All Saints’ Sunday – Pr Smith
Homily for All Saints’ Day
OSL, Raleigh 2023
Grace and peace…
All Saints’ Day is a chief festival of the Christian Church, one of those days like Epiphany or Ascension that’s very important and my guess is, not well-understood. It’s become one of those days to give thanks for all those people we hold near and dear to our hearts who are now with Jesus and at rest from their earthly labors. It’s a day of comfort and pure joy. You can tell a lot about a day by the readings associated with the day. Our readings show that today is as much a glimpse of the Church victorious and the Church triumphant as it is an indication of what joy our loved ones have already entered into in heaven and what awaits each of us as we remain steadfast to the end. And even by its position on the Church’s calendar, All Saints’ Day comes at turn in the year as we head to the end and so it has this context of last things and heavenly scenes.
By pairing the first reading with the Gospel reading, it’s almost as if we can look them as snapshots. And if we follow some of the thinking out there we can see them as before and after pics, well, after and before pics. The Revelation reading being a snapshot of heavenly bliss and the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as what it takes to get there. But I want to challenge that way of thinking for you today and hopefully point you toward Jesus’ message and to a fuller sense of our Christian hope in Him.
Matthew seems to understand that not everyone who hears these words of Jesus, not just the Beatitudes, but the whole of the Sermon on the Mount, will understand them as they should and believe. There seems to be a distinction between the crowds who follow Jesus around and the disciples who actually listen and believe. Jesus sees the crowds, goes up on the mountain, set down to teach, and that’s when the disciples came to Him to listen. Now I think we can assume the disciples here are more than just the Twelve. Disciples seems to refer to a group of people that is bigger than that and even incorporates some of the women who followed Jesus. My point is the crowds heard Jesus teaching and found Him interesting. But the disciples listened and believed and were blessed by the words Jesus spoke.
Jesus is speaking with authority, not as other religious teachers of the day would speak, talking about God’s blessings, but speaking God’s blessing in such a way that it blesses those who hear it. The difference is that the crowds marvel that Jesus would be so bold as to speak this way. But dear soul, look at how Jesus uses authority. It is an authority that will go on to express itself in healings and exorcisms, in saving those in danger, raising the dead, and in forgiving sins. Matthew portrays Jesus as ever gracious, reaching out to those in need and manifesting the gracious rule of God as he drives back the power of Satan in the world and calls people to be His disciples. And His disciples hear Jesus speak and they are blessed. The crowd hears and marvels. The disciples hear with ears of faith and are blessed. In Jesus, God is reigning again in the world. And that kingdom is one of grace and mercy and peace and forgiveness with those who have ears to hear.
And so, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for to them belongs the kingdom of heaven.” I have an alternate translation. “Blessed are those who really need God to be in charge.” Does that sounds good? God being in charge? The only people who don’t want God in charge, as king of heaven and King of kings on earth are those who are trying to be kings and, well, gods, all by themselves. The “poor in spirit” here are not just the poor, as though there was anything remotely virtuous about being poor. Nor is this a slam against the wealthy, although Jesus will later warn folks that earthly wealth rots and rusts away. The only other time Jesus mentions the poor is in chapter 11 when he says, the poor have the good news preached to them. It’s a signpost for the Messiah doing kingdom restoring work. Along with the blind who receive their sight, the lame walking, lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, and the dead being raised up, the poor are preached to. Who are the spiritually poor? Well, I think contextually, they are objectively in need like the others. The blind lack sight, the deaf the ability to hear, the lepers needing cleaning, etc. So the poor in spirit would be those who are dispirited, those who have lost hope. This is the difference between being a member of the crowd hearing Jesus teaching and being a disciple and really listening to Jesus and being blessed. The crowd member looks within and sees they’re not all that bad. Sure, they’ve made some mistakes but nothing others haven’t done. This is not someone who is poor in spirit. The disciple looks within and sees, well, in the language of our liturgy, sees “a poor miserable sinner.” The spiritually poor are those who are like lost sheep and need rescuing, like sinners who know they can’t undo what they’ve done, who can’t unhurt the people they’ve hurt. And to them, Jesus says, you’re blessed.
Modern translators have gone with happy here more often than not. “Happy are the poor in spirit.” “Happy are those who mourn.” “Happy are you when others revile you.” It’s technically correct, lexically, at least. When Homer used it in the Odyssey, he used it to describe those who live in a state of godlike happiness in a state of not needing to care. Later on, it comes to mean, simply rich. I certainly don’t think that’s what Jesus means here. How could the poor in spirit be happy? Or for that matter, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness? Are they ever happy? Certainly not in this world. So this word must have something to do with our first reading from Revelation. Only that level of eternal, transcendent happiness is applicable here. And my read of the current language landscape of our time is that happy isn’t powerful enough of a word, not today. Not when Jesus is talking about being so aware of His victory on the cross over sin, death, and the power of the devil that it surpasses the pain of life in the here and now, when things don’t go right, when we lose loved ones, when we are persecuted for righteousness sake, when others revile us and utter all manner of evil against us falsely, just because we can truly hear Jesus and believe. “Lord, I believe. Help, Thou, my unbelief!” And He does!
Jesus is at the very beginning of His ministry here. Even the casual churchgoer knows that Jesus will encounter all manner of lost souls on His way to Jerusalem and the cross, the tax collectors and prostitutes and the rest whom the world has cursed, who have come to believe they have gone too far down a path that leads to nothing but emptiness and ruin. To them Jesus says, if you’re really in need, I bless you. It’s not just that God is righting wrongs in the world, it’s proof that God is charge, He’s king again. It is as though the future bliss of heaven is reaching backward from eternity into the now.
I said earlier that these readings today are like snapshots of after and before. They are and they aren’t. Yes, the Revelation reading is a snapshot of after, although it’s loaded with the kinds of highly symbolic language of Jewish apocalyptic literature, complete with white robes and palm branches and a throne. And yes, those who, for now, still live here, are encouraged to see their future selves, gathered around the throne and before the lamb. And we could read the Gospel as a kind of how-to manual for getting there. All it takes is some meekness and mercy and peacemaking along with a dash of hungering for righteousness and a dash of persecution and we’ll have our tickets for the throne room of the Lamb in heaven. Except, except… that’s not right at all. The kingdom of heaven is not heaven. The kingdom of heaven is God reigning already here and now. And God is reigning by healing, exorcising, and blessing, and forgiving. No earthly king could rule this way. But God is no earthly king. Jesus came and said the kingdom of heaven had come in His coming.
It is curiously bold for a mere man to stand in front of people and say something as unusual as, “I forgive you all your sins,” isn’t it? Or is it a blessing?
“Without the blessing of Jesus—without the strength and power and hope that the Beatitudes provide when they are rightly understood and believed—no one can receive and live in the calling that Jesus then gives.” -Gibbs
The Sermon on the Mount is not so much the condensed version of the basic instructions before leaving Earth as much as it is the beginning of the blessing of those who hear the words of Jesus and will be gathered with Him on the Last Day.
And All Saints’ Day is not so much a day of remembrance for the Church as much as it is a day of anticipation and expectancy and true hope for those with ears to hear.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.