All Saints’ Day (observed), 2021
Revelation 21:1-6A; Psalm 24; John 11:32-44
Who is this King of glory?
In 1911, Karl Barth— who would later become the most influential theologian of the 20th century—took a church in Safenwil, Switzerland. It was working class parish, and Barth, less concerned with inner piety and more concerned “real problems in life” as he put it, quickly discovered where the problems were. It was in the textile factories, where workers were being exploited. And though it didn’t always make him popular with the wealthy members of the Safenwil community, Barth took a side; and the side he took was with the workers.
It was at that time that Barth made a friend who would become his theological partner for many years to come, Eduard Thurneyson. Neither of them were at all happy with the theology of their time, especially with how theologians spoke about the war. Barth would later, at 54, voluntarily join the Swiss Army in World War II, so he wasn’t just a reactionary pacifist; but for both Barth and Thurneyson, their theological contemporaries were little more than theological apologists for the war, and unable to be sufficiently critical about it.
Partly for his critical stance on the theology of war, though more for his commitment to the ill-treated working people of his parish and his conviction that it was the socialist party that could change things for the better, Barth became know as the Red Pastor.
This was not always a compliment.
As Barth and Thurneyson wrote and talked about these things with one another, and worked for the betterment of the factory workers they served, they developed what Thurneyson would cautiously call a “new departure” and “a critical turning point,” a “new foundation for theology.” It would set Barth on a theological trajectory that would lead to a work that is 6 million words long, his Church Dogmatics, a project he would work on until he left it unfinished at his death 1968.
And it was relatively simple. First, Barth contended that the Bible does not speak simply to its original audience; Romans, for example, did not speak just to the people Paul wrote to in Rome. Rather, the Bible speaks into his day, in Safenwil, and ours, in Kitchener Waterloo; the Bible speaks as a message from God, and contains a message that will speak to you, and is creative and redemptive for us now. And it’s not that the Bible contains moral lessons to follow, or advice for good living, or things that will make you a better person; it’s that the Word of God speaks in Scripture and makes you holy when you hear it.
And secondly, God’s work is primary, despite our confusion between God’s work and our work in the world; no, Barth would say, our culture doesn’t save us, our own moral rectitude doesn’t save us, our religion doesn’t save us either. It is God who saves. And if we are made holy, it is in God’s work for us and on our behalf.
These foundations were set way back in 1919 Safenwil, in Barth’s working class congregation, as he worked for better working conditions in the Safenwil factories, and as he reflected on the war. And as one of his contemporaries described it, Barth’s theology of grace, where God speaks to us now in the Word, and where God acts for us in the first place, landed “like a bomb on the playground of the theologians.”
This was also not necessarily considered as a compliment.
So what does all this mean on All Saints Sunday? A day when we will renew our Baptismal Covenant? Let’s look at Psalm 24. At the heart of Psalm 24 lies a description of the blessed of the Lord. “Who can ascend the hill of the Lord? and who can stand in his holy place?” The answer—it seems, at least—is found in the verses that follow. The blessed are “[t]hose who have clean hands and a pure heart”; these clean-handed and pure-hearted “shall receive a blessing from the Lord and a just reward from the God of their salvation.”
Even the ancients, though, have trouble imagining that we find our own way to God, as if being among the blessed comes as a result of our own clean-handedness and our own pure-heartedness—as though we could make ourselves holy, as though we would make saints of ourselves, if only we did just the right thing, followed just the right teaching, or took part in just the right religious ceremony.
Theodoret, Christian bishop of Cyrrhus in the 5th century, sees holiness first in God, not in the clean-handed and the pure-hearted. It is “The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle,” who is holy. The Holy One is “God the Word [who] became human and took up our firstfruits, he … led the way to up to heaven …”
There may be saints, there may be holy people, there may be clean-handed and pure-hearted among us, but it is God who is holy, and God who makes the holiness of the saints possible.
Augustine, Theodoret’s contemporary in North Africa, similarly sees the last verses of Psalm 24 as ones about the resurrection of Jesus, and the resurrection as the gateway to eternal life. God in Christ, “[t]he King will make his entrance; let us boast of him without fear or pride, for he overthrew the gates of mortality and flung open before him the gates of heaven …”
For both Theodoret and Augustine, God is holy, and God in Christ makes a way, through his life, death, and resurrection, the way for us to be holy.
But why would I be so concerned that today? That it is God in Christ who makes us holy, through what he accomplishes for us? Because it’s All Saints Sunday, and All Saints Sunday is a baptismal feast; and on baptismal feasts, we often renew our Baptismal Covenant—and we are about to do that today as well.
And so, as we renew our Baptismal Covenant, I’d like for you to remember the order of things. First we will recite the Apostles’ Creed together, affirming our faith in the Triune God, the God who has made heaven and earth; that we believe in the Son of the Father, who lived, was crucified, resurrected, and has ascended; and that we believe in the Holy Spirit. That is, we believe in a God who has made us, and who has made us for him; that we believe in a God who saves in Christ, who in Christ has made a way for us to God, that we believe in a God in Christ who makes us good and righteous through his life and death; and that God the Holy Spirit does that to us and for us now. We say all that before we get to the rest of the covenant, important as it is, the part about what we do.
We speak first of the God who makes the life described in the six questions and answers possible, and then, we affirm the possibility of the blessed life, the life of the saints, and our sanctity: that we will continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; that we resist evil and that we repent, that we proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ; that we serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbours as ourselves; that we strive for justice and peace, respecting the dignity of every human being; and that we safeguard the integrity of God’s creation.
This is the blessed life of the saints; this is what it is to be pure-hearted and clean-handed; this is what Theodoret, Augustine, and Karl Barth the Red Pastor, the Christian theologian who worked for the sake of exploited labourers in Safenwil, dropping his theological bomb on the playground of the theologians: that even as he worked for justice in Safenwil and hoped for a theology that could be critical of war, he underlined for us that any signs of holiness in any of us are first made possible in the Son of the Father who in his work makes a way to God and the blessed life possible; that it is God’s goodness and holiness that we reflect back to the world; and all of this by grace, and in grace, the grace of God almighty, Father Son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.