Lectionary Commentaries for November 6, 2011
All Saints Sunday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12

Clayton Schmit

This is a strong text for All Saints Day, especially if we use the word “saints” as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 1:2: “to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”

We may think of the saints chiefly as martyrs, or as those who have died in faith. They are included, but not alone. With them are the saints of today, those of us who live in faith. The Beatitudes are more for living saints than for those who have died. The pronouncements of blessing Jesus offers here are in the present and future tenses, not in the past tense.  “Blessed are … for they will….”

Makarios is the Greek word Jesus uses. It means blessed, fortunate, happy, privileged. But, it seems wrong in the context of these statements. Each is a declaration of irony. Clearly the poor in body and spirit, the mournful, and the meek are not fortunate to be in their present circumstances. They are not happy in any usual sense. 

In the early church, the makarios, the happy ones, sometimes referred to the martyrs. It is hard to picture a smile on the face of Polycarp or Justin as they were being burned or beheaded. Yet, “blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” Jesus declares. 

How can blessedness be associated with such unpleasant things? On the one hand, it is not. The present state of affairs for believers may include poverty, broken spirit, humility, and mourning. Blessed are they, Jesus says. But, clearly not because of their circumstances.

Their blessing lies in being a part of the kingdom of God that exists both in the present and in the future. The verbs “are” and “will” indicate that God is at work in the present world, bringing the kingdom to completion. Those within the present kingdom of God who “are” in difficult circumstances “will be” blessed when God brings about the new creation. 

The hope they have, however, is not merely an eschatological one. It occurs in the present in the sense that such people are found living according to kingdom values. This is true for the faithful who are humble and poor, and is even more evident among those who show mercy, strive for peace, are pure in heart, and who endure persecution for Jesus’ sake. The kingdom of heaven is not only for the poor in spirit, but for all who are sanctified. 

“The kingdom of heaven has come near,” both John (3:2) and Jesus (4:17) declare. The signs of the kingdom are the people who live according to its values. Further, they assist in bringing the kingdom about when they demonstrate mercy and work for peace. Such work is never for the saint to accomplish alone, but is aided and enabled by the King of the kingdom who makes all things new. “Sanctified in Christ Jesus” means that we are saints, but that it is Christ who brings about all possibility of goodness. 

What can all of this mean for the saints to whom we preach on All Saint’s Day? It means that we align ourselves today with the historic chorus of people who have been sanctified by Christ, people who in happiness or difficulty, found their hope in Jesus and made their way as part of the kingdom of God. We join their work in the present as people who live according to the kingdom values outlined by Jesus in this Sermon on the Mount. Our blessings reside both in the present and the future. 

First, we “are” living within the reign of God, sanctified by Christ, part of an enterprise beyond our grasp or understanding, yet, fully in God’s hands. We are blessed to belong to the kingdom that is moving ever toward a new creation and blessed to live and act in ways that bring the kingdom about. Second, we are blessed because as members of this kingdom, we “will” receive the fortune and privilege that awaits all those who remain faithful to the kingdom’s work. 

To make this concrete in the sermon, and to bring it home to the people in local congregations, the preacher can be on the lookout for stories that show the kingdom of heaven alive in our midst. The stories may be of local saints who have died in faith, but can also be of those (used with permission) who demonstrate the living irony of those who endure seasons of challenge while giving life to others. 

One thinks of a widow or widower who moves forward through grief to discover a new ministry and reason to live; or, the meek person who demonstrates life-giving power in difficult circumstances. In most ministry settings, such examples abound and are available to the perceptive preacher.


First Reading

Commentary on Revelation 7:9-17

Micah D. Kiel

John’s apocalyptic visions in Revelation 7:9-17 present challenges in two different ways.

The first challenge has to do with inclusivity/exclusivity. The second has to do with the social setting of the Apocalypse and how that translates to today.

144,000 or an Uncountable Multitude?

The first half of this text, verses 9-12, depicts an innumerable mass of people from every corner of the earth worshipping God. This opening vision evokes numerous biblical passages from both the Old Testament and New Testament. In a way similar to the story of Pentecost in the Acts of the Apostles, the multitude counterbalances the Tower of Babel story from Genesis 11. 

The inclusion of all peoples (the Gentiles) in a vision of the eschaton (the end) was not uniformly accepted in all segments of Judaism. Some texts from Israel’s scriptures did, however, anticipate such a vision and understanding of the future (Isaiah 9:1-7; 60:1-7; Tobit 13:11-17). This diversity of perspectives within Judaism meant that such an inclusive vision of the eschaton constituted a challenge within early Christianity as well (cf. Luke 4:16-30; Paul’s opponents in Galatia).  When discussing the issue of Jews and Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation, the Apostle Paul is forced, ultimately, to leave the details up to an inscrutable God (Romans 11:33).

