All Saints’ Day, 2020
St John’s in-person and on-line
Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
It is All Saints Day today—and a good time to reflect on two things: the blessedness of the saints triumphant, singing praises before the throne of the lamb; and the blessedness of the church in the present, the saints militant—the church—toiling in weakness in the present.
For All the Saints—the hymn we began with today—captures these twin blessednesses very well. On the one hand, we sing “For all the saints who from their labors rest,” that is, we sing of the blessedness of the saints who have gone before us, those who have handed down to us so much of what we have and love, those whose labours are complete. We sing of their presence at the heavenly banquet, taking place on that “yet more glorious day” when the “countless host” streams “through gates of pearl,” “singing” praises to the Holy Trinity. It’s a hymn that also speaks of the church in the world, where we “feebly struggle,” where “the fight is fierce, and the warfare long.”
But it’s a hymn that reminds us, too, that despite the tribulations we experience in present, that we nevertheless share a blessedness that is known fully by the saints in light: we are “all are one in [Christ], for all [of us are already his.]”
And so let’s begin, today, with some reflection on the church in the present. Matthew gives us a good place to start: the beatitudes. There are a good number of ways to understand the beatitudes. We could think of them as a list of virtues for us to pursue as individuals. If Jesus says that it would be blessed to be all these things: poor in spirit, meek, merciful, pure in heart and peacemakers, if it’s blessed to be persecuted and to hunger and thirst for righteousness, or to be reviled, if it is blessed to mourn—then I should most certainly get at it, and try to be all these things!
Well, that’s one way to think about it. Or maybe we’ve tried hard to be all these things. And we’ve failed. Maybe we were supposed to fail, maybe our fallenness is supposed to revealed, that we might throw ourselves on the mercy of Christ? Well—perhaps.
I’m not so sure either of these are true. I don’t think this is either a list of virtues, good things we would wish to become as individuals, nor do I think that this is a list of things we should fail at in order to lean on God’s mercy.
Instead, there is only one person whom we could describe as fulfilling all the beatitudes, and that is Jesus himself. It is Jesus, in the first place, who is poor in spirit, meek, merciful, pure in heart and a peacemaker, persecuted, the one who hungers and thirst for righteousness, who is reviled, and the one who mourns. And if the beatitudes describe Jesus— and not individual spiritual super-athletes, failing at being spiritual superathletes, then we begin to have a sense of what the church looks like as a whole, the church that is the body of Christ, the church that bears within it the life of Christ in the world.
Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “No one is asked to go out and try to be poor in spirit or to mourn or to be meek. Rather, Jesus is indicating that given the reality of the kingdom we should not be surprised to find among those who follow him those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek.”
It is the whole church, all of us together, in this way—that fulfills the beatitudes. We are blessed as a whole, and this, I hope, gives you a sense of belonging. If you are poor in spirit; if you are meek; if you are merciful; if you are pure in heart, or a peacemaker, or if you feel like you are persecuted for righteousness’ sake; if you hunger and thirst for righteousness; if people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on the account of Jesus; if you mourn; then you have a place in the church, and you contribute to our blessedness.
Even still, it’s a tall order, in it’s own way. Sometimes it seems quite the task to find all this blessedness in the church. Sometimes we may even want to give up because it feels like the blessedness we would hope for in the church just isn’t there. Perhaps we are saddened by the lack of righteousness, or the lack of peace, or the lack of mercy.
It is here; though sometimes we may have to squint to see it.
But I would return to the hymn, For All the Saints—where it’s clear that the church is indeed weak, oftentimes. To speak of the church militant is not to speak of a church that is powerful, but to speak of a people who are often tired after what seems like an interminable battle with what is wrong and broken in the world.
We are most certainly not, every day, the saints in light dancing before the throne; instead, we “feebly struggle,” because “the fight is fierce, and the warfare [is] long.”
But today we don’t just speak of a church where we “feebly struggle,” where “the fight is fierce, and the warfare [is] long.” Or simply of a church where we would only see each and every one of the beatitudes among us by squinting. Because we are also offered a vision of the saints in light, the “countless host” who “through gates of pearl streams,” “singing” praises to the Holy Trinity. The saints in joy. The saints in jubilation!
Revelation describes this vision as a vision of another blessedness. A vision of a multitude gathered around the lamb of God, a multitude gathered “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” That is, the saints are a multitude far bigger than what we can see, because our vision is too narrow for that. The saints in light are a multitude gathered from every corner of the world.
On the one hand, it offers a vision of human sociality that goes well beyond what any petty nationalism can provide—one where the nations aren’t in competition, but where the nations remain different, distinct, and yet in harmony.
It’s a vision of a humanity gathered around the lamb of God, where we aren’t called to be just like everyone else, but rather we are welcomed and able to be truly and fully ourselves.
It’s a vision of human sociality where our differences persevere, but where we are nevertheless bound together in Christ, and share in a deep and abiding peace.
Sure—we may find ourselves in a church where we “feebly struggle,” and where “the fight is fierce, and the warfare [is] long.” We may find ourselves in a church where we can only see all the beatitudes by squinting—and sometimes squinting hard.
But be encouraged. We are blessed, just as the saints in light are blessed too—we are blessed in Christ. A blessedness shared with the saints triumphant, the saints who have gone before, the saints who sing and dance around the throne of God. It’s a blessedness shared with us, the saints persevering in the present—where we are “all are one in [Christ], for all [of us], whether triumphant or otherwise [are already his],” each of us belonging to him: the lamb upon the throne, slaughtered yet standing—the crucified one, the risen one.
And for this may we be thankful, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
The Revd Dr Preston DS Parsons