It’s nice to celebrate All Saints Day on All Saints Sunday. We begin the final stretch of the church year, moving from the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 to the Parable of the Great Judgment in Matthew 25 on Reign of Christ Sunday. It’s a journey that continues Matthew’s focus on the Great Reversal.
Gospel Text – Matthew 5:1-12
The Sermon on the Mount sets the agenda for Matthew’s gospel. Everything in this gospel should be read through the lens of the sermon, beginning with the Beatitudes in this gospel reading. Matthew’s community may have been tempted to go “looking for saints in all the wrong places.” That is, perhaps they were tempted to see God’s blessings in terms of privilege and prosperity, comfort and complacency, power, and position. Repeatedly Matthew’s account makes clear that the Reign of God is not to be found in such places. There is a direct line from Matthew 5 to Matthew 25 – “Lord, when did we see you?”
The way of the world is to blame the victim. Those who suffer must have done something (or failed to do something) to deserve their suffering. Those who are losers in the system must have failed in some way to win. Those who are merciful, pure in heart and meek are just suckers, ripe for the picking. Those who are persecuted, whatever the reason, must be criminals and should be prosecuted. Even those who mourn can’t help but wonder, “What did I do to deserve this?” It’s how we think.
It’s a self-serving and self-justifying theology. We are biased to excuse ourselves and to blame others, even when the situation is identical. We can always come up with reasons why other people are unworthy of comfort, mercy, and peace. We can always tell the story in such a way that the poor are “unworthy” of help from the rich, the weak are deserving of exploitation by the strong. We live in a time when such self-serving theology has been raised to the level of accepted political philosophy.
Raj Nadella reminds us in his commentary on workingpreacher.org that Jesus has just called for the repentance that leads to life in the new community he is forming. “Within this literary context,” Nadella writes. “the Beatitudes should be read as Jesus’ manifesto for transformation in the community he has just inaugurated. 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.”
I think we must resist one temptation present for the preacher in this text. Jesus does not offer the Beatitudes as a way to ratify the status quo. He is not saying that the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, and the persecuted should be grateful for their suffering since they are made worthy in the midst of their trials. The Beatitudes uncover God’s positive regard for the downcast in spite of their trials not because of them. After Jesus says repeatedly, “You have heard it said…but I say to you.” The Reign of God overturns the status quo that keeps the downcast down.
One of the challenges of the Beatitudes is to understand the word “blessed.” Susan Hylen reflects on this in her commentary on workingpreacher.org. “New Testament professor Margaret Aymer has translated makarios as “greatly honored,” Hylen notes. “This is another good option for translating this word because it emphasizes the theme of reversal that is implied in the Beatitudes. The meek and the merciful are not revered by the world’s standards, but they are honored by God and by those who would align their lives with God’s ways.”
I think another good translation is the word, “Worthy.” The categories of people listed in the Beatitudes are regarded, by and large, as unworthy of notice, much less care. The great reversal is that God regards them as worthy of inclusion in God’s mission of life. I would suggest this is an important translation for us in this time. We live in a culture that regards the poor and needy, the downcast and downtrodden, the sick and suffering, as unworthy of care. We keep testing our “charity” to make sure it only goes to those who are “deserving” of our help. As we do that, the circle of those worthy of our love gets smaller and smaller.
Testing the needy for worthiness is self-serving, self-justifying, and self-deluding. No one is born worthy of the gifts we receive in this life. No one is born unworthy of our care. The categories of “worthy” and “unworthy” are social constructions rooted in a system driven by personal greed. The Beatitudes critique and reject such a system. The poor and needy, the downcast and downtrodden, the sick and the suffering are precisely those whom God considers worthy of attention, compassion, and care. The Sermon on the Mount overturns human systems of merit and reminds us that we are all beggars (see the notes on Reformation Sunday).
The Beatitudes are, in Lutheran terms, the theology of the cross made concrete. The presence and power of God are hidden under the form of their opposites. It is in situations of need and even deprivation that we often experience that divine presence and power. In fact, Jesus joins us in the midst of our suffering and struggle, is “with us” (to highlight another Matthean theme), and fills us with the faith, hope and love that equip us to find life in the midst of death.
“The Kingdom Jesus proclaimed and embodied is precisely a new way of seeing, a new way of naming, and so a new way of being.” Lance Pape writes in his commentary on workingpreacher.org. “The current regime sweeps aside those Jesus declares blessed of God, but we are invited to look again and discern a new reality that is coming into being. When we learn to recognize such people as blessed — to call them saints — we pledge our allegiance to that new world even as we participate in its realization.”
Lots of “saints” are never going to darken the doors of any church. That’s hard for insiders to swallow, but we can’t be part of God’s reign if we limit it to the spaces we control. One of the spiritual issues in Matthew is the problem of “insider privilege.” The parables we have read in the last month attack that notion of insider privilege repeatedly. But if we are honest with ourselves, our congregations are collapsing under the weight of such insider privilege and the unwillingness to take the outsider into account.
