All Saints’ Sunday

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight,
O LORD, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen (Ps. 19:14)

I don’t know how long you have been coming to church and how long you have been reading your Bible. You might think that the Beatitudes we just heard, some of the most famous words of Jesus, are both comforting and beautiful. Many in our society think so. Even if people do not believe in Jesus as the Son of God, many appreciate and love his moral teaching.
allsaints-beatitudesThese beatitudes we just heard, are the first part of the longer Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.  They are marvellous chapters, where Jesus teaches his disciples how to treat one another and how best to serve God.  Some of the most famous verses of the Bible can be found here.  For example, Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, not to worry, not to judge others, and to do to others what you would have them do to you.

The Sermon on the Mount is perceived by many as one of the best pieces of literature ever.  So, some time ago an English professor in Texas, Virginia Stem Owens, had her students write an essay about this Sermon on the Mount, expecting that her students living in Bible-believing Texas would appreciate it.[1]

But instead, she found to her surprise, that for most of the students it was the first time in their lives they read the Sermon on Mount.  This consequently meant that her students were looking at this sermon with fresh eyes, and they all hated it.

She expands on this in her article, but to give two quotes:

“I did not like the [essay] ‘Sermon the Mount.’  It was hard to read and made me feel like I had to be perfect and no one is.”

“The things asked in this sermon are absurd.  To look at a woman is adultery?  That is the most extreme, stupid, un-human statement that I have ever heard.”

Jesus calls on us in this sermon to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect (5:48).  I think those students were right.  The things asked in this sermon are absurd.  They are impossible.  No one is perfect.  Well, almost no one.

We come together here today, because one of us was perfect. When God gave the Law in the Old Testament as we read in Exodus 19, he told them he would speak to them from the top of a mountain. Poor Moses is his messenger who needs to go up the mountain to hear from God, go down to tell the people what will happen, go up to tell God what their answer is, go down again, go up to see God again, etc.  When God will speak to the people, this is going to be such a holy moment, that people need to wash everything, prepare for three days and no one, not even animals are allowed to even touch the mountain during that time.  When God then gives the law he does so in a cloud, with lots of smoke and thunder and it is unbearable for the poor people of Israel, they stand at a distance and tell Moses to speak with God while they keep away safely.

In our Gospel reading it is different.  Now we don’t have Moses running up and down the mountain, we have God come down among us.  God becomes human and we can be with him, even touch him. Jesus now takes his disciples up the mountain and teaches them there.  But, however much friendlier this seems, it doesn’t make the message any easier.  On the contrary.  The law may have been impossible to keep for Israel, these words of Jesus are impossible for all of us.

But, what Jesus preaches he fulfils himself.  All the law and prophets he keeps, he fails in no way, though we all do.  And yet he takes us up the mountain.  And not only that, we, in our baptism, are clothed with Christ. We have a right to be up there.  We have a right to be with God and through Christ we can become perfect as our Father is perfect.

And so it is we come to the theme of this feast of today, All Saints.  Who are all the saints?  Well, our first answer has to be Christ.  He is the only man who is truly holy as God is holy.  Everyone else falls short.  No one else is perfect.

St Barnabas Anglican Church in Jericho, Oxford, England

On the photo of St Barnabas you have been given (right), you see a depiction of all sorts of biblical imagery. Christ is reigning up in the dome, behind him is a rainbow, around him are the elders, in front of him seven lamps pointing to the seven spirits before the throne of God and on the side you see the four beasts, and throughout the whole church there are all sorts of depictions of saints.  All sorts of imagery used by people like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and John here in the reading of Revelation we heard [7:2-12].  Look up Revelation 4 and 5 for example to see how much you can find back in this photo.

Throughout the year we commemorate all sorts of saints and holy people, people who lived close to God. Today we remember them all, dead and alive, with great joy and gladness.  St Barnabas is full of statues and depictions of all sorts of saints, on the photo you can see on the banners (bottom left and bottom right) Mary, the mother of our Lord and St Barnabas for example.  And that is right.  But the church needs not only to be full of depictions of dead saints, but full of living Christians.  The church, all saints, is all living and dead Christians together.

Today we do not only celebrate the dead saints, but our own saintliness, our being one with one another in Christ. We, living and dead, are one in Christ, who is the holy one. Therefore we are holy. Therefore we are saints. And so the NT writers often begin their epistles with phrases such as: to all the saints in …. [Utrecht].  You are a saint.

Do you behave like one?

Are you merciful? For they shall receive mercy.

Are you pure in heart? Or are there some things you need to put in order.

Have you made your peace with everyone in your life? Actively, even when you have been wronged, are you making peace? Parent, sibling, ex-spouse, teacher, everyone?

Are you mourning and desperate for righteousness in our world?

Are you meek and humble in heart as Jesus is?

jericho4All this talk about saintliness and perfection can make us tired.  How in the world are we ever going to achieve this?  The truth is, we know deep down, we aren’t.  And yet… When I took that photo of St Barnabas, I was standing under a huge cross, dominating the whole church.  The imagery up in the front of the church on the photo depicting heaven is open to us. We all are welcome, but we can only enter through the cross.

Shortly after this sermon we will have an opportunity once again to make right with God when we confess our sins.  When we go home after the service, we have an opportunity to make right with our neighbour.  Do we allow God into every part of our lives?  To make us perfect?

Later in the service, when we have confessed our sins and received forgiveness once again, we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper.  Have you ever thought about the original institution of that meal?  In the last night before they left Egypt, the people of Israel ate it in celebration of the fact that they were going to be freed from their slavery.  They weren’t free yet.  They had no guarantee whatsoever that the next day was going to be any different than all the days before that.  And yet God told them to celebrate their freedom, and they did.

We come here to God’s holy table, not because we always feel we are free.  Not because we always embody the saintliness and perfection Jesus asks of us.  But because we believe that we will be and that our freedom has already begun.  Today we celebrate.  We look back on all God’s faithful saints.  We prepare ourselves for this holy meal, and we look forward to the day that Jesus comes again to celebrate with us forever.  And hopefully soon, the whole church will be united in white robes, and we will cry out with a loud voice:

Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving
and honour and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever!

The Adoration of the Lamb (detail), Ghent Altarpiece, Van Eyck, 1432

[1] Virginia Stem Owens. “God and Man at Texas A&M.” Reformed Journal 37, no. 11 (1987): 3–4