All Saints Sunday Year A
This section of Matthew, known as the Beatitudes, is a type of inaugural address for Jesus. These words are not a wish, or a dream, but a statement of what the Kingdom of Heaven is, and of how we should begin to treat one another now. The Beatitudes in Matthew are statements that tell us about the Kingdom of God that is coming and the Kingdom of God here on earth. In pronouncing these, Jesus is once again turning the norm on its head, and reminding us that the Kingdom of God is different. These declarations orient life toward the other, toward equality, toward discipleship and toward love. Those, who follow Jesus, are to be different.
So why do we read these on All Saints’ Day? The nature of the Kingdom of Heaven is that it is already-and-not-yet. They state the character of God and ask if this is the character of God, should it not also be the character of the people of God? The saints are people who understood this and lived into this character in a variety of ways. The saints give us an understanding of what it looks like to have God in our midst, and to live a life with the Beatitudes as a part of our being.
Revelation, the apocalyptic vision of John of Patmos helps develop our vision of what that “glorious company of the Saints in light” might look like. We’re told that angels are gathered around the throne with four living creatures, falling on their faces worshipping God day and night, singing a song of praise. We’re told that they hunger and thirst no more, and that sun and heat will not strike them because the Lamb is their shepherd, guiding them to the springs of the water of life, as God wipes away every tear from their eyes.
John’s description doesn’t stop there. He goes on to write that the “great multitude” gathered around the throne are those “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Those who enjoy the place of honor in John’s apocalyptic vision have undergone suffering.
In the midst of the violent imagery and occluded visions lays this powerful word of hope: After all is said and done, after the plagues of war and famine and disaster have done their worst, salvation belongs, not to the generals and the dictators and the power mongers of this world, but to God alone.
This is the great and enduring truth of the gospel, and it comes alive on this All Saints’ Day, reminding the faithful that the powers and principalities of this world will not have the last word. In fact, not only is this Good News, we hear from the lips of Jesus himself that it is a blessing.
In a dramatic reversal of the customs of this world, Jesus foretells the truth of the Kingdom of God:
Unsure of your direction in life? You’re blessed.
Caught under the weight of grief and loss? Joy comes in the morning.
Undervalued and not heard by those around you? God hears you.
Groaning with hunger pangs and longing for a moment of respite? The comforter has come.
Working for peace and righteousness, only to be trampled down by those spreading lies to discredit you? God is working right alongside you.
The saints, Jesus reminds us, aren’t simply those who seem to have it all together, whose service to church and community are irreproachable, and who have left a legacy that the rest of us will spend a lifetime aspiring to realize for ourselves.
On the contrary: The saints, Jesus tells us and John reminds us, are those who have suffered greatly – and some who suffer still, even in our midst – and yet continue to serve God. The saints are those who have known the pain of grief and the sting of death, and still manage to find a way to sing, “Alleluia!” The saints are those who have been excluded and ignored by every corner of society and yet still find ways to seek and serve Christ, loving their neighbor as themselves.
And so when we celebrate all saints, we commemorate those worshipping in our pews who are suffering silently. We work to include those in our community who love God and neighbor, and yet find themselves on the margins. And we remember those whose worship of God is unceasing, even now that they have passed into light perpetual.
Our worship on this day, then, bears both the potential for difficult news that is hard to hear as well as the great and powerful news of a gospel that continually confounds even our best efforts to contain it. For if we approach this day, looking to the saints as nothing more than long-gone exemplars of Christian perfection, the witness of Jesus in the Matthew’s gospel and of John’s Revelation falls flat and bears little possibility for transformation.
But if we are attentive to the Spirit that moves in our midst, then we might be surprised by what we see when we look across the aisle of the church or down the street or into the parts of town where we wouldn’t expect to find a saint. We might be surprised to find people there who, even in the most unimaginable circumstances, find ways to love God and their neighbor as themselves.
And when we hear those soft, but faithful notes of “Alleluia!” emanating from deep within the souls of the saints among us, we will know that salvation does indeed belong to our God, who is seated upon the throne, now and for evermore.