First Reading – Revelation 7:9-17
The Reign of God that is described as a future event in the Beatitudes is amplified in John’s vision of the heavenly worship in Revelation 7. The divine throne is surrounded by those who have come through persecution and now worship God and the Lamb at the eternal feast of victory. The hymn to the martyrs promises that the hungry and thirsty will be satisfied, the vulnerable will be sheltered and those who mourn will have their tears dried once and for all.
We are in the first series of “sevens”—seven seals, seven trumpets and seven bowls. Chapter six ends with natural catastrophes, the democratization of destruction. The powerful beg for protection from the mountains and rocks themselves in the midst of this chaos. But a respite is granted. “Just when we are expecting even more destruction with the opening of the seventh seal there is a delay. The scene shifts. Four angels stand at the four corners of the earth, holding back destructive winds. Their mission is to hold back the judgments until God’s people can be “sealed” (7:1-8).” (Rossing, workingpreacher.org, 2020).
As chapter seven begins, we get more “fours.” So, we know this is about the earth. We don’t have to guess at this point. Four angels restrain the divine wind in order to spare the earth, the sea, and the trees. The writer of Revelation has a special fondness for trees, as we will see again later in the book. Perhaps the writer was related to the Lorax of Dr. Seuss fame! Revelation also speaks for the trees!
The respite is to provide time for more witnessing and martyrdom. That is the command in verse three. The seals on the foreheads of the elect may refer to their baptismal seals. More to the point, these seals are in contrast to the counterfeit seals bestowed by the beast in chapter 13. I just got a new book, so I’m loaded for bear again today! The. This is a book that all the other experts quote with great approval, so I needed to get my hands on a copy and read it.
The word for “seal” here in chapter seven is not the same as the word for the “mark” in Revelation 13:16-17. The word in chapter thirteen is the same as the word for the Roman imperial stamp that was required on all government and commercial documents. “The idea of a mark or a seal that determines one’s fate,” Adela Yarbro Collins writes in her book Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse, “was traditionally thought of as a mark on the forehead.” The mark of the beast is a pale imitation of the mark on the foreheads of the faithful. Christians get their identity from Jesus, not from the culture.
The number to be sealed is 144,000. This number is a polyvalent symbol and not to be understand as a literal number. It is, of course, twelve times twelve thousand. The twelve are the twelve tribes of ancient Israel. The twelve thousand may be the faithful of every time and place in the church. For ancient people this would be an unimaginably large number, although for us it’s not much more than we might see on a Saturday afternoon at a major college football game (when we’re not in the midst of a pandemic).
Collins takes this number to mean that John believes the messianic reign (different from the number to be saved) will be limited to those who are faithful to the point of death. On the other hand, Eugene Boring sees this as symbolizing the completeness and fullness of the church. Pablo Richard points to the further numbering in verse 9 for explanation. After the multitude has been counted, it is described as something no one could count, “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…” We get another preview of the universal, multicultural, multi-ethnic, inclusive scope of salvation that we will find in chapters 21 and 22.
The response to the opening of the seals is worship. Finally, the Lamb opens the seventh seal, and, we read in chapter eight, verse one, “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.” Face to face with the glory of God in its fullness and the power of the Lamb who was slain, all our words are useless. We get nervous over thirty seconds of silence in our worship. Perhaps in this time of pandemic exile, we are learning the value of longer periods of silence for our spiritual life.
Second Reading – 1 John 3:1-3
John’s first letter focuses on the integrity of the Christian life – that what we say we believe is reflected in how we live and especially in how we treat those in need. “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness” (2:9). Our reading should begin with chapter two, verse 28. This life of integrity will matter when the Lord returns and tests the deeds of the faithful. It will matter because this life of integrity is the sign that we have accepted our vocation as children God.
“As we reflect on All Saints Day, 1 John 3:1-3 reminds us of our inclusion in the family of God,” writes Alicia D. Meyers on workingpreacher.org. “We, along with all those confessing and relying on Jesus as God’s Son and Christ—past, present, and future—are ‘children of God.’ Yet,” Meyers concludes, “rather than justifying our separation from the world, 1 John (and the Gospel) reminds us that God’s children have a mission: to love.”
The world does not recognize our membership in the family of God, but that lack of recognition makes our membership no less real. I like to focus on the “developmental” image of our membership in that family contained in this text. Our vocation as God’s children is given to us in the here and now. But that vocation is not yet fulfilled. We are growing into what it means to be fully human, fully God’s children. We don’t know in detail what that will look like, but we have before us our Lord Jesus. No matter how things turn out, we know we will be “like him.”
We can loop back to the Sermon on the Mount for details of this image. The Beatitudes describe what we shall be like in the Reign of God. The texts on All Saints Day invite us to live here and now in that reality, to live out our vocation as God’s beloved children in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Final thoughts, illustrations, and resources
Rossing, Barbara. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4627
Meyers, Alicia D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4634