Notes for a Sermon on the Feast of All Saints, Given on November 1, 2015
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
For The Epistle, Revelation 7:1-17 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 5:1-12
A. The beatitudes and neediness
1. “The Beatitudes” in today’s gospel are confusing at first. They proclaim people to blessed or happy whose condition is not blessed or happy. The beatitudes only make sense when we see how the condition that seems undesirable leads to a state of blessedness.
2. The connection is made in our lessons. The lesson from Revelation shows the blessed state of those who suffer for the sake of righteousness: “He who sits on the throne will dwell among them. They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore…And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:14-17).
3. Thus, the poor in spirit, the mourners, and the meek are blessed because their condition of poverty turns them towards God. They ask God for forgiveness, salvation and cleansing. And God answers their prayers.
4. This stands in contrast with the spiritually proud who think they don’t need God, and those who do not mourn because they have no sadness in this world. They are not blessed because their current state, which seems to be fortunate, keeps them separate them from God and leaves them spiritually empty. As Jesus said, “Woe to you who are full, for you shall hunger. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:25).
B. The blessedness of the redeemed is not only in the future
1. Jesus is not only promising future blessings for the poor in spirit and the mourners, for Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthews 4:17). While the fullness of our reward will be experienced in the Resurrection on the Last Day, we enter the kingdom of God through faith in Jesus Christ now.
2. The Beatitudes aim at the current separation of the kingdom of God from life in this world. Our condition of sin is precisely that we can be full of created possessions and pleasures while also being separated and alienated from God. This is why it is good to be dissatisfied with life in this world. When dissatisfaction leads us to turn from sin and put our faith in Jesus Christ, we begin to live in the kingdom of God now, and we begin to experience God’s blessings now. Our life in the body in this world is brought into the kingdom, and the kingdom of God enters the world through God’s presence in us.
3. The image of the redeemed in the lesson from Revelation is not primarily an image of the future. It is an image of our relationship with God in Christ now. Genesis describes how humanity was exiled from God’s presence though sin (Genesis 3:23-24). Revelation describes how we have been restored to God’s presence through the blood of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of our sins.
4. The scene in Revelation is an image of worship. As we gather to worship God “in Christ,” we become part of the multitude that no one can number. We have been redeemed from all nations and have access to God through prayer. This status is expressed most fully in the Eucharist, but this is our constant relationship to God in Christ through the Spirit (see Ephesians 2:4-6). As we live the life of prayer, as we pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 4:17), we receive heavenly treasure, and the comfort of the Spirit, and the Bread of Life that satisfies us always.
C. Our own poverty and mourning as a condition of blessing
1. Though we live in union with the Father through the Son in the Spirit, though we are “seated in the heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 2:6), we tend to take our eyes off of Jesus and become pre-occupied with the physical and temporal concerns of life. Thus, it is a good and blessed thing when our circumstances remind us of our spiritual poverty. When we experience loss, disappointment and disillusionment; when we go through trial and sickness, and when we face the unavoidable fact of our mortality, we are detached us from the merely physical and temporal and led back to Christ. Thus, need and trial become sources of blessing.
2. When we face trials, we tend to pray for physical relief or some temporal goal. It is okay to pray for these things because we live in the world and we have real needs. However, as we grow in spiritual maturity we will learn to focus more on what God is doing in and through the challenges we face in this world: “What is God doing in my life through this trial?” “How is my current poverty leading me to a greater experience of God’s kingdom?” “How is my current mourning leading me to a greater experience of God’s comfort?” The overarching purpose of our trials is to detach us from the world, purify our hearts, and cultivate in us a desire for God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness (c.f. Matthew 6:31-33).
D. We are called to be saints
1. Today is All Saints Day. A saint is a “holy” one. We are holy because God has given us his Holy Spirit. We become holy as the Holy Spirit works in us to make us holy through our trials. We call certain Christians “saints” because they are notable examples of holiness. All Saints Day celebrates the unknown saints, the ones who do not have a day on the calendar. The distinction between saints and other Christians is, ultimately, a false distinction. The saints are ahead of us, but we are called to be holy like them (see Hebrews 12:14)—and we should want to be one too (Hymn 243).
2. Holiness is produced through trial rather than through prosperity and success. As the epistle says, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Each of us is a part of this great multitude. This is both our current status and our future destiny. Let us, therefore, learn to live as those who are called to be saints (c.f. Romans 1:7). Let us learn to turn to God in our poverty and in our mourning. Let us learn to persevere in our tribulation. Let us wash our robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb. Then we will be blessed, for God will dwell with us, and guide us, and feed us, and wipe every tear from our eyes. We will live in God’s kingdom now, as we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.