Lectionary Commentaries for November 2, 2014
All Saints Sunday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12

Lance Pape

When Jesus ascends a mountain and begins to address the crowds (verses 1-2), the reader is expected to make the connection to another teacher (Moses), and another mountain (Sinai).

And soon enough, Jesus will complete that picture by offering instruction in righteousness — the Sermon on the Mount will have plenty to say about what we, as kingdom people, should and should not do.

But that’s not how his famous sermon begins. It begins with a list, but not with a list of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” Too often, the preacher tries to make the Beatitudes into law. “Be merciful,” the preacher exhorts, “and you will receive mercy.” That may be true at times, but it is not what Jesus is saying here.

The list we find here is in the indicative mood, not the imperative. It is description, not prescription. Jesus is not insisting that we become people who starve to see justice done (verse 6) — I suppose you either do or you don’t. What he is saying is that such people are blessed of God. God looks upon such people with favor. God’s eye is on them; they will be happy in the end. This, says Jesus, is the way things are.

But if the Beatitudes are a description of reality, what world do they describe? Certainly not our own. “Blessed are the meek” (verse 5), says Jesus, but in our world the meek don’t get the land, they get left holding the worthless beads. “Blessed are the merciful” (verse 7), says Jesus, but in our world mourning may be tolerated for a while, but soon we will ask you to pull yourself together and move on. “Blessed are the pure in heart” (verse 8), says Jesus, but in our world such people are dismissed as hopelessly naïve.

“Blessed are the peacemakers” (verse 9) says Jesus, but in our world those who pursue peace risk having their patriotism called into question. To which of these blessings do our national leaders refer when they insist that “God Bless[es] America!” To none of these, for our national creed is one of optimism (not mourning), confidence (not poverty of spirit), and abundance (not hunger or thirst of any kind), and it is in service of such things that we invoke and assume the blessing of God. And so we live by those other beatitudes:

Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.

Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.

Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.

If we are honest, we must admit that the world Jesus asserts as fact, is not the world we have made for ourselves.

And so, for now at least, we do not yet see all these things, “but we do see Jesus” (Hebrews 2:9). Jesus not only declares, but embodies this new world. An old poem promises that a day is coming when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that a crucified man is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11). Everyone will see at last that the one hung upon a tree in shame, the one who in poverty of spirit was forsaken by everyone — even by God in the end, it seemed — the last of the last, is first, is Lord of all. Every tongue will admit that the man of sorrows, the mourner, is comforted at last in the power of resurrection.

Every tongue will confess that the meek lamb who did not open his mouth before the slaughterers has been granted the earth and everything in it (Matthew 28:18). Every tongue will confess that the one who longed for justice has lived to see justice; that the one who practiced purity of heart is standing in the presence of God; that the great peacemaker is now called the Son of God. On that day every tongue will confess that the one who was persecuted for the sake of righteousness (verse 10) is indeed Blessed of God.

Until that day, the Beatitudes stand as a daring act of protest against the current order. Jesus cannot very well insist that we be poor in spirit, but he can show us how to look upon such people with new eyes, and so gain entrance to a new world. On All Saints Day, the Beatitudes testify that it matters deeply whom we call “saint.”

The Kingdom Jesus proclaimed and embodied is precisely a new way of seeing, a new way of naming, and so a new way of being. The current regime sweeps aside those Jesus declares blessed of God, but we are invited to look again and discern a new reality that is coming into being. When we learn to recognize such people as blessed — to call them saints — we pledge our allegiance to that new world even as we participate in its realization.


First Reading

Commentary on Revelation 7:9-17

Eric Mathis

Each year around All Saints Sunday, I’m reminded of Lawrence Hull Stookey’s writing about this Feast Day.

Stookey tells the story of a friend of his who explained to a Protestant class about the meaning of All Saints Day. A student abruptly stood up and replied, “Protestants don’t have saints!” The professor, in a moment of quick wit, ran to his office to grab a phonebook, and he asked the student to read the names of all the churches in the area. The student read, “St. James Baptist Church, St. John’s Lutheran Church, John Knox Presbyterian Church,” until he gave up and said, “I get it … I’m wrong!”