The pressing interpretive problem with the eschatological vision in Revelation 7:9-13 arises when one notices the tension with the verses immediately preceding, which indicate that the number of people with the seal of the living God is limited to 144,000. When commentators approach this problem, they tend to resolve it by either positing that the 144,000 are simply a part of the greater multitude introduced in verse 9, or that there is a temporal distinction, i.e., that the 144,000 come prior to the fully eschatological vision of the end and the multitude in verse 9. 

A second potential discrepancy between these two adjacent texts is that one seems a predominantly Jewish image, while the other is intentionally universal. Brian Blount, in a recent commentary, attempts to bridge this divide by making a argument that the image of the 144,000 is actually one of “eschatological imagining the universal church.”1 While there is some evidence to support such a conclusion, the imagery and language of 7:1-8 is decidedly more “Jewish” than what follows. It may be, however, that this juxtaposition might actually be the point the author intends. 

Elsewhere in early Christianity, seemingly contradictory images or stories exist side by side, and only by their combination does one understand the point of the author. For example, the Gospel of Mark has two feeding stories. In one, 5,000 people are fed and 12 baskets are left over. In the other, 4,000 are fed and 7 baskets are left over. Mark used both of these stories symbolically to describe the inclusion of the Gentiles into the plan of God. 

John may have the same intention for his apocalypse here. The juxtaposition of the exclusive report of the sealing of the 144,000 against the inclusive vision of a vast multitude from all corners of the earth is quite striking. John is interested in continuity with the past (he labels his work as “prophecy” and infuses much of what he does with imagery from Israel’s scriptures). At the same time, a definitive revelation has been given, providing a glimpse of the future that is built upon the past, but one that carves new channels for God’s activity and interaction with humanity. 

Suffering then and Now

The second half of this text, verses 13-17 also poses a challenge. As one of the elders answers his own question, we find out that the vast multitude in John’s vision are those who have come out of the “great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” In the future they will no longer hunger, thirst, or be afflicted; their every tear will be wiped away. On the face of it, this sounds quite nice. It is a place where one could easily read him or herself into the story — a vision of the future, perhaps conflated with heaven, in which every manner of thing will be well. 

The problem is that the references to the white robes and washing in the blood are ciphers throughout the Apocalypse for the socio-historical setting of John’s community. The great ordeal (verse 14) clearly presupposes earlier portions of the Apocalypse (e.g., 6:1-8). Some of this trouble is also incipient in the letters to the churches (e.g., 2:2-7; 2:9-11; esp. 2:13). The Apocalypse was clearly written in a situation of oppression and suffering.  The phenomenon of the emperor cult seems to have posed a significant challenge for those in John’s community, to the point that some have given their lives (2:13).

This poses a significant point of dissimilarity between the ancient and modern contexts (which is always the case when reading scripture). While there are Christians in parts of the world today that are facing serious persecution, I suspect neither they nor their pastors have time to peruse WorkingPreacher.org. How one translates the ancient context of persecution into the generally comfortable lives of many modern day Christians comprises the great challenge of preaching from the Apocalypse, (or many other parts of the New Testament). 

One major observation may be helpful in this dilemma: Nowhere does John advocate that one seek out suffering. He never suggests that suffering is a necessary prerequisite of joining the multitude. What this text does testify to, however, is God’s response to the human predicament. Humans are not abandoned. The multitude worships God because they “came out” of the great ordeal. God will shelter them and wipe away every tear.  The situation that John describes, and the one underlying his imagery — the suffering of his community — depends upon God’s response.  


1Brian K. Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (The New Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox press, 2009), 147.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 34:1-10, 22

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Psalm 34 is classified as an Individual Hymn of Thanksgiving.

Fifteen individual Hymns of Thanksgiving occur in the book of Psalms. In them, psalm singers give thanks to God for deliverance from various life-threatening situations: illness, enemies, and dangers. Two aspects of Psalm 34 intrigue this reader.

First, the superscription of the psalm places it within a particular life situation of King David: “when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.” The only story in the biblical text that might be associated with Psalm 34’s superscription is found in 1 Samuel 21:10-15. There, David fled from Saul and went to King Achish — not Abimelech — at Gath. But Achish recognized him and David was afraid for his life, so he feigned madness to disguise his true identity.

Ascertaining a specific historical event in the life of David in which to place Psalm 34 is not as important as using the setting to gain insight into the meaning and intent of the psalm. In Psalm 34, David praises God for deliverance from a life-threatening situation — perhaps his encounter with King Achish of Gath, later remembered as Abimelech.

