All Saint’s Day – Today we honour those holy men and women who have gone before us in faith and have done so in a glorious way.
The readings this week, All Saints Day, seem to point to a direct correlation between the way we live and the blessings we receive.
In the book of Revelation, the pastoral implications of John’s vision have great meaning for the Church of the 21st century.
In its original context, the Revelation to John intended to offer a word of hope to a community experiencing the suffering and rigors of martyrdom, persecution, and internal conflict about belonging.
In particular, Revelation offers a perhaps surprising illustration of the population of God’s kingdom.
In today’s reading, we hear that the courts of heaven will be filled by “a great multitude… from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”
To an early Christian community struggling with the question of Gentile inclusion in the Church, John’s Revelation offers a clear answer: God’s salvation is for everyone.
And this salvation includes not only a promise of protection (“the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them”) but also a promise of comfort: “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
This year is marked by great suffering, tumult, and division, especially in the United States. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to affect our country, the death-dealing systems of racial inequality are more visible than ever, and this week’s election threatens to polarize Americans beyond healing. To us, just as to the Christians of the early Church, this passage from Revelation is a much-needed reminder of the over-arching plan God has for us.
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
Today’s psalm is attributed to David, a deeply human, flawed, striving leader.
In it, we hear the full truth of what human relationship with God can look like: full of praise and exultation, attention oriented toward the Lord—and we hear, too, that God responds to this kind of adoration, offering refuge and deliverance.
In this way, I suspect we learn an ancient truth: that our very humanity is saintly when we use it to glorify the Lord and draw this world closer to God’s own kingdom.
The very ordinary stuff of human life can be made holy and redeemed when we use all we’ve got to adore the God who created us.
All God requires of God’s saints is devotion—faithfulness to the end.
1 John 3:1-3
In the first lines of this short passage, we hear that we are children of God. This language implies a kind of adoption of humanity by God; through this adoption, we become full children of God, ontologically kin to the Divine (cf. John Painter, 1, 2, and 3 John, [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002], p. 219).
And yet—this passage implies that our kinship to God is what we are now, and that what we are to become cannot yet be known.
This strikes me as a message of deep hope for all those who live in a world that can seem broken and marred by sin.
If this world as it is – and we in it – are already children of God, imagine the glory of what we might become when the human, limited world is cast away and the Kingdom of God is brought fully into reality.
This is not a message of doom, but rather a reminder to strive toward the revelation of Godself in the hope that we indeed will be made pure.
Jesus has just announced that the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 4:17) and invited people to repent. The Greek word metanoia has the connotation of “changing one’s course of action” and “transformation.” Jesus has also invited the first group of disciples to partake in the new movement (4:18-22).
Within this literary context, the Beatitudes should be read as Jesus’ plan for transformation in the community he has just launched.
They reveal what the new community will look like.
The Beatitudes address those who experience various kinds of oppression as well as those who have been targeted because of their pursuit of righteousness. They promise blessings to each of these oppressed groups.
After announcing the new kingdom and recruiting disciples, Jesus has been healing every disease, sickness and demon-possession among the people (Matthew 4:23-25) and has, consequently, gained immense popularity.
The Beatitudes that come immediately after these accounts reveal how the afflicted and the oppressed will be blessed just as others in similar situations have been blessed thus far. While the promise of deliverance and reversal of fortunes spelled out in the Beatitudes point to the future, they are built on what Jesus has already accomplished.
It is a promise built upon his successful track record. In these verses, Jesus clearly defines for those who listen the character of those who are blessed—the character of the saints.
Rather than advocating for wealth or power, Jesus celebrates mercy, meekness, purity, peacefulness, and righteousness.
Moreover, these characteristics are not simply fixed characteristics of a single person but are instead calls to a particular kind of action.
To truly inhabit blessedness, we are called to be merciful, to practice peacemaking, to protect those who are meek or hungry.
We must align these characteristics with how we behave because, as Jesus illustrates in his speech here, the world is not yet as it should be.
Jesus’ emphasis on the future tense (“for they will be”) reminds us that there is work to be done and that we have no small part in it.
This is the activity of sainthood: to make the world better through compassion and caring for those around us.
they will be advocated on behalf of (verse 4), they will be filled (verse 6), they will be shown mercy (verse 7), they will be called children of God (verse 9).
So, who is the agent of these actions? Who will advocate on behalf of those who mourn? Who will fill the hungry? Who will show mercy to the merciful? Who will call the peacemakers “the children of God?”
The passive voice leaves the agency open-ended. One can suggest that it is the divine passive making God the agent. However, the open-ended nature of the verb allows, even calls, for human agency—the church as well as the larger community—in addition to the divine agency.
The human agency takes on additional significance when one reads the Beatitudes within the literary context of the disciples having just been invited to help advance the new kingdom and its manifesto.
Such an emphasis on the human agency suggests that, when we see oppressed people, the question need not, and should not, be: Where is God when people are mourning, hungry, treated brutally by the police and denied mercy in the courtrooms?
Instead, the question should be: Where is God’s community and what is it doing to reverse the situation?
The Beatitudes offer a promise of liberation to those at the margins of our society. They also invite and require anyone and everyone with privilege and power to participate in the process of making the promised liberation a reality.
But the afflicted themselves have an agency as well.
Many of the Beatitudes place the second part in the active voice—theirs is the kingdom of God (verses 2, 10); they will inherit the kingdom of God (verse 5); they will see God (verse 8)—suggesting that the oppressed will participate in their own liberation.
Rather than turn the afflicted and the oppressed into objects of our compassion and advocacy, the Church must acknowledge their own agency and actively work with them to facilitate the reversal of fortunes Jesus has promised them.