It became obvious to that student, and to the whole class, that we all have saints — those who are deceased, and those who are living and walking among us, and if we think with Paul, perhaps even we ourselves are saints. The word saint is not limited to the “greats” of history, for Paul and other writers in the New Testament use the term synonymously with Christian and, at times, believer. No matter how you define it, the word saint has broad implications, and that is perhaps the best way to describe this week’s New Testament passage from Revelation 7.

Revelation 7:9-17 is a passage with broad implications. In contrast to the first eight verses in this chapter which depict a specific number of worshipers (144,000), Revelation 7:9 casts a larger and more general vision for those who are able to worship around the throne of the Lamb. Beginning with verse 9, the writer describes a great multitude that is countless, numbering those from every tribe and people, and language. There is no limit to the scope of this multitude, be it geographic, ethnic, numeric, linguistic, economic, and on and on the list goes. This multitude is a blow-your-mind kind of multitude that no one can fully grasp. (verses 9-10).

Moreover, this multitude is seen and heard(verse 9). The multitude is clad in white, it is waving palm branches, and it is crying hymns of praise in a loud voice. While much of this imagery parallels the Triumphal Entry scene as depicted in the gospels, it should be noted that this multitude certifiably pledges itself to the Lamb. Unlike the multitude in the Triumphal Entry scene that later turns its back on the Messiah, this multitude will remain faithful to the Lamb “forever and ever.”1

Not only is this particular multitude to be known for its loyalty, this multitude is to be known as an active group. This group is comprised of individuals who have washed their robes. They are not passive, but active. They do not wait to be served by God, but they actively seek to serve God regularly. It is John who paints a clear picture of this group living out their vocation of worship and praise.

When asked by one in power, John describes not only their current actions but the results of their actions. They remain loyal to the Lamb, they wash their robes, and they worship in the temple (verses 13-15). As a result, they are sheltered, they are fed, they are quenched, they are protected (verses 15-17). Summed up, it might be said that this multitude has found freedom in the One they worship. Herein, the prophecy of Isaiah 25 is fulfilled.

On this Feast Day of All Saints, we Christians around the world gather to celebrate the lives of those saints who have gone on before us. We give thanks for those saints living still today. And, we ponder how all of us — you and me — are called to live lives of sanctity. This passage reminds us that being a faithful witness — like the great multitude — is the baptismal vocation of us all. It also reminds us that when we live out our Christian vocation, we find freedom in the Lamb of God who sustains all of us.

Most importantly, this passage reminds us that the vision for sainthood is all encompassing. It is all-inclusive. And, this needs to be the heart of any sermon preached on All Saints Sunday. The “great multitude” might include those who “washed their robes by living lives worthy of standing around the throne of God, but never named the name of Jesus.

Herein, this apocalyptic text, along with All Saints, reminds us that Christianity and saint-hood can’t always be reduced to a theological formula. Indeed, it was Jesus who said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

It is this truth, when coupled with the final verses of this passage, that we are reminded sanctity is partially Christian vocation, but it is also partially the work of God. Sanctity doesn’t come from us, it comes from the Lamb in whose name, person, and earthly vocation we are made free to approach the throne with boldness. It is here that once again, Lawrence Hull Stookey’s perspective becomes helpful:

“…those we rightly revere are ‘God’s saints’ in the sense that God creates them by grace. Men and women do not by sheer determination and self-discipline become saints. Sanctity is a divine gift. It is indeed the power of the resurrection at work in human lives. Thus commemorating the saints is nothing other than a way of affirming that the transformative power of Christ is at work all about us in human lives…We are saints because God’s sanctity is at work in us, not because on our own we have come to great spiritual attainment. In exploring the lives of the historic saints, it is necessary to be thoroughly honest about their limitations and faults, for only in this way do we come to believe that God can also work in the people around us and even in us, whose faults we know fully well.”2


Notes:

1 Christopher C. Rowland, “The Book of Revelation: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume XII, ed. Leander E. Keck, Thomas G. Long, David L. Petersen, et al, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 621.

