All Saints Sunday
Texts: Matthew 5:1-12;
Rev. 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3
SUMMONING THE SAINTS TO LIVE THE COMING FUTURE IN THE PRESENT
I think that my favorite All Saints Day image from the Bible is that in our first lesson today. All those saints who have gone through the ordeal of a sinful world, where so many are still marginalized and left out, those saints from every nation, from every time and place, are gathered around the throne of God, and God himself wipes away their tears. No more hunger; no more thirst. The springs of the water of life will be available to all.
We come to All Saints Sunday to hear that Word of comfort that our God who spans all time and places is able to be with us here today to bind up our wounds of grief and loss and suffering. And because God spans all times and places and is a God of life, all our loved ones who have gone before us are somehow held in God’s power of life. So through the gift of Holy Communion once again this morning we are joined with our loved ones as God embraces us all in one holy hug and wipes away the tears from our eyes.
Another aspect of this text from Revelation that I’ve grown to appreciate more in recent years. Is that its ending helps us look ahead into the promise of a future new creation when God’s loving power of life brings this good creation to fulfillment, banishing all the powers of darkness that cause us to weep in the present. The promise is that Gods power of life not only holds us all in the present, including those loved ones who have gone before us, but that someday heaven will come to earth and complete the work of God’s good creation. It will be like a new heaven and a new earth, as God’s heavenly power of life which holds us all in the present comes fully to earth making all things new. So, for me in recent years, the measure of comfort which our Christian hope gives us has gotten even bigger. Instead of just the image of going to be with God someday when I die, and of being able to think about my departed loved ones there even now, there is this even greater promise of heaven coming to earth someday — like we pray for all the time in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.” In short, there is also the promise of resurrection, of which our Lord’s resurrection is but the first-fruit.
Let’s pause for a few moments to see this promise in our Gospel Lesson this morning, too. Jesus promises some crazy, upside-down events. It’s those marginalized, left-out folks dressed in the white robes of Revelation 7 who are blessed — those who are poor in spirit, mourning, meek, merciful, pure in heart, etc. Jesus is not suggesting that these are simply timeless truths about the way the world is, about human behavior. If he was saying that, he was wrong. Mourners often go uncomforted, the meek don’t inherit the earth, those who long for justice frequently take that longing to the grave. Rather, Jesus is proclaiming an upside-down world, or perhaps from his perspective, from God’s perspective, a right-way-up world; and Jesus is saying that with his work it’s starting to come true. This is an announcement, not a philosophical analysis of the world. It’s about something that’s starting to happen, not about a general truth of life. It is gospel: good news, not good advice.
Follow me, Jesus said to the first disciples; because in him the living God was doing a new thing, and this list of blessings, of ‘wonderful news,’ is part of his invitation, part of his summons, part of his way of saying that God is at work in a fresh way and that this is what it looks like. Jesus is beginning a new era for God’s people and God’s world. From here on, all the controls people thought they knew about are going to work the other way round. In our world, still, most people think that wonderful news consists of success, wealth, long life, victory in battle. Jesus is offering wonderful news for the humble, the poor, the mourners, the peacemakers.
The word for often translated ‘blessed’ means ‘Wonderful news!’ more like an announcement, and part of the point is that this is God’s wonderful news. God is acting in and through Jesus to turn the world upside down, to turn Israel upside down, to pour out lavish ‘blessings’ on all who now turn to him and accept the new thing that he is doing. But the point is not to offer a list of what sort of people God normally blesses. The point is to announce God’s new covenant.
So when do these promises come true? There is a great temptation for Christians to answer: in heaven, after death. At first sight, verses 3, 10 and 11 seem to say this: ‘the kingdom of heaven’ belongs to the poor in spirit and the persecuted, and there’s a great reward ‘in heaven’ for those who suffer persecution for Jesus’ sake. This, though, is a misunderstanding of the meaning of ‘heaven.’ Heaven is God’s space, where full reality exists, close by our ordinary (‘earthly’) reality and interlocking with it. One day heaven and earth will be joined together for ever, and the true state of affairs, at present out of sight, will be unveiled. After all, verse 5 says that the meek will inherit the earth, and that can hardly happen in a disembodied heaven after death.
No: the clue comes in the next chapter, in the prayer Jesus taught his followers. We are to pray that God’s kingdom will come, and God’s will be done, ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ The life of heaven – the life of the realm where God is already king – is to become the life of the world, transforming the present ‘earth’ into the place of beauty and delight that God always intended. And those who follow Jesus are to begin to live by this rule here and now. That’s the point of the Sermon on the Mount, and these ‘beatitudes’ in particular. They are a summons to live in the present in the way that will make sense in God’s promised future; because that future has arrived in the present in Jesus of Nazareth. It may seem upside down, but we are called to believe, with great daring, that it is in fact the right way up.
So how do we do that? How do we begin to live in God’s right-way-up new creation which appears upside-down to the deathly powers of this present world. It’s not easy. At the risk of complicating things even more, I’d like for us to think about the other big event this coming week, Election 2008. Four years ago, the news was that, in the aftermath of the election, commentators said the big difference was Christians voting their values. But that perception also raised the question of exactly what do we mean when we say something like “Christian values”? Aren’t the Beatitudes this morning, in fact, Jesus laying out for us God’s vision of the valued, those people God most values who are undervalued in this world?
I recently read an article in Time magazine about Rick Warren. During the 2004 presidential election, Rick Warren (author of The Purpose-Driven Life) seemed to toy with using his new influence to become the next Jerry Falwell or James Dobson. Although he did not officially endorse George W. Bush, the mega-author made no secret of his preference. Two weeks before the election, he sent an e-mail to the several hundred thousand pastors on his mailing list, enumerating “non-negotiable” issues for Christians to consider when casting their votes: abortion, stem-cell research, gay marriage, euthanasia and human cloning. Shortly after the election, two attendees of a Washington meeting of conservative religious and political heavyweights remember Warren’s actively soliciting advice on how he might increase his clout with GOP politicians.
But upon exploring the role, Warren grew uncomfortable with it. . . . “None of my values have changed from four years ago, but my agenda has definitely expanded.” Warren had an epiphany in 2003. His wife Kay had dedicated herself to the fight against HIV/AIDS, a brave move in a community where it was still often stigmatized. In Africa with her nine months later, he says, he heard a message from above. “God said, ‘You don’t care squat about the sick and the poor. And you need to change; you need to repent.’” He became fond of repeating that the Bible has 2,000 verses dedicated to the poor and that the Gospel of Matthew contains not only the Great Commission, in which Christ bids his disciples to spread his word, but also the great commandment, in which he tells the Pharisees to love thy neighbor as thyself.
We might add that Matthew’s Gospel makes things very clear with the beginning and end of Jesus’ teaching. . . . Beatitudes and Matthew 25 (“I was hungry and you gave me to eat”), which frame this month of November for us.
So let us take comfort today not only from a God who is fully in the present with us wiping away our tears, but who also calls us to live into God’s right-way-up values that are upside-down to this world, that we may be those who are found with the least of Jesus brothers and sisters, wiping away their tears, as if God himself were there to do it. Because God is here to do it for us once again this morning. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Prince of Peace Lutheran, Portage, MI
November 2, 2008