Date: All Saints Sunday – November 1, 2015
Texts: Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 149; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
Context: All Saints Day has been honored since roughly the fourth century as a day of remembrance for all those who have died for their faith. It grows out of the earlier tradition of the Church to honor individual martyrs on the specific dates of their death. However at the beginning of the 4th century under the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian, there were so many Christians martyred that it became unfeasible to commemorate them all specifically. It is in the early 8th century that Pope Gregory III indicated a day of observance for not just martyrs and saints but all those who have died in the faith. In many congregations (such as ours) it is traditional to read off a list of all those who have died in the past year, as well as a time to remember those special to us who precede us in the faith.
Revelation 7:9-17 – I like to refer to this as the Family Portrait. St. John is given a glimpse of all those in faith in Christ, all those who will be gathered around the throne in praise of their Creator God the Father, their Redeemer God the Son, and their Sanctifier God the Holy Spirit. And unlike many family portraits here on earth, this one is complete. No one is missing or forgotten. Which means somewhere in that portrait might be St. John himself (how’s that for confusing?!). You and I as well, through faith in Jesus Christ, are glimpsed by St. John and captured here, thousands of years before our birth, in the Family Portrait of God. It is the assurance that while the world may discard us, while people may wander and die in the throes of addiction, or disappear in the violence of drug cartels and dictators, nobody is forgotten by God. We hold to our faith not as protection from the evils of the world, but in the promise that regardless of what those evils may do to us, God has the final word, and it is a word of hope and promise and joy.
Psalm 149 – The call to sing a new song to the Lord may sound simple, but for people who like habit and routine and tradition, a new song can be a daunting (or even inappropriate!) thing. Yet the truth remains is that this is what we look forward to – gathering around the throne of God as his redeemed and adopted children. From all over the world and throughout human history what a gathering that will be! It is only reasonable that we will be learning new songs as we join in the songs of those who lived long before (or long after) us, or who speak different languages or grew up with different instruments and rhythms. We look forward to that eternal harmony, wherein new songs will be a sharing of our beloved favorites and our learning of the beloved favorites of others.
The other half of the song acknowledges that while God’s people will be celebrating, this end of times we look forward to means defeat for those who refuse God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Those who railed against God and sought their own glory and domination will find themselves defeated utterly and completely at last. All wrongs will be made right, and those who steadfastly refused to repent of their sins and accept the amnesty of God will receive their due punishment – banishment from the glory and joy of God and his people forever.
1 John 3:1-3 – We can celebrate with those who have died in the faith, knowing that they live to celebrate with us. We raise our songs of praise to God together – separated by the veil of death but no less alive. We have this confidence not because we have earned it or deserve it but solely through the good grace and mercy of God the Father, who lavishes love on his rebellious creatures and offers them forgiveness and amnesty forever. This is truly our identity, one that is easy for us to lose sight of because of our awareness of our continuing sin, and one that the world is likely not to see in us because it does not correspond to earthly standards of glory.
We know what we are, even though we cannot perceive how it will be when that identity is fully revealed, untarnished by our own sin and the sin of creation around us. Our hope is that just as our Lord was raised bodily from the dead, so too shall we, and this hope and promise leads us each day to commit ourselves to God’s love and seek to live more and more today the way we will one day live effortlessly in eternity.
Matthew 5:1-12 – This is perhaps the best known of Jesus’ teachings, full of sayings that contradict the way we tend to think about things. We tend to think that those who are highly spiritual and happy and confident, those who are blessed to live in comfort and peace are those whom the gods have favored, their temporal blessings a sign of greater, more lasting blessings. Yet Jesus insists that appearances are not everything, and many that the world views as cursed or unfortunate will be seen – in God’s timing – to be the blessed ones.
Likewise, those who are often pushed aside by the more aggressive and confident in the world, – the nice guys who finish last – they have much to look forward to as well. One day it will be seen that mercy is not a foolish indulgence, that purity is not something to be mocked, that seeking peace is not a sign of weakness, and that those who are persecuted – even unto death – are never forgotten by their God.
Finally, persecution for following Christ is a sign of faithfulness. It is not a sign of dishonor, but rather a badge of honor. It is not something that should take us by surprise but something we should expect because we have an enemy who, though defeated, is still very much at work in this world, lashing out against the children of God because he cannot strike at God himself. As such, our response to persecution for our faith is to rejoice. Not for the sake of our suffering, but for the surety of our victory over it and through it. The ranks of persecuted Christians in the world continues to grow every day, and it is an honor to be numbered among them. This is not a call to seek out suffering and persecution, but simply the assurance that if and when it comes, we should be ready to praise God rather than curse him for abandoning us.
This is very much a big picture sort of teaching. As such, followers of Christ will find that they do not appreciate these characteristics very much in the here and now. Those who suffer, who endure loss, who renounce worldly expectations of vengeance – their road is not easy or enviable. It is natural for Christians to seek to avoid these conditions. But we should not be surprised when we find ourselves in them. As such, this passage also calls us to stand with our brothers and sisters who suffer, to seek to bear their burdens with them, and to witness to them the faithfulness of God the Father and the lavishness of his love, even though they may be called to suffer and die in this moment.
This passage would be a good one for the Western Church to remember as its influence and numbers wane. We should not experience this in bitterness or in lashing out against those who turn against us. Rather, we must keep our eyes fixed on our heavenly Father, on the promises He has made to us, and on the way his Son taught us, when need be, to suffer and die, trusting not in the transient comforts of the world or youth or the other idols set before us, but in the lavishness of God which will be shown to outshine all of these things eternally.