Oct 28, 2011

All Saints Day Part 2: Coming to a Life Near You

Since Tuesday, November 1 is officially All Saints Day (we will celebrate it in worship on November 6) I would ask you to take a moment and read Revelation 7:9-17. The theme is: Before God’s Throne and the lesson is “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal” (Revelation 7:14).

Revelation’s author, known to Christian tradition as Saint John the Divine, finds himself in the heavenly throne room. John writes, “At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne” (Revelation 4:2). The Revised Common Lectionary furnishes a description of only one of the many things John sees in the throne room. Among the sights is “a great multitude.” John suggests these people are those “who have come out of the great ordeal,” implying those who have been faithful to Christ’s ministry with their lives—they are martyrs. In this sense, they are the convincing stewards. These stewards have offered everything to God’s Realm.

All Saints Sunday is the day the church celebrates those believers who have died in Christ. It is a day of remembrance. On occasion believers ask, “How does a person become a saint?” All Saints Day and Revelation bring this sort of question to mind. Earlier, chapter six details the opening of six of seven seals. In the prophecy of the seals, we notice war horses, God’s altar, and natural disasters plaguing earth. After the sixth seal’s opening Revelation furnishes us an interlude. Perhaps readers need a respite after the horrors of the first six seals. The sealing of the 144,000 begins chapter seven. This image furnishes us with a picture of the church militant, that is, the church struggling for life among earth’s principalities and powers. John’s next image is the church triumphant—those who rest from their earthly labors.

Chapter seven provides strangely contrasting visions of the church militant and the church triumphant. First, there is a specifically calculated throng of 144,000 contrasted to “a great multitude that no one could count.” Second, John contrasts the twelve tribes of Israel to “a multitude from every nation.” Third, John describes the church militant as a company prepared for threatening peril and distinguishes it from the victorious and secure counted in the church triumphant. Whatever this chapter wants to impart, above all, it is John’s attempt to describe a vision of heaven.

Over the centuries the concept of heaven has fueled much speculation—regularly confused and confusing to those on this side of death. A cartoon once appeared in "The New Yorker" magazine. It showed a group of heaven-bound saints lined-up just outside the heavenly gates. Peter stood at a podium; reading off the answers to the most frequently asked questions on earth, now finally and decisively answered in heaven. Saint Peter reads the list: “# 48, true; # 49, false; # 50, William Shatner; # 51, yes; # 52, the Ponderosa; # 53, every other Tuesday . . . .” People have inquiring minds and we want to know. John’s heavenly apocalyptic vision offers us one such image.

“How does a person become a saint?” For stewards this is a controlling question, for we all believe that our response to God offers us a just “reward.” But however we conceive of heaven, John writes at least this much: heaven is the place where saints or believers—they amount to the same thing—commune with God.

Our efforts do not make us saints. Rather, we become saints when God confers on us “gifts and graces” to handle as stewards. When we use God’s resources for shaping God’s Realm, then God develops us into true saints. God bestows sainthood at the point where God’s grace encounters our stewardship. There, we find God and God’s saints.

Oct 26, 2011

All Saints Day 1: Coming to a Life Near You

One thing about the church, we know how to talk about death in a way no one else does. We see it as pretty much inevitable.

When we understand death’s certainty, then we cannot be cavalier about life. Death is a reality around which none of us like to linger long, but this reality defines life whether we like to ponder it or not. It is a truth from which we cannot escape.

Some fear death will come before they have completed life. In a thoughtful and reflective poem on this very idea, John Keats wrote:

    “When I have fears that I may cease to be before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain—”

Before his death in 1981, writer, William Saroyan phoned in to the Associated Press an interesting observation: “Every body has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. What now?” There are no exceptions. I have a friend who ends all emails with: “I intend to live forever – so far, so good.”  With what thoughts may we fortify ourselves when we contemplate death – our own and others?

The Christian faith teaches that life is not over when we die. There is a special day in the Christian calendar called All Saints Day (which falls on November 1 – next Tuesday) when we profess our faith in an on-going relationship between those who have died and those who are living. We are touched when we remember friends and loved ones who have outrun us to heaven, but the concept of the “Communion of Saints” (see Apostles’ Creed) suggests that there is an on-going spiritual relationship between those who are dead and those who are living. Just as we believe that Jesus, who was dead and is now alive continues to touch our lives, so we believe that our friends and loved ones who have died are now alive and continue to touch our lives. Many find great comfort in that idea.

So instead of Halloween candy, feast on the fact that there are many saints who have gone before us—and thank God for them!

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