All Saints Sunday
Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17
1 John 3:1-3
For Yahweh takes pleasure in his people. He crowns the humble with salvation.
What is a saint?
From the Concise Encyclopedia: “[A saint is a] Holy person. In the New Testament, St. Paul used the term to mean a member of the Christian community, but the term more commonly refers to those noted for their holiness and venerated during their lifetimes or after death. In Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, saints are publicly recognized by the church and are considered intercessors with God for the living. They are honored on special feast days, and their remains and personal effects are venerated as relics. Often Christian saints perform miracles in their lifetime, or miracles occur in their names after their death. In Islam, wali (“friend of God”) is often translated as saint; in Buddhism, arhats and bodhisattvas are roughly equivalent to saints. Hindu sadhus are somewhat similar.”
Ask any person on the street, and their definition of a saint is likely to include death; sainthood is considered after a person has died. While the definition does include the idea that the saints are those who were extraordinarily faithful or pious during their lives, most Christians understand that this did not make them perfect. We know that a saint is not really someone who has an exceptional degree of holiness or virtue, but even amongst Christians sainthood is generally recognized after a person has died and gone to heaven.
This week we will celebrate the Hallowmas season. This is the Triduum (three days) of All Hallows Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Soul’s Day, October 31 to November 2. The holiday has roots that go back into the days of the Celtic Druids. It was called Samhain. It marked the end of summer and the beginning of the dark days of winter. They believed that on that day the dead returned to the earth. Not only were the spirits given credit for mischief that happened, it was believed that the priests were best able to predict the future when they were nearby. They had bonfires and wore costumes.
When the Romans populated Celtic lands they joined their own fall holidays with Samhain. Feralia commemorated the dead and there was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. By the ninth century, Christianity was the dominant religion in the areas where the Celtic people lived. Pope Boniface IV decided to name November 1 All Saints’ Day to transform the pagan traditions into a church-sanctioned holiday. The evening before All Saints’ Day was called All Hallows Eve, and the people continued to celebrate with bonfires, parades and costumes. Eventually, November 2nd was called All Soul’s Day, and the three day celebration was called Hallowmas.
The Christian Church traditionally observed All Hallows Eve with a vigil for worshippers to prepare themselves with prayers and fasting prior to the feast of All Saints Day. Halloween is now a day when the kids wander the streets at night dressed up as all sorts of characters begging for candy from the neighbors. Over the years I’ve had numerous positions about Halloween from loving the Trick-or-treating to hiding to vocally denouncing the holiday because of its focus on darkness and greed. Samhain may have been a day of darkness and death, but it has become a night of living. Everyone has a fun time parties, parades and Trick-or-Treating. Though many of the costumes are dark and wicked, death is not really the focus. Though some have graveyards and skeletons, they are most often fun and humorous. Some of my neighbors have decorated their houses as brightly as they might decorate for Christmas. The streets are glowing with orange and purple lights. Halloween and the rest of Hallowmas seem to be completely unrelated these days.
All Saints’ Day honors the Church Triumphant especially the blessed who have not been canonized that have no special feast day. All Souls’ Day focuses on honoring all faithful Christians who are unknown in the wider fellowship of the church, especially family members and friends. We usually celebrate Hallowmas on All Saints Sunday, which is a time for us to remember the great cloud of witnesses that have lived and gone before us, those who have had an impact on our lives, who have shared God’s word with us in so many ways. Most churches will hold a special remembrance to celebrate those who have died in the previous year. The mood tends to be sad and teary as we join together to mourn the loss of our loved ones.
Though we mourn, we are also called to rejoice. There is pain in the death of those we love because they will no longer be with us. But there is also joy because we know that they are now among the multitude praising God forever. On this day we join with the psalmist signing songs of praise and thanksgiving, knowing that we too will join them one day. “Praise Yahweh! Sing to Yahweh a new song, his praise in the assembly of the saints.”
The Gospel lesson for this festival Sunday is the Beatitudes. A few years ago I attended an All Saints Sunday at the cathedral in Bury St. Edmunds, England. Bishop Clive preached on this text. Throughout the sermon the Bishop kept saying, “Consider yourself blessed.” It is hard to think in those terms when the blessedness is given to people who are being persecuted and are suffering. Bishop Clive explained, “In the beatitudes, Jesus was making saints out of ordinary people.” All those in Christ are saints, called, gifted and sent to be His witnesses in the world. The saints are those who trust in God no matter their circumstances.
