November 5, 2023

All Saints’ Day 2023

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus[a] saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he began to speak and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely[b] on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Today is the Sunday on which we observe All Saints’, and I want to think with you for a few minutes about the connection between All Saints’ and the Beatitudes, the opening passage of the Sermon on the Mount, which we just heard. This text is assigned to be read every All Saints’ Day. So, let’s start with All Saints’.

All Saints’ began as a way of handling a complicated church calendar. When the number of canonized Christian martyrs, those who gave their lives for their faith, grew larger than the numbers of days in a year, the church realized that it needed one day to celebrate the many who did not have their own personal feast day. At first, this feast of All Saints’ was celebrated during the Easter season, as part of the celebration of the resurrection, until, almost twelve hundred years ago, it was moved to November 1. Today, of course, All Saints’ lives in the shadow of the day that comes before it – Halloween.

For most of us, especially Protestant Christians, All Saints’ is a personal time of remembrance. We give thank for those saints who touched our lives personally, the ones we knew and loved, and who now live with God and the saints in light.

As a congregation, we recall the members who have died between last November and today. Their names are on the front of the bulletin. And we also share and call out names that are personal to us – friends, siblings, parents, grandparents, mentors – and they, too, are called in worship. I’ve always been struck by how naming them re-members them to us, not just remembers, but re-members, makes them members of our gathering once more. The simple act of calling a name in the company of God’s people, especially for those of us who knew and loved them best, brings to mind and heart our gratitude for the difference they’ve made, for their legacy that lives on in us and reminds us to continue learning from them by living toward our full potential.

If you, like me, are remembering someone close to you today, I want to share three thoughts that may be helpful for All Saints’ and for the holidays that are coming soon. First, remember the one you love. The ones whom we love continues to be present to us in our memories, in the pictures or the videos we have, and in the stories that we recall and tell. One way you can celebrate All Saints’ is by telling a story of the person you remember, maybe to your friends or family, or even writing it down just for yourself. Pull out your old pictures, watch a video if you have it. It can be painful, there may be tears. The memories are bittersweet; but it is grief mixed with love. The act of remembering puts us in touch with the ones we love.

Second, honor their legacy. The one who has passed into the presence God – I do not say passed away, because they have not simply gone away, they have passed into God’s presence – is never really gone from us, because their legacy lives in us. It may be a particular facial expression you make that reminds you of them; or turn of phrase you picked up from them that now is yours. Or perhaps it is an attitude toward life, or a quality of character, or even a foundation of faith that you got from them. Mark this All Saints’ by naming the legacy that is alive in you, and giving thanks for how that person’s life has shaped your own.

Third, we can be grateful for the communion of saints. We confess by faith that we believe in the communion of Saints. Have you ever noticed that? When we confess the Apostles’ Creed, we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints…”. The Christian church confesses the reality of the communion of saints which binds we on earth to those who have gone before. The Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson believed we Protestants need to take the reality of this doctrine more seriously. He wrote, “The church is one communion through time. This communion cannot be broken by time’s discontinuities, particularly not by death, for it is founded in the eternal triune communion of God and is constituted in the Spirit who is the Power of eternal life.[1]

We believe that those who belong to Christ are never completely separated from one another, even when we death has lowered a veil. We are bound by Christ’s love, and our bonds to one another – though distant and unseen – are as real in Christ as they were when we could see face to face. Because of the love of Christ, we have confidence that our goodbyes are not final. There will be a great reunion, a banquet, a celebration, from North, South, East, and West. And while the nature of the reunion is mysterious to us, and we see now only dimly what it might be like, the hope of our faith assures us that we will see one another again in the communion of saints in light. Thanks be to God!

So how does all of this relate to the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount? All Saints’ invites us to give thanks for those in heaven on whom God’s eternal light shines. The Beatitudes show us where to see where God’s light is shining here, on earth. The Beatitudes tell us where we will find the light of God’s blessing, where God’s near presence is close at hand. And where is it?

