All Saints Sunday
Texts: Matthew 5:1-12;
Rev. 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3
SAINTHOOD AS LIVING INTO A NEW IDENTITY1
This morning’s Gospel Reading, often called the Beatitudes, is one of the Bible’s best known passages. So you may have noticed that I changed a few words. This is partly because I do feel that the best-known translations can be improved in terms of being able to better hear what Jesus might have originally meant with the words he used. In the Sermon Notes handout, I list the place on my website where you can read more about the translation.
Let me give you a quick example using the first Beatitude, “poor in spirit.” Sometimes, when we are wealthy, we can kind of turn the word “poor” into an adjective modifying “in spirit.” It’s no longer the noun “poor,” meaning people who live in poverty. “Poor” as an adjective can let us off the hook a bit if we are wealthy — which by the wide-world’s standard, most or all of us here are wealthy. Then Jesus can be talking to us, too, when our spirits are somehow diminished or “poor.” But I don’t think that does justice to the rest of Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus is bringing Good News to the poor by bringing into the world a way of love and compassion in which the poor are cared for. I promise more on that in the next several weeks as we move to the climax of that incredible parable of the Sheep and Goats.
But there is a more important reason for changing a few words in this familiar passage. Sometimes, when we hear the same words of a Bible passage over and over, the passage loses it’s ability to have a fresh impact. We hear it in the same way we’ve always heard it — a way that makes sense to us. But I believe that the most important thing about Jesus’s words in the Beatitudes are precisely that they are not supposed to make sense to us. They are supposed to jolt us into another way to experience the world.
In the Sermon Notes page I have Brian McLaren’s way of putting the rules of the game that most every culture teaches us — certainly ours:
Do everything you can to be rich and powerful.
Toughen up and harden yourself against all feelings of loss.
Measure your success by how much of the time you are thinking only of yourself and your own happiness.
Be independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order.
Strike back quickly when others strike you, and guard your image so you’ll always be popular.
In Jesus’ inaugural address, this Sermon on the Mount, he has been speaking for only a matter of seconds, and he has already turned our normal status ladders and social pyramids upside down. He advocates an identity characterized by solidarity, sensitivity, and nonviolence. He celebrates those who long for justice, embody compassion, and manifest integrity and honesty. He creates a new kind of hero: not warriors, corporate executives, sports heroes, or politicians, but brave and determined activists for preemptive peace, willing to suffer with him in the prophetic tradition of justice. Our choice is clear from the start: If we want to be his disciples, we won’t be able to simply coast along and conform to the norms of our society. We must choose a different definition of well-being, a different model of success, a new identity with a new set of values.
Jesus promises we will pay a price for making that choice. But he also promises we will discover many priceless rewards. If we seek the kind of unconventional blessedness he proposes, we will experience the true aliveness of God’s kingdom, the warmth of God’s comfort, the enjoyment of the gift of this Earth, the satisfaction at seeing God’s restorative justice come more fully, the joy of receiving mercy, the direct experience of God’s presence, the honor of association with God and of being in league with the prophets of old. That is the identity he invites us to seek.
That identity will give us a very important role in the world. As creative nonconformists, we will be difference makers, aliveness activists, catalysts for change. The next several verses that we didn’t read this morning uses the images of salt and light as our calling to be difference makers. Like salt that brings out the best flavors in food, we will bring out the best in our community and society. Also like salt, we will have a preservative function — opposing corruption and decay. Like light that penetrates and eradicates darkness, we will radiate health, goodness, and well-being to warm and enlighten those around us. Today we give those for those who have gone before us, shining their lights, and lighting candles in their memories. These lights are also reminders to us that simply by being who we are — living boldly and freely in this new identity as salt and light — we will make a difference, as long as we don’t lose our “saltiness” or try to hide our light.
We’ll be tempted, no doubt, to let ourselves be tamed, toned down, shut up, and glossed over. But Jesus means for us to stand apart from the status quo, to stand up for what matters, and to stand out as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. He means for our lives to overcome the blandness and darkness of evil with the salt and light of good works. Instead of drawing attention to ourselves, those good works will point toward God. “Wow,” people will say, “when I see the goodness and kindness of your lives, I can believe there’s a good and kind God out there too.”
The way Jesus phrases these memorable lines tells us something important about him. Like all great leaders, he isn’t preoccupied with himself. He puts others — us — in the spotlight when he says, “You are the salt of the Earth. You are the light of the world.” Yes, there’s a place and time for him to declare who he is, but he begins by declaring who we are.
The folks who stood in the hot Galilean sunshine and heard Jesus’ words for the first time could no doubt tell something profound and life-changing was happening within them and among them. Jesus is not simply trying to restore their religion to some ideal state in the past. Nor is he agitating unrest to start a new religion to compete with the old one. No, it’s abundantly clear that he’s here to start something bigger, deeper, and more subversive: a global uprising that can spread to and through every religion and culture. This uprising begins not with a new strategy or new religion but with a new identity. So he spurs his hearers into reflection about who they are, who they want to be, what kind of people they will become, what they want to make of their lives.
As we consider Jesus’ message today, we join those people on that hillside, grappling with the question of who we are now and who we want to become in the future. And can we celebrate the call as God’s saints to make a difference in the world? Some of us saints are young, with our whole lives ahead of us. Some of us are further along, with a lot of hopes left and not a lot of time to fulfill them. As we listen to Jesus, each of us knows, deep inside: If I accept this new identity, everything will change for me. Everything will change.
Will we bring that changed person to the polls with us this week. Will we open ourselves to God’s transformation into saints, as we go forward as citizens and neighbors, wives and husbands, parents and children, students and co-workers? Thank God that in baptism God has made a Pact with us, to pour out the spirit of Jesus on us so that we may have what we need to make a difference. Thank God that we come here to gather each week to hear that Pact renewed in the sharing of wine and bread — a Pact renewed in the commitment to one another to encourage each other to make a difference. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Prince of Peace Lutheran, Portage, MI
November 1, 2014
1. This sermon is largely an edited version of chapter 27, “A New Identity,” in Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), pages 127-130.