It is interesting to look at the stories of the Saints, those whose lives serve as an example of how to boldly live the Christian life in this world, beginning with the disciples. Many of those who have been canonized by the Church died for their faith, they were martyred for being a Christian, and they deserve to be remembered. The stories of the Saints are filled with horrific tales of beatings, torture, and murder. Many were burned to death or beheaded. They were thrown in prison and forgotten. They were ripped from the people they loved and forced to serve as slaves. Through it all they never wavered in their faith. They accepted the pain and suffering, and even sang God’s praises while their world fell apart. They were witnesses, even unto death, of the Gospel and God’s grace.
Those whom we remember this Sunday as having passed from life into death have dealt with their own suffering and sacrifices. They have learned to live as children of God from those experiences, and they have passed those lessons on to us. They should be remembered for the impact they had on the world.
We are called to have an impact, too. The Beatitudes are given to us to help us to become the disciples that God intends us to be. Martin Luther wrote in his commentary on the Beatitudes, “These eight beatitudes are nothing else than a teaching about the fruits and good works of a Christian, which must be preceded by faith, as the tree and main body or sum of his righteousness and blessedness, without any work or merit, out of which these beatitudes must all grow and follow.”
John Stott wrote, “These characteristics do not describe eight separate and distinct groups of disciples. There are not some who are meek, while others are merciful, yet others called upon to endure persecution. These are eight qualities of the same group who at one and the same time are meek and merciful, poor in spirit and pure in heart, mourning and hungry, peacemakers and persecuted. They are the characteristics of the common, everyday Christians.” The Beatitudes emphasize who we are rather than what we do. They are not a statement of social or sociological judgment about the poor and hungry, and though we are to take care of those in need, the Beatitudes are the beautiful attitudes of the people who are obedient to God’s Word, humble before God and merciful to neighbor.
“Blessed” is sometimes translated “happy.” Happiness is subjective feeling, but in this text Jesus is making an objective judgment about those who follow Him. The word “to bless” means “to speak well of.” These blessings are what God thinks of Jesus’ disciples and what they are: blessed (fortunate, “it will be well with them.”) The saints include all those in Christ in every time and every place, including us. The saints are those who have been blessed by God’s grace and who lived, do live or will live in the faith that is a gift from God. That blessedness is not accompanied by some sort of giddy happiness or a life of prosperity. Jesus calls those whose lives are ravaged by the world as “blessed.”
The book of Revelation has been widely interpreted, and misinterpreted, since John wrote it nearly two thousand years ago. Read a dozen commentaries and you’ll find a dozen different explanations for the symbolism of the images and the numbers. Today’s passage includes one of the most puzzling accounts of all. The number 144,000 has been described by some as a literal number, yet if we take that as true, even those who believe it can’t account for the many others who have been sealed by God’s grace.
Chapter Six ended with the question, “Who can stand?” Many people want Revelation to be a timeline so that each verse follows the next in time as we know it. Yet if you read the text, you’ll find that it spirals, restating similar thoughts, ideas and events in different ways. The seven seals represent seven images rather than seven time periods. In verse 3 an angel says, “do not harm anything until God’s servants have been sealed.” Yet, in the opening of the sixth seal we saw plenty of destruction. We expect the next scene to be a dramatic moment as the seventh seal is opened, but the story is interrupted. This gives us a moment to stop and consider more deeply what it happening.
The destruction is paused so that God has a chance to seal His property.An angel enters with the seal of the living God. He places this seal on his followers, identifying them as his own and guaranteeing his protection over their souls. This is how valuable we are to him. Our physical bodies may be beaten, maimed, or even destroyed, but NOTHING can harm our souls when we have been sealed by God. Those sealed are moving toward God’s future. They are sealed by the lamb.
John heard that 144,000 were sealed. This number is interpreted many ways, but should not be considered a literal number. The number 12 is a symbol of faith, the church and divine rule. It is a number of completion. One thousand is the largest number known to those in John’s day. The 12 tribes recall the Old Testament promise that God will preserve Israel. If 144,000 is interpreted as the Church it includes Israel because they, too, will be saved. Then John saw a great multitude. This is a different perspective of the previous scene; the 144,000 and the multitude are the same. This multitude is from every nation and tribe and people and language. It is a number no one can count. These saints of the Old Testament and the New Covenant are clothed in white carrying palm branches which are symbols of baptism and victory. The Lamb is honored as God.
The number 144,000 represents the full measure of those whom God has saved and who stand ready for eternity to praise God. Instead of limiting eternal life to a few, God receives all who believe. He makes children out of all those who wash their robes in the blood of Christ. That is an awkward image for us. Anyone who has had to wash a garment that has been stained by blood knows that it is impossible to make it clean. How can blood make a robe white as snow? And yet, in faith our robes are made white by Christ’s blood.