Second, Psalm 34 is an alphabetic acrostic. Each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems were the works of highly skilled literary artists and functioned in ancient Israelite literature in a number of ways. Acrostics were most likely memory devices to aid in private and public — that is, individual and corporate — recitation; in addition, literarily, they summarized all that could be said or that needed to be said about a particular subject, summing it up from alif to tav, from A to Z. Adele Berlin suggests further that in an acrostic, the entire alphabet — the source of all words — is marshaled in praise of God. One cannot actually use all of the words in a language, but by using the alphabet one uses all potential words.

Thus, Psalm 34 is an individual hymn of thanksgiving of David sung on the occasion of the deliverance of his very life by God, perhaps as the ultimate word about God’s help to those who are in need (a summary of all that could be said about God’s help in the face of oppression and hurt). Readers and hearers, then, should heed the words of Psalm 34, a song of thanksgiving for deliverance and find in them hope for deliverance from various oppressive situations. In the focus text, Psalm 34:1-8, the psalmist first offers praise to God:

I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the LORD (1-2).

Blessing and praising God are common themes in the Psalter. The word “bless” comes from the same root as the Hebrew word “knee.” Thus, to bless is literally “to bend the knee” — to kneel before a sovereign. The words “praise” and “boast” come from the same Hebrew root word, the word that occurs in the phrase “hallelujah.” Thus, praise will be in the mouth of psalmist; while the psalmist’s inmost being (here translated as “soul”) finds its praise (“boasts”) in the Lord.

The psalm singer then states the reasons for offering praise to God:

I sought the LORD and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears. (4)
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the LORD,
and was saved from every trouble. (6)

Two more common themes of the Psalter occur in these verses. God delivers (natsal) and God saves (yashah) the psalm singer when the singer cries out to God. The two verbs are similar in meaning, but carry slightly different nuances of meaning. Natsal suggests a “snatching away” or “pulling away.” Thus, we may picture God plucking the psalmist out of midst of fears and moving the psalmist to a safer place. Yashah means “to take full care of” or “to help,” suggesting that God enters the troubled situation of the psalmist and cares for the psalmist in the midst of the trouble. Note that the word “soul” occurs in verse 6, just as it does in verse 2. The inmost being (soul) of the psalmist cried out to God and was cared for (verse 6) and thus finds its praise (boasts) in the Lord.

Finally, the singer exhorts hearers/readers to join in praise of God’s deliverance with words of admonition:

O magnify the LORD with me,
and let us exalt his name together. (3)
Look to him, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed. (5)
The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him,
and delivers them.
O taste and see that the LORD is good;
happy are those who take refuge in him. (7-8)

The words of verse 8 are familiar words, but what does it mean to “taste and see” the goodness of the Lord? The word translated as “taste,” means “to try something by experiencing it.” The psalm singer admonishes readers/hearers to try God’s goodness for themselves and experience it as one would taste a new food. The word is used in the same metaphoric way in Job 11:12 and Proverbs 31:18. Tasting is one of our five senses. Seeing is another. We see the goodness of God powerfully displayed in the created world. Recall that in Genesis 1, after each creative act, God “saw” that it was good. And at the end of the creation story, God saw that creation was not just good, but that it was “very good.” Psalm 34 encourages us to experience God for ourselves and to open our eyes and see the goodness of God that is all around us.

Verse 8 ends with the words, “Happy are those who take refuge in him.” The word translated here as “take refuge” means “to hide oneself.” This writer pictures a small child wrapped up in its parent’s arms — protected, warm, loved. The result? Happiness. The word “happy” occurs some twenty-five times in the Psalter (see 1:1; 2:12; 41:1; 65:4; 112:1, etc.). Some translations render the word as “blessed,” others as “happy.” Another option for translation is “content.” Taking refuge in God — being protected, warm, and loved — can result in a deep, inner sense of contentment, a feeling in the very depth of your being that all is well. Content, indeed, are those who allow themselves to be wrapped up in the arms of God.


Second Reading

Commentary on 1 John 3:1-3

C. Clifton Black

The “lectionary gnomes” have done the preacher no favor in isolating this passage from its preceding verses.

First John 2:28-29 encourages Christians to “abide,” or persist with endurance, in that domain defined once for all by Christ (2:6, 10, 14, 24) so that when he (alternatively, God) is revealed at his royal coming (parousia) the church may stand before him unashamed, with bold confidence (parrēsian).

This urging drives home with concentrated force to the church the already/not yet tension that typifies New Testament eschatology overall, paving the way for a reