Today is All Saints Day. On this special day we make the church the theme of our meditation. Now we have to understand that the church is one. To be sure, in this world she has been rent asunder by her many divisions into denominations. But in essence the church is one, despite her disfigurement by these divisions. That is what we confess in the well-known hymn:
Elect from every nation, Yet one o’er all the earth; Her charter of salvation, One Lord, one faith, one birth…
But we also have to understand something else. While the church is one, it’s also two. To be more precise, it is composed of two groups.
The first, which is most familiar to us, is called the church militant. It refers to the church here and now. It is the church in the heat of the battle. Make no mistake. We are in a struggle. Embattled from within and hard pressed from without, we are the church on pilgrimage through this world to the kingdom of heaven that Jesus promises to his followers. But we don’t arrive there without battle scars.
The second is called the church triumphant. It refers to the church that is above. It’s the church that has fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. Those who have gone before us have arrived at their destination, where they enjoy rest from their labors in the presence of their Lord.
The lessons designated for All Saints Day give us a profile of these two groups which make up the one church. Put otherwise, they present to us the one church under two aspects. The first we can call the view from below. For this we have to turn to our gospel lesson. The second we can call the view from above. It can be taken from our first lesson. Let us then devote the next several moments considering each in its turn.
The scene is a mountain where Jesus is teaching. The lesson contains the beginning of the famed Sermon on the Mount. To be more exact, it contains the beatitudes, a Latinized word that simply means “blessings.”
To whom does Jesus give these blessings? He begins by pronouncing blessing on people who lack, who suffer deprivation, on people who are in undesirable situations. There are four classes to be distinguished here. But common to them all is that they embrace people who suffer from life’s misfortunes.
Perhaps we have been puzzled before by these verses. In what sense can we call “blessed” those for whom life has not gone well? If, for example, the word “blessed” is no more than a declaration, then doesn’t it sound cruel here? Is it good news to say that the poor and the miserable are in fact happy? Is it even right to say around them: “Isn’t it great to be miserable?”
Let’s be clear here. It’s not the condition in which these people exist that Jesus calls “blessed.” There’s nothing good about poverty of spirit, about sorrow, about meekness, about hunger and thirst. Jesus is not promoting a masochistic, self-flagellating spirituality. What is good is that Jesus turns first to the people in this condition to show them compassion. He turns to the poor, the brokenhearted, the powerless, and those who feel inadequate, to bless them. He blesses the empty people, who, in the world’s eyes, and in their own, do not measure up. We should understand him to be saying: “I am with you; I am on your side, even if things are not going well for you. Even if you seem to yourself to be a failure, I have a good future in store for you.”
It’s hard for us to see this, much less believe it, because it’s counterintuitive. When we see someone happy in his marriage and family, successful in his business, abounding in wealth and prosperity, we consider him blessed. Indeed, some still even use this word to describe their condition: “I have been blessed” or “God has blessed us.”
We’re not saying that this is a wrong response. On the contrary, we should be thankful for the good things that come to us in this life. But we have to be careful here. If it’s true that good things are evidence of God’s favor, does it follow that the absence of good things is evidence of God’s disfavor? It’s hard for us to believe otherwise. But Jesus calls blessed the people who lack these good things.
There’s another reason to be careful here. All that glitters is not gold. Things are not always as they seem. Last year, the journalist Rod Dreher posted a letter on his blog. In the letter the man writes that he drives a nice car, lives in a nice house, makes more than enough money to provide for his family. By all the world’s standards, he’s doing well. But after thirty years of marriage, his wife dropped a bomb on him: she’s unhappy and wants out.
It devastated him. He tells how he went to a shoe repair shop, where there were guys his age sitting and talking and laughing together. He supposed that he makes 10 or 15 times more than they do, but also that they are rich in ways he used to be. He would trade all he has for a happy marriage, a strong family, and good friends. He goes to church, and he wonders how many men in the pews are just like him, barely holding it together, wondering what they’re living for, ignored by their wives, and starving for friendship.
At the end of his letter, he advises Dreher in these words: “I would just ask your readers to keep in mind that when they see people at church, in the store, at other places—these people might be suffering in ways that are not obvious. You think they have it made, but they don’t. You see me getting out of my luxury car at church, with my wife, and we’re dressed up and smiling, but from my very jaded perspective, we’re dead people who have no future.”
But about Jesus’ followers, this is not true. They do have a future. In the Bible, the purpose of blessing is always to empower, to make fertile and productive. In this case, the purpose is to pick up all who are down and empower them to go out and pick others up.
That leads us to the next three beatitudes. Here we move from passive sufferers to active doers. If the image of the first group is that of hands extended upwards in tearful prayer, the image of the second group is that of hands extended outwards to help.
The merciful come to the aid of those in need. Not only do they put up with their own troubles, they also take on the troubles of others. One commentator has said that people who are poor, sorrowful, meek and repentant are precisely those who have a heart for others in their need. It can be the curse of the rich and the satisfied that their situation makes their hearts hard towards others. They say: “it’s their own fault they are poor; they didn’t work as hard as I did.” But many of the rich have never known real poverty. And unless you yourself have experienced real need, it is hard to be moved to help another in need.
We can expect the same from the pure in heart and the peacemaker. They too are called to people in need. They help people to know God, to come together to reconcile and to create community. If in the first four beatitudes we are picked up from the earth, in the next three we are thrown into it.
We should ask ourselves at this point: Is this where we want to be? Do we want to be among those the world despises and rejects, but whom Jesus blesses? Is the kind of company we want to keep?
If our answer is “yes,” then we indicate our willingness to belong to the church militant. We’ve enlisted for the battle. We’re committed to the struggle. And that is good, because the last two beatitudes teach us to expect opposition. That may surprise us. Why should kindness and decency be rewarded with persecution? Do not wisdom and experience teach us that the better one is, the less trouble one has? And yet everyone who desires to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution. “In this world, you will have trouble,” Jesus told his disciples in the Gospel of John (16:33). The church often has to take a stand against a hating and impure world, and the world in turn hates it for this resistance. But if the world hates us, we should know that it hated him first (cf. John 15:18). Nevertheless, we have to hold on. For great is our reward in heaven.
That leads us to our first lesson, which is taken from Revelation. In the original language, the word “revelation” means the “lifting of the veil, to disclose what is hidden from view.” John the Seer, the author of the book, lifts the veil to show us what awaits the church militant. We have here the seer’s vision of the church triumphant.
At the center of the vision is the Lamb. This is Jesus Christ. The image is meant to bring to mind sacrifice. It points us to the cross, on which the Lamb of God was sacrificed. Here the shame of the cross has been transformed into the glory of a throne.
It’s the triumph of the Lamb that is celebrated in the heavenly worship. In contrast to the obscurity in which Jesus lived his life among the poor and the outcast in a small province of the Roman empire, here numberless throngs of worshipers stand before him, worshipers from every people, nation, tribe and language. They’ve joined the universal chorus to acclaim the salvation that God has accomplished through the Lamb.
In their hands, they are holding palm branches. In Jewish tradition, the palm branch is a symbol of victory, at least since the time that Israel defeated the Seleucid empire at the hands of Simon Maccabee in 141 BC. When Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the people greeted him with palm branches. They show here that the worshipers are in the presence of royal majesty.
Note also that the worshippers come out of the great tribulation. Probably the original recipients of John’s vision were suffering persecution under the Roman emperor at the time. But tribulation accompanies all human history, a history marred by evil, suffering and death. In our history, people hunger and thirst. In these images we may see all the deprivations and unfulfilled desires of people in all times and at all places. But in this vision the Lamb leads them to springs of living water, which represents the satisfaction of their desires. In our history people lack shelter. In this image we may see the absence of protection from all sorts of evil that intrude into people’s lives, diminishing them and even ending them prematurely. But in this vision the one who sits on the throne shelters them with his presence. In our history the eyes of people are filled with tears. But in this vision God himself will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
All Saints Day can be compared to Memorial Day. On Memorial Day we remember and honor the soldiers who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. The church has her own soldiers who served in the church militant. They followed Christ their Commander at great personal sacrifice, having been conformed to him in his death, that they might participate in his resurrection. There are great saints among them, many of whom we celebrate as martyrs.
But to restrict the term “saint” to them alone is to define the term too narrowly. There have been saints among us. The ordinary people who lived out their faith in grace and humility—these are also included among the great number of saints we remember and honor on All Saints Day. To God they are not ordinary. In his kingdom, they are likely to have higher rank than we would expect. They have come out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, and are now worshipping God before his throne. Let us remember them today. Let us draw inspiration and courage from their witness. Amen.