These are the saints, but the text does not just refer to those who have died and gone to heaven. The apocalyptic text gives us a picture of what life will be when everything has been fulfilled. That multitude represents all those who have believed in Jesus throughout time and space. We stand somewhere in that multitude. We are part of those who have washed our robes in Christ’s blood and who will spend eternity worshipping God. We are the children of God. We are the saints. This scene gives us the comfort of knowing that when persecution comes, God’s faithful will already be sealed. Thanks to God’s grace we are blessed with this future, but that doesn’t mean that our present will be without pain. We will suffer. We will get sick. And yes, we will die.
In the scene from Revelation we are assured that God is faithful. He is worthy of our praise and we are called join with all the heavenly host in worship even today while we still wait to join the multitude.
“Amen! Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might, be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” This sevenfold blessing is a doxology, praising God in every way. It begins with the word “Amen,” which we usually use to end a prayer, but here it calls us to listen. John uses the word “amen” often throughout his writings, particularly in his Gospel to indicate that Jesus is about to say something very important. “Amen, amen lego humin” is Greek for “Truly, truly, I say to you.” When John writes that Jesus said “Amen, amen” we should listen. So, too, both the “amens” in this passage call us to hear the words of the angels that define God’s character and establish the reason for our praise. We praise God because His is the blessing, His is the glory, His is the wisdom, and He deserves the thanksgiving because His is the honor, His is the power and His is the might.
The Christian message is viewed as foolishness in today’s world. We are called to submit to God, and yet the world claims there is no God. We are called to love our neighbor, and yet the world says that we should love our selves. The Gospel tells us that God in flesh died so that we might have life. What foolishness! Yet, God is wiser and more powerful than anything we can imagine, and we know that He loved His children so much that He did everything necessary to reconcile us to Him. He shed the blood of His own Son so we could wear gleaming white robes of righteousness.
The world reads today’s Gospel lesson and laughs at the foolishness. The beatitudes are eight beautiful attitudes that are lived by those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel is organized to establish Jesus as the foundation, as the One who accomplished the will and purpose of God in this world. His life was parallel to the people of Israel, but where Israel failed to keep the faith, Jesus did so and in doing so, Jesus made it possible for the rest of us to do so, too.
John writes, “See how great a love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God! For this cause the world doesn’t know us, because it didn’t know him.” We are the saints, the children of God. It is the love of God that gives us this grand and glorious title; by His mercy we are adopted into His family and we will inherit His kingdom one day, just as those faithful ones we have loved and lost have already received their inheritance. We live in the hope of faith that one day we will join them to dwell forever in the presence of God. For now we have to deal with the reality that we are blessed though we are ravaged by the world. Sometimes the blessing is in the suffering, as with those martyrs of old whose robes were washed with their own real blood; they were blessed because they passed through death into the bosom of God for eternity by the blood of Jesus Christ.
People die. Injustice exists. All too many people have no problem stepping on others to get ahead. We will suffer. We would like to think that the promises found in the beatitudes will be fulfilled in this life; they sometimes are. I have found great comfort in the love of my family and friends. I have experienced mercy. I’ve known the presence of God and seen His face in the faces of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I've shared in the waters of life and God has indeed wiped away my tears. Yet, I know that I will still feel hunger and thirst. I will cry again before I pass into life eternal.
The closest we will come to experiencing the future kingdom of heaven in this life is at the at the communion table when we share the Lord’s Supper. I grew up in a church that received communion at railings that surrounded the Table. Later we joined a church that only had railings around the front and sides of the Table. It made me sad because I loved the image of us as a congregation kneeling in a circle together, joined together in the feast. One day, however, I realized that the circle was closed, but those who filled the missing side were all the saints in heaven. I imagined my mother and other forefathers, my friend who died when we were teenagers, and so many others kneeling there with us, taking the body and blood of Jesus as one body in Him.
In some forms of the liturgy we hear words like these: “Join our prayers with those of your servants of every time and every place and unite them with the ceaseless petitions of our great high priest until he comes as victorious Lord of all.” Our worship is timeless and the fellowship numbers in the multitudes. During Hallowmas, we are reminded that the veil between life in this world and the next is very thin. While there aren’t ghosts kneeling with us as we receive the body and blood of Christ, they are there amongst us, sharing in the same feast and worshipping the same Lord.
What is a saint? A saint is one in whom God takes pleasure, the ones who are humble before Him, believing His Word, and receiving His salvation like a crown. Let us thank God for all those who have loved and served Him throughout time so that we would know His mercy and grace today.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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