All Saints' Sunday, 2 November 2014

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
I John 3:1-3
St. Matthew 5:1-12

Background: All Saints Day
The origin of this day is a bit murky, perhaps originating in the Eastern Church, where it was observed in May, or the Sunday after Pentecost.  In 609, Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to the Virgin Mary and all the Martyrs.  In the eighth century celebrations of all the Saints emerged in England, celebrated principally on 1 November, which was brought to England either through the ministry of Egbert of York, or perhaps from earlier celebrations either in Ireland or Gaul.  It is a day in which the Church celebrates saints living and departed, a representation of the totality of the Body of Christ.  The present celebration in the Book of Common Prayer is classed as a Principal Feast, one of seven.  It is also a date on which is recommended the administration of Holy Baptism. 

Revelation 7:9-17

After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

"Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,

"Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.

"Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from? "I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows. " Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Most likely written by someone other than the evangelist, John, many suggestions have been made about the source of this book.  The most interesting is, perhaps, Jayne Massyngberde Ford’s suggestion that the bulk of the book, following the initial chapters is a borrowing from the Baptist’s disciples.  The first chapters suggest a “circuit rider” writing to his many charges in Ephesus, Thyatira, etc.  What is clear is that it is a message directed to a church that is experiencing persecution and suffering.  Other challenges face these readers, primarily the pressure faced by all members of society in the Roman Empire as they faced the demands of Roman social religion.  None-the-less the author has a vision of a people gathered under the majesty not of the emperor, but of another soter, another kyrios, Jesus Christ.  Immediately preceding this reading is the “Sealing of the 144,000” – a symbolic number that multiplies the tribes of Israel by itself and magnifies it by myriads.  That sealing takes place on earth, but the second vision has a different venue – heaven itself and the throne of the Lamb.  Who is gathered here?  “A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” It is the ideal that both Paul and Luke have striven for (and to a certain extent the Isaiahs as well). All are gathered here in spite of the “great ordeal”.  The author attempts to pierce through the present time and see the beatific vision – the continuous hymn sung by saints and angels. This vision is connected to the history of Israel (hence the number in the signing of the multitudes) and the second is the fruition of God’s intention for all people.

Breaking open Revelation:
  1. Are Jews numbered among the saints?  Why?
  2. Are you included amongst the 144,000? Why?
  3. Who is left out? Why?

Psalm 34:1-10, 22 Benedicam Dominum

I will bless the LORD at all times; *
his praise shall ever be in my mouth.

I will glory in the LORD; *
let the humble hear and rejoice.

Proclaim with me the greatness of the LORD; *
let us exalt his Name together.

I sought the LORD, and he answered me *
and delivered me out of all my terror.

Look upon him and be radiant, *
and let not your faces be ashamed.

I called in my affliction and the LORD heard me *
and saved me from all my troubles.

The angel of the LORD encompasses those who fear him, *
and he will deliver them.

Taste and see that the LORD is good; *
happy are they who trust in him!

Fear the LORD, you that are his saints, *
for those who fear him lack nothing.

The young lions lack and suffer hunger, *
but those who seek the LORD lack nothing that is good.

The LORD ransoms the life of his servants, *
and none will be punished who trust in him.

The ascription of this psalm is quite interesting, “For David, when he altered his good sense before Abimelech, who banished him, and he went away.” You might want to check the incident to which this ascription refers, I Samuel 21:14, where David feigns madness in order to survive a difficult situation. The remainder of the psalm comments on God’s presence in the midst of every-day difficulty, “I sought the Lord, and God answered me and delivered me out of all my terror.” That God is constantly with us in a circumstances is a given in this psalm.  And it highlights a dependency that we have upon God presence, or his embassy through the angels, “The angel of the Lord encompasses those who fear God.” This however is more than an exercise in mental dependency. It hints at not only a physical dependency, but at pleasure as well, “taste and see that the Lord is good.” The lions seem to suffer, but those who are attached to God, “lack nothing.” The verse that seems to connect this psalm with the celebrations of this feast day is this, “The Lord ransoms the life of God’s servants, and none will be punished who trust in God.”

Breaking open Psalm 34:
  1. How do you know God’s presence with you?
  2. How does that presence change life for you?
  3. How might you be God’s presence for someone else?

1 John 3:1-3

See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

The anonymity of I John forces us to focus only on its content and themes.  Written in opposition to some kind of theological opponent, we can only glean from its argument that which might be applicable to any Christian.  What is implied here is that Christians themselves seem to operate in some kind of anonymity – “The reason that the world does not know us is that it did not know him.” We might want to ask, “Why should the world know us?” Perhaps so that it could see the love evident in what Christians do, but that seems specious in our day and age.  It is the stuff of saints, however. As we either honor the saints of anonymity, or the blessed dead (All Souls’ Day) we might begin to know Christ through them, or them through Christ.  It sets a rigorous agendum for our life – to be known through Christ. The purity and piety of our life is essence of Jesus’ own life.

Breaking open I John:
  1. What do you see when you look at yourself as a Christian?
  2. What do you think others see when they perceive you?
  3. How would like to be seen?

St. Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

There is a part of me that dreads this pericope.  I much prefer Luke’s version with its implicit blessings and curses.  It seems much more grounded in the life we know.  However, Matthew had his reasons for preserving these sayings in the manner in which he did. We need to follow Matthew, in his mind, to Sinai, and to the spiritual refreshment that comes in the wilderness. Here, apart from the crowds that gathered earlier, Jesus let’s the disciples in on the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Yes, we are to understand that a new law is being promulgated on this mountain, a law that reaches deeply into ordinary life.  And what do we seek in life? Happiness, makarios? This is not the happiness of an emotional relationship but rather the life that is lived in God.  In that relationship mourning, meekness, hunger and thirst, mercy, purity, peacemaking, and persecution all take on a different kind of reality. These are all lived in a relationship not only with God (we need to remind ourselves of the second part of the Law) but also with others, and indeed with our selves.  The brackets of this new law, mourning and persecution, seem to form the context in which Matthew’s church lived out meekness, mercy, purity, and all the other the other niceties of Matthew’s beatitudes. How broadening is this, as we think about living life, that our own graciousness (formed by God’s grace to us) can be lived out in the midst of difficulty.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What are your thoughts when you compare Matthew’s beatitudes with those of Luke?
  2. How is your life bracketed by morning and persecution?
  3. How do you live a life of grace in the midst of your troubles?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller


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