Hebrew Scriptures. Service in the temple of the Lord was seen as the highest possible privilege and delight. See, e.g., Psalm 84. Though reserved for the Levitical priesthood in ancient Israel, this privilege is now given to all the baptized. Language strikingly similar to Psalm 23 and Psalm 121 can be found in verses 16-17, i.e., “the sun shall not strike them,” “For the Lamb on the throne will be their shepherd,” and “he will guide them to springs of living water.” As in so many instances throughout the New Testament, John of Patmos draws from numerous familiar images in the Hebrew Scriptures and weaves them into his poetic portrayal of God’s sojourn with his church under the scourge of imperial oppression and violence.
In sum, “Revelation 7:9-17 is, therefore, unalloyed ‘gospel,’ a seeing and hearing of the final justification of the Christian hope. If it is to be part of the church’s proclamation, then, especially in Eastertide, it ought to be proclaimed without ‘if’ and ‘perhaps.’ Similarly, it will not do merely to hold out before persons tempted to despair only a future prospect, coupled with the advice to live out the times in between in chronological waiting. The strength of biblical hope is that it focuses on what is real rather than simply on what will be. Triumph will be because it is the fundamental truth of human life corresponding to the truth of God. Although apocalyptic enthusiasts have frequently reduced the images of Revelation to a time-conditioned calendar, the author surely meant to give the church a vision of God’s victorious vindication always ready to break upon the human scene, so that in the Apocalypse, perhaps more strongly than anywhere else, it is a case of the future determining and creating the present.” Balmer, supra at 294.
This is a song of thanksgiving for deliverance from unspecified distress. It is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. Its form suggests that the psalm is more likely a mature reflection upon events in the past than a spontaneous expression of praise for something that just occurred. It is quite possible, though, that I take this view because most of the saving acts of God I have experienced appear only in the rear view mirror. That is to say, looking back on my life I can recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing me to the place where I stand today. But I am not one of those persons who experience the guidance of the Spirit in the present tense. I have seldom made choices in my life that I felt certain were inspired, willed or directed by God. Instead, I have stumbled blindly along through the darkness only to discover much later that Jesus has been with me in the darkness and has somehow gotten me to where I needed to be. And this despite my having taken the wrong course, made the wrong decisions and pursued the wrong dreams.
The psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Vs. 8. This offer to “taste” makes clear that faith is neither an intellectual exercise nor an emotional attachment. Faith takes the shape of “eating” and sustaining oneself on the promises of the Lord. “[T]hose who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” Vs. 10. It is life lived out of a relationship of trust and confidence in the Lord to provide all things necessary.
From verse 10 the lectionary takes a flying leap to verse 22 which reads: “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.” This is not to be taken as immunization against condemnation by any human court. We know well enough that the innocent frequently are condemned by unjust and oppressive structures. Even in relatively just societies justice sometimes miscarries. But the judgments of all human authorities are relative and subject to reversal in God’s court of appeal. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate reversal of human judgment. It is precisely because God raised Jesus, who lived according to the humanly impractical directives of the Sermon on the Mount, that believers can so live, endure the world’s rejection, ridicule and persecution but anticipate vindication on the Day of Jesus Christ.
Professor Stanley Hauerwas is fond of saying that the life of discipleship is unintelligible apart from the conviction that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from death. That is why the world, which does not know or believe in what God did through Jesus, finds disciples of Jesus so utterly incomprehensible-or at least it should. This is what separates Christian ethical conduct from every other ethical point of reference. It is precisely because disciples of Jesus are convinced that the Sermon on the Mount embodies the kingdom destined to come as it must exist in a sinful world that they conform their lives to it even when doing so seems ineffective, impractical and counter-productive. The Sermon is not an unachievable ideal. It was, in fact, achieved and lived out by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ faithfulness to the Sermon he preached resulted in his crucifixion. That, standing alone, would validate what every “realist” tells us. The Sermon is impractical. If Jesus had remained in the tomb, we would have to concede that the cross proves the realist’s point. But God raised Jesus and that changes everything. To every objection of impracticality one might raise against following Jesus’ call to love our enemies, renounce the use of coercive force and lend without expecting repayment, the only proper response is, “but God raised Jesus from death.”
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him…” vs. 2. This is perhaps one of the most important words on the resurrection and eternal life. Far too common is the belief that eternal life is nothing more than a continuation of our present existence-only without sickness, poverty, warfare, Barry Manilow and whatever else makes life miserable. A friend of mine once told me that “death is not real,” that it is no more than “passing through a door.” But if I am the same person on the other side of that door as I am today, nothing has changed. If I carry with me into eternity the same prejudices, the same grudges, the same scars and the same selfish ambitions that characterize my present existence, eternal life will be nothing more than a continuation of all the animosity and strife we now experience-except that there will be no end to it. That sounds very much like Jean Paul Sartre’s portrayal of hell in No Exit.