2 Lawrence Hull Stookey, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 141-142.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 34:1-10, 22

LarsOlov Eriksson

Psalm 34 belongs to the so-called wisdom psalms in the Psalter, or maybe it is better to say that it contains several motifs which are connected to the wisdom literature in the Old Testament, since the genre of the psalm is disputed in the scholarly literature.

Gunkel himself gave up and characterized its form ”mixed Gattung.”

One typical characteristic of the psalm is that it is not directed to the Lord. Instead the psalmist addresses his ”children” (verse 11), i. e. his disciples. Furthermore, the psalm is an acrostic, and it also shows other traits which indicate that the poet has done a good job when it comes to the poetry of the piece.

The reason the psalm is chosen for All Saints Day is probably verse 9, where the ”holy ones” of the Lord are mentioned. The holy ones being those who fear the Lord. And fear of the Lord is as close to a synonym to faith one can come in the Old Testament.

The delimitation of the psalm in the lectionary is somewhat arbitrary, since the central verse of the entire psalm is left out. Verse 11 is from the point of view of both structure and content the focal line of the psalm. Here the message is spelled out and the aim of the psalmist is stated: ”I will teach you the fear of the Lord.”

Going through the lines of the psalm there is much repetition and the Lord is mentioned in almost every stanza. So even if the Lord is never talked to, he is very much present in the psalm. Together with repetition, contrast is also typical of the style of the psalm.

The structure of the poem is not evident. Each line stands in a way by itself, but the three first verses can be seen as a testimony of the psalmist in which he tells about his praising of the Lord and urges his disciples to do the same together with him.

The second part of the psalm, verses 4–10, tells about the experience of the how God has acted with his faithful. But in between the testimonies are exhortations to look to the Lord (verse 5), to taste and see the Lord’s goodness (verse 8), and to fear the Lord (verse 9). The final stanza is a summary (verse 22), in which the psalmist closes his teaching by repeating what he has already said.

Verse 10 mentions the ”young lions,” an expression much discussed. Goldingay suggests the translation ”apostates” referring to the root’s meaning in later Hebrew.1 In the Septuagint the Hebrew word is translated ”the rich”, which is evidently an interpretation. The simplest is perhaps to see the expression ”young lions” as a metaphor for the wicked, for those who stand in opposition to the pious or God-fearing.

In the history of interpretation, the line ”O taste and see that the Lord is good” (verse 8) has received special attention. The mention of tasting was from the fourth century on interpreted literally by the Christian fathers, and the psalm was therefore used in connection with Holy Communion. But from the very beginning — in the New Testament and in the earliest fathers — tasting was seen as a metaphorical way of talking about having a relationship with Jesus Christ. In other words: tasting the Lord’s goodness was seen as the same as believing in Jesus, since the Lord for the authors of the New Testament of course is Jesus. See i. e. 1 Peter 2:3.

The wisdom tradition in the Old Testament is never afraid of generalizations. In this lies both a temptation and a possibility. The temptation of course is to paint life in black and white; the possibility is to see that everything in fact is not grey. So the challenge is to use the wisdom teaching with a great amount of — wisdom!

In the psalm there are three main actors: the psalmist who prays and teaches, the Lord who acts and is worthy of praise, and the others who are either righteous or evildoers. In preaching the psalm it is possible to use these three groups as examples, and that would come close to doing what the psalmist actually does in the psalm.

In the last group mentioned in the previous paragraph, we find the ideal followers of the Lord, ”his holy ones” (verse 9). Relating the psalm to All Saints Day, the holy ones simply are the ones who fear the Lord, i. e. those who trust the Lord and obey him. They are described in several different ways, each contributing to make the picture of them appealing, since the aim of the psalmist is to make the readers of the psalm want to belong among the Lord’s holy ones. They are characterized as seeking the Lord (verse 10), taking refuge in the Lord (verses 8 and 22), and being his servants (verse 22). All well known descriptions in the Old Testament of right ways to relate to God.

There is one trait of the holy ones that might stand out a little, the fact that their faces ”are radiant” (in the Masoretic text the first line of verse 6 contains a statement, not an exhortation: ”Those who look to him will shine/be radiant”). This shining of the face — or the eyes — is as true a sign of holiness today as it ever was in Old Testament times.

If the whole psalm is taken into consideration, the picture of the holy ones is broadened. Because in the latter part of the psalm, the afflictions of the righteous are mentioned (verse 19), and that also is part of the conditions of a holy life. Needless to say, holiness in the New Testament is of course being ”sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2).


Notes:

1 John Goldingay, Psalms Volume 1: Psalms 1–41 (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2006), 476.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 3:1-3

Audrey West

If 1 John had a social media footprint, this week’s status update would read, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1).

These are words of encouragement written to a community that is troubled by schism. Whatever were the details of the split — and since we have a response by only one side we have to read between the lines and in mirror-image to figure it out — the disagreement has been serious enough that some folks have packed up and left the church. Anyone who has experienced the trauma of a congregational (or denominational) split can imagine how devastating this development would have been for parties on both sides of the divide.

This community was unable to remain in fellowship due to significant differences in their beliefs about Jesus. At the heart of the matter, according to the author, is that the people who have left are denying that Jesus is the Christ (1 John 2:22) and that he is the incarnate Son of God (1 John 4:2-3). They still understand themselves to be followers of Jesus, but what they believe and confess about him differs from those who remain.

One of the primary aims of 1 John is to persuade the remaining community members that they have good reason to hold on to their confession because they have experienced its truth in their very existence as a community. The author emphasizes this view in the introductory verse: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life … ” (1 John 1:1).

Faith, according to this writing, is not simply a matter of cognitive assertion; it is the testimony of the real-life, embodied experience that has been given to them by God. The glue that holds the church together is God’s love, which has bound them into one family as children of God.

Those who have chosen to depart claim fellowship with Jesus, and they also claim that they have no sin (1 John 1:8) — claims that the author refutes. The specific details of their sin are not spelled out; that is, there is not an enumerated list of behaviors or actions, except that they chose to leave the group: “they went out from us” (2:18-19). From the perspective of 1 John, their departure violates the identity of the community as those who “love one another.” Although they claim to have the light of Christ, their actions do not show it; they “hate brother or sister” (2:9).

In other words, the opponents talk the talk, but do not walk the walk. In contrast, 1 John urges the community to remain (“abide”) in Christ by walking “just as he walked” (2:6). At issue then, is the importance of living in community in such a way that it reflects their walk with Jesus.

“See!” Perhaps better translated Look at!, the first word of the passage suggests that the love given by God is something that people can actually see. It is not a fuzzy, feel-good sensation, but a concrete and visible reality that has already been bestowed on the community that follows Christ. Readers of the Gospel of John would readily hear the echoes from its prologue: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God (John 1:12; see also 1 John 3:2, 10; 5:2). Here, in 1 John, the status as God’s children is not simply asign of the past or a future eschatological hope, but a present reality: “For that is what we are … ” (1 John 3:1). Lest we miss that point, the author repeats it, along with another reminder of the believers’ beloved status: “Beloved, we are God’s children now! (1 John 3:1-2).

This is good news indeed! In the midst of separation and disagreement it is not uncommon for a community (or individuals within it) to lose confidence in its ability to move faithfully into an unknown future. It is too easy to get bogged down in questions of what if and fears about what might be? Preachers might point out to the congregation what it looks like in their context to be God’s children now, already, in their particular time and place. How is this church community already manifesting God’s love in its identity? In its actions? In the ways it is known to the community around it? On this day of All Saints, what can the congregation learn from the testimony of the saints of this place who have walked before them? How did those local ancestors of the faith live into their identity as children of God?

The church need not gaze wistfully for a “someday” to come in order to possess the fullness of its identity. There is no need to wait until there are more members, or more resources, or more of whatever we might believe is necessary to be a good, or faithful, or missional (choose your favorite adjective!) church.

Like the readers of 1 John, perhaps the people gathered for worship in today’s churches could benefit from an occasional reminder that God has already bestowed upon them the thing that is most important for being the people they are called to be. They are children of God. Already. Today. Now.