October 30 NOTES FOR REFLECTION All Saints' Sunday
Texts: Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
Theme: Imitating, Not Idolising. We honour our saints as examples to be followed, not idols to be placed on pedestals and worshipped.
Introduction. The first thing to notice about today's readings is the absence of a lesson from the Old Testament. If we think of saints as great heroes of the faith, we would find this omission surprising. There are, of course, a large number of great heroes of our faith history in the Old Testament. But look up a Concordance and you will find a clue: the one I use has only 1 reference to "saint" in the whole Old Testament. It is very much a New Testament term. But the same book also reminds me that it is a post-resurrection New Testament term. It gives only 1 instance of its use in the gospels. And there's one more thing to note about its usage in the New Testament: it is almost always used in the plural – "saints" rather than "a saint". So what does the term mean? "Saints" are those people who, through faith in Jesus Christ, have been sanctified by the gift of the Holy Spirit. In other words, "saints" is a synonym for "Christians". Today, we celebrate ourselves and all our fellow Christians!
We begin with a glimpse of the eternal destiny of saints, courtesy of the great seer St John the Divine. The saints are there in the presence of God, wearing their white (baptismal) robes. They are already multitudinous, but there's always room for more. Our second lesson acts as a bridge between now and then, here and there, earth and heaven. We are already children of God, but the best is yet to come. St John does not know the details: all he can say for certain is that we will see God face to face. In the meantime, our calling is to purify ourselves, by living the life outlined in the Beatitudes given by Jesus and recorded in today's gospel passage.
Background. Most of us can remember a time in our youth when we had a hero or heroine: a sports star, perhaps, or a film star, or someone in a book, or even someone in our family. My first hero was a man called Albert Hooper, and I first came upon him when I was five. My mother had noticed that I was keen on kicking a ball around, so she started taking me to watch the local football team in our home town of Newquay in Cornwall. Albert Hooper was the goalkeeper, and from the very first time I saw him I knew that that was what I wanted to be – a goalkeeper like Albert Hooper. No doubt my Mother expected the phase to pass, but when it didn't she knitted me a little yellow goalkeeper's jersey just like the one Albert wore; and every Saturday when the team was playing at home I would wear my little yellow jersey and I would stand behind my hero's goal, even changing ends at half-time. After a while Albert noticed me and from then on he always greeted me nicely, as if we were great mates. And about 13 years later, at the tender age of 18, I ran onto that same field and took my place as the goalkeeper for the Newquay team.
The point of that story is this. My little 5-year-old self was a lot wiser than my present-day self. He knew that heroes are for imitating, not idolising. Think about that word "idolising" for a moment. If we make idols out of our heroes, we are not merely guilty of idolatry: we are rendering them safe. We place them out of our reach. We tell ourselves that they are exceptional and we could never be like them, so they present no challenge to us. I could have done that with Albert Hooper when I was 5. To me he was the best goalkeeper in the whole wide world! Yet that inspired me to do everything I could to become like him. It took me 12-13 years, but I made it!
How do we treat our saints? Alas, we idolise them, don't we? First of all, we treasure miraculous stories about them, making them larger than life, and far beyond our ability to imitate them. So we are excused from even trying. Yet the Scriptures tell us two things of relevance here: we must not commit idolatry and we must become imitators. Go back to the Concordance and you will find a number of entries for "imitate" and its correlates. St Paul does not hesitate to exhort the Corinthians and the Philippians to imitate him: 1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1; Philippians 3:17. He also said quite a bit to the Thessalonians about imitating himself, the Lord, and the churches of God in Jesus Christ : 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7; 2:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:7, 9. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews urged the faithful to imitate the faith of their leaders (Hebrews 13:7); and St John urged his followers to imitate what is good: 3 John 11. And then there's Ephesians 5:1: "Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love." IMITATE GOD!
The old practice of naming a child after a saint, or giving a child a saint's name on baptism, carried with it the hope that the child would grow up to be like that saint. We might also think about our practice of dedicating our individual churches to particular saints. St Barnabas, the encourager of others; St John the apostle of love; St Mary the model of faithful obedience; and St Stephen, the joyful martyr. Perhaps each congregation could ponder how well we imitate our patron saint, or do we simply idolise them and render them innocuous?
Revelation. This passage is part of the astonishing vision of life beyond the curtain of time. It follows the famous reference to 144, 000 servants of God who were about to be sealed on their foreheads. We are very clearly told that these are representatives from the 12 tribes of Israel; not the elect few who are the only ones to receive salvation, as one or two sects have argued down the ages. Now comes "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language". The language is surely intended to suggest to us the fulfilment of the Abrahamic covenant. They are waving palm branches, perhaps to suggest Christ's entry into Jerusalem. Most importantly, they are all wearing white robes – surely intended to refer to the white robes given to people following their baptism. In baptism we enter into the death of Christ – hence the robes have been made white "in the blood of the Lamb". And they are beyond all pain and suffering.
Taking It Personally.
· Do you have a mental vision of heaven? How does it compare with the one we are given here?
· Note that the promise of God is always "I will be with you" (or perhaps "you will be with me"), whether it's with Moses in Egypt or the martyred saints in heaven. Is that enough for you? What more do you want?
· Note how the great multitude seems to be united in one voice and in service to God. All ethnic, national, and other divisions have been overcome. How do you feel about that?
John. Today's passage from John's First letter is surely one of the most wonderful in all Scripture! It is a progress report on the transformation of the saints from our natural selves into something far more glorious. And the process is already underway. Note the tense in the first verse: it is not a promise for the future: we are already "children of God". We are already two natures in one person, human by natural descent and divine by the grace of God. And, as the commercials love to say, that's not all! Something even more glorious is still in store for us, although we do not yet know what it is. Just as children often grow to be more like their parents with the passing years, it seem that something similar happens to us, the children of God. We become more and more like God (in whose image and likeness, of course, we are created). Notice, in passing, the link between verse 3, and verse 8 of today's gospel passage: to see God we must become pure in heart.
Taking It Personally.
· This is a perfect passage for slow, meditative reading. Let each word, each phrase, sink in to your consciousness. Come back to it many times over the coming week. Ask God to give you the grace to believe it.
· When you are next before a mirror remind yourself that you are looking at a child of God. How do you feel about that?
· Note the opening thought in this passage: God has "lavished" love on you. If you have any particular hurt from your past that is troubling you,bring it into the presence of this great love and ask for healing.
Matthew. The implication is that Jesus withdrew from the crowds, and addressed this famous teaching to his disciples. Certainly it makes no sense to those who do not believe in God. Notice that there seems to be a mix of "being" and "doing" here, but the emphasis is on the former. It is about being moulded into the person God created us to be. It is about being imitators of Christ, or having the same mind as Christ. It is about the way saints are to grow into the glory of God. Notice that in verses 3 and 10 the present tense is used, while in the other verses the "reward" follows the event. Above all, notice how this "charter" turns on its head the values of our country at this time.
Taking It Personally.
· Use this passage as a personal checklist. How are you doing?
· Which of these beatitudes do you find the most challenging? Why? What can you do about it? Is there someone you could talk to about it?
· To what extent (if any) are you going to use this list as a checklist for assessing policies and programmes put forward in the coming General Election?
· We have already noted the connection between 1 John 3:3 and verse 8 of this passage. Now reflect on the connection between verse 1 of that passage and verse 9 of this passage. As a child of God how might you carry out the ministry of peacemaker in your present circumstances?