Death is not only real, but necessary. That is precisely why Paul speaks of baptism as being joined in Jesus’ death. Romans 6:1-4. We need to become the sort of people who can live faithfully, joyfully and obediently under the gentle reign of God in Jesus Christ. That requires repentance which is a sort of death. Repentance, it must be emphasized, is not an individual act. It is rather a way of living in community shaped by the faithful practices of preaching and hearing, Eucharist, prayer, sharing of resources, almsgiving and witness.
The problem with the Beatitudes is the same as the problem we have with the well known lullaby, “Rock a by Baby.” The words are so familiar that their shock value no longer registers. Seriously, does anyone really think it’s a good idea to sing an infant to sleep with a song ending in the fall of a baby from the top of a tree? So, too, is there anything inherently blessed about poverty, mourning and persecution? Yet unlike “Rock a by Baby,” which in my view has no redeeming value, the Beatitudes make sense, but only when read against the backdrop of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection.
Moreover, when properly understood as the preamble to the Sermon on the Mount, it becomes obvious that the conditions of beatitude are not metaphorical. Poverty, real poverty, is what can be expected when you lend without expecting return, refuse to re-take what has been stolen from you and forego coercive measures to enforce your “rights.” I therefore agree whole heartedly with Dietrich Bonhoeffer in rejecting the all too common belief that Matthew’s beatitudes represent a watering down of Luke’s briefer version in the Sermon on the Plain. “There is no justification whatever for setting Luke’s version of the beatitudes over against Matthew’s. Matthew is not spiritualizing the beatitudes, and Luke giving them in their original form, nor is Luke giving a political twist to an original form of the beatitude which applied only to a poverty of disposition. Privation is not the ground of the beatitude in Luke nor renunciation in Matthew. On the contrary, both gospels recognize that neither privation nor renunciation, spiritual or political, is justified, except by the call and promise of Jesus, who alone makes blessed those whom he calls, and who is in his person the sole ground of their beatitude.” Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, (c. 1959 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 119.
It is important to recall that it is not suffering in general, but the suffering consequential to faithful discipleship that Jesus calls blessed. As pointed out in a frequently quoted passage from the works of John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling [Jesus’] society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129. Faithfulness to Jesus divides families, invites hostility from the surrounding culture and often requires the sacrifice of life itself. Though they do not frequently make the cut for what the mainstream media considers “news,” there are plenty of instances throughout the world of Christians experiencing poverty, mourning and persecution for their obedience to Jesus. That we do not typically experience these things in the United States is perhaps more an indicator of the church’s lack of discipleship in these parts than the “religious freedom” in which we take such pride.
So what is the “All Saints Day” spin on this text? For some reason, that question calls to mind a novel I read in my twenties entitled Morte d’Urban. It was written by J.F. Powers. The main character is Father Urban, a priest and member of the fictitious Clementine monastic order. Urban is personable, a skilled organizer and a charismatic speaker. His leadership skills are much needed to shore up his failing Clementine order, but the order is run by unskilled, incompetent and less forward looking men who consistently assign Father Urban to positions where his gifts are wasted. Yet wherever he goes, Father Urban uses every opportunity to further the interests and growth of the Clementines.
Over time, however, Urban begins harkening to a different voice calling him to integrity, self-awareness and compassion. The more Father Urban grows into this new self, the less successful he becomes in his role as a promoter of the Clementines. He eventually alienates the powerful and wealthy benefactors he spent so much time and effort cultivating. Ironically, it is at the point of his lowest level of competence (and the height of his spiritual development) that he is appointed leader of the failing Clementine order. His leadership proves to be as ineffective as that of his predecessors-but effectiveness is perhaps overrated.
Is Morte d’Urban a cautionary tale, a parable for a failing protestant establishment desperate to save its institutional life? When survival is at stake, both institutions and individuals are sorely tempted to put spiritual priorities to one side. The bottom line becomes the only line anyone looks at. When new money comes in the door, one tends not to look very carefully at where it came from or how it was made. If somebody within the institution is successful at bringing in membership, building up support and attracting wealthy donors, one does not scrutinize the methodology. As long as nothing blatantly illegal is going on, let the golden goose keep laying! What the heck, it works. None of us likes to think we are that mercenary. But when an institution feeds you, clothes you and provides your medical coverage, it is hard to resist grasping at anything that will extend its life.
What does saintliness look like in our context? What are the qualities we seek in our leaders? Are we valuing effectiveness over faithfulness? Or is this a false dichotomy? Do we need to ask “effective in doing what?” What is a faithful church supposed to look like in 21st Century North America? Are poverty, mourning and persecution marks of such a church? How are we measuring the success of our bishops, pastors and leaders? Is “success” even an appropriate category for such measurement? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it troubles me that so few in our church are asking them.