Today we, along with most mainline Churches, are celebrating All Saints. As in year’s past, All Saints has traditionally been a day to recognize those Christians throughout history who had obtained, what Roman Catholics and high Church Anglicans call, ‘the beatific vision.’ The beatific vision is generally understood to occur after someone dies (with glimpses sometimes while one is living), and it is the ultimate direct self communication of God to a person, with the person fully able to receive what God offers to him or her. This person is understood to have become a part of the ‘communion of saints,’ which we hear about in our liturgies sometimes.
What is this state: well, this is the state of having obtained salvation. Salvation is the perfection of what we were made for: perfect relationship with God. We could call this heaven. You might think heaven to be a particular place we go, but in fact Scripture seems more inclined to say that heaven is the experience we have of God’s fullness, his full presence with us where we cannot go astray.
Our reading from Revelation puts it like this: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more.” John is speaking to us God’s revelation to him about this ‘heaven that we anticipate,’ this perfect relationship with God. John continues, “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Recall from week’s past the marriage imagery that Scripture has provided to us: the holy city or new Jerusalem whether you want to think of it as a literal city, or as a figurative place, is in fact either physical place where everything is redeemed, where everything and every single human being, has been transformed by God into the perfect thing or person with perfect relationships to him and to one another, or it is potentially a state of being, a physical state of being, because as we know from Corinthians, we, like Jesus, will be resurrected with new spiritual bodies of some sort. But this state of being, whatever it is, is a state of being in perfect communion, perfect relationship to God and to those things that he created.
One of the reasons many theologians question the sort of Sunday school version of ‘going to heaven’ going to a place in the clouds, is actually because there are many passages in Scripture that speak of God coming down, his descending, again. This of course is what we anticipate during the season of Advent right before Christmas. Not only are we giving thanks for God sending his Son into the world for our sakes, we are anticipating God’s second coming to us: Lo he comes on clouds descending we sing out in Advent. And here in Revelation we hear John say to us, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne, God’s throne of course, saying, ‘see, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God, they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” You see in God’s revelation to John about how he will draw all things to himself at the end of our history and time, we in fact don’t hear that we ‘go someplace,’ Rather, we hear that God comes amongst us, AGAIN.
God comes for us. God does precisely what he promises as we hear throughout Scripture again and again. In Isaiah we hear that he “destroys the shroud of sin that separates people from him.” He tears it down. And as Isaiah says and Revelation confirms, “when God comes amongst us, we can be assured that death will not swallow us up; it will not be our final end; we will not become lost to the material things of this world, things measurable by science. Rather God’s promise is that our bodies will be raised, not broken, sick, frail bodies, but spiritual bodies, bodies that transcend the very limits of scientific measurement: bodies that are perfected by God, made to exist, to have life eternal in perfect relationship with God.
When God comes, he has promised that he will wipe away every tear that has been shed in suffering, in sorrow, in pain, in doubt, in fear and anger, frustration and helplessness. He will wipe away forever, the disgrace of his people, the disgrace of acting knowingly in the wrong for so many reasons, and the disgrace of acting wrong out of ignorance in how God would have us act. He comes to end for all time, the shame that comes from broken relationships, trust gone wrong, lament, struggle, sickness, and failure. He comes to reconcile all the things that break us, grind us down, that sometimes hold us hostage to long suffering at our own hands, or those of another.
It will be said on this last day, Lo, this one who comes to us, is our God; we have waited for him – as Anglicans we might say – every Advent we have anticipated, fasting, praying, confessing, repenting, knowing that all our deeds, all our words will be brought to light for judgment. Knowing that our God is a merciful God, we might lift up our heads, as the gates are lifted up in psalm 24, to lift up our heads, to look up in anticipation of God’s coming to us, and to prepare ourselves for this. That we might, during Epiphany, celebrate this reality of God’s having come into the world for us, and that with Jesus, we might set our own faces to Jerusalem, not in fear, or pain, or hurt, or despair, no, not in despair, but even if we are struggling, to set our faces to Jerusalem, prepared to take up our own crosses of following Jesus with the sure hope of precisely what we hear John reveal to us today: God has come amongst us, he sustains us, he will come for us on the last day and in this time of preparation and waiting, we can wait in hope. More than that then, if we are waiting now in hope, we can ACT in hope and so we can ACT with love for others. We have been grounded in the love of God and we will be raised in his love and so we are set free to act in this world to be catalysts by whom God raises others.
This great God we have came amongst us and those things we suffered as human beings, he suffered as a human being, except for sin. And he knew and he knows our suffering. Our God does not know suffering in the general sense, he knows the precise suffering of each one of us, living in bodies and relationships that are not perfect, that get frail, old, broken down (body and relationship alike). He sees those of us who are in Mary’s shoes – those who have lost brothers or sisters, mothers, fathers, children, aunts and uncles, who look out on those who are now struggling toward their deaths having lost physical or mental or emotional capacities – and he weeps with us. We hear in John’s Gospel that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” And he cried. Our God sees our pain, he sees our suffering, and he cries out with anguish. And then, he does as he promises throughout the Scriptures, he raises Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead: “Lazarus come out, the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth … unbind him and let him go.” And Lazarus is set free from the sting of death. Lazarus is restored to life in and by God. Lazarus provides us a sign of God’s promise: we too shall be raised from death; we too will be ‘unbound’ from the confines of death, the sting of death, as Revelation calls it. We will be ‘let go’ from our binding of death, mortal death, and restored to life with God, by God himself.
Our celebration of All Saints Day then is a bit like having a moment to contemplate, to find hope in those who have lived out their Christian lives before us, people like Mary and Lazarus, whom we believe are now part of, what Catholics call the Church triumphant, or what Anglicans and other protestants sometimes call, the communion of saints. The Catholic Church, as you likely know, mark particular people out in history as those they believe to have done particularly faithful work in being catalysts through which God has drawn others to him. They will have an assessment period for their life and works, and then if thought worthy, these persons are beatified and celebrated. Some higher Church Anglicans do this as well. I am inclined to look at the lives of particular Christians whom I know in history, or who I see at present who give their lives to God, who follow Christ in sometimes very subtle ways – those folks who fix lights for a parish, who drive people to church day by day, who go visit members of the parish, who speak of God to family and neighbors – these are the folks who, when they die, I find hope in. Why? For in their work, in their witness, in their following God in their own particular ways, I see the light of Jesus Christ himself. And so in them, I am inspired to follow him in my own way. So I suppose then, I collapse All Saints and All Souls day into one: for before God we are all made equal, Jews, gentiles, male, female, slave and free.
The point is this, however: we recall, remember and even celebrate the lives of Christians – famous for their witness to God, and not so famous – because for us, they point us forward to the one who gives us all life, purpose, place, and hope. They give us hope not that our works get us something, but that the love of God working in them is true and real, and they do what they do because they have been transformed by God’s love for them. This is why God calls us to follow him, to know him, to seek him, to do his will: so that we might give to one another the hope of Jesus Christ that can be hard to hold to as we suffer the realities of our finite life. So let us then pray, ‘thanks be to God who has accomplished all things, and gives us hope in those who follow him.’ AMEN.