With the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. With those who are grieving, for they are being comforted. With the meek, for the earth belongs to them. With those who are hungry and thirsty for justice, for they will be filled. With the merciful, for they will receive mercy. With the pure in heart, for they will see God. With the peacemakers, for they will be called God’s children. With the persecuted, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

These, Jesus says, are blessed. It’s hard to know what to make of that word “blessed.” In the literal language of scripture, it means happy. But that doesn’t much sense to us, and it shouldn’t. Whatever blessing belongs to these, and Jesus says they are blessed, it is an upside-down blessing. It is a blessing of future promise more than present reality. It is a blessing, like the cross of Christ itself, hidden under a contradictory sign. It is a blessing that must be in the hands of God.

The Presbyterian theologian Margaret Aymer translates the word blessed as greatly honored. “Greatly honored” are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful. In a culture where honor belongs to the strong, the eloquent, the wealthy, the put together, and the winners, God honors the ones who are weak, vulnerable, and falling apart. The New Testament scholar Eric Barreto says that the promise of the Beatitudes is that when we turn to these ones – the poor, the mourning, the meek – we will see and experience the shape of God’s kingdom.

So, where is it that we should turn today? If we look across the globe, we will see that God’s light is shining on people like our mission partners in Madagascar, the church called FJKM. This week, they asked us to pray for them as they try to create a peaceful resolution to a presidential crisis and avoid political violence in their streets.

And we will surely see those who live in the rubble of the unbelievably tragic war in Israel. For over a month, the stories from Israel and Gaza have almost too unbearable to read. Nearly 1400 people died, not including casualties and hostages, in the terrorist attacks on Israel nearly a month ago. Over 9000 people have died in Gaza in the ensuing war, including 3700 children, and countless more casualties. At a very minimum, the Beatitudes teach us that we must recognize our common humanity, even in the pursuit of worthy political goals, and especially in war. Each of us is created in God’s image and we are neighbors to one another, no matter our nationality or ethnicity or religion or political affiliation.  And for those of us who follow Jesus, his blessing over the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourning, the hungry for justice, the persecuted and the peacemakers, compels us to stand with them as a witness to the strange of blessing of God.

If we look closer to home to find where God’s light is shining, we do not need to look far to see our own neighbors in need. The Saturday Sanctuary ministry of this congregation, which just started yesterday and will continue through March, brings us into relationship with our close neighbors whom God greatly honors. Saturday Sanctuary, along with many other ministries in our community, seeks to serve our neighbors who struggle to find or keep housing, and who struggle to navigate the complicated social service and medical systems that we move through with relative ease. These too are they over whom Jesus pronounces a blessing, on whom God’s light is shining. If we draw close to them, we stand with them in the light.

And, if we turn and look closely at ourselves, we will see God’s light shining on us. For surely, within every one of us, tucked somewhere in a closet that we do not wish to open, there is a poverty of spirit, perhaps a deep grief, or a feeling smallness or fear, or a wound that will not heal. We try to hide it from others, not think about it if we can, we wrestle with the feelings out of sight or in our dreams. These promises of blessing are addressed to each one of us. If we find the part of ourselves that is most vulnerable, we will find that part of ourselves that is most blessed. If we draw close to the part of ourselves that is most weak, we will find the place of our common humanity and our shared suffering, and we will enter the place where God’s light in us is shining brightest.

This is really what All Saints’ Day is about. In the Reformed tradition, All Saints’ Day is less about our personal heroes of faith and much more about how we as the whole people of God are moving toward holiness. We are saints in Christ Jesus and we are becoming saints on our journey of faith and life. Growing as saints, becoming more holy as the people of God, is about proximity to those on whom God’s light shines. Proximity happens through careful and open listening, companionship, service, conversation, nearness to the places and people whom God blesses with this strange honor. When we walk in friendship and vulnerability with those whom Jesus calls blessed, we draw close to God. And we find ourselves walking in the same light that shines on all the saints, those on earth and those in heaven, the light of God’s goodness, mercy, and love.

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.

First Presbyterian Church

Asheville, North Carolina

[1] Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, p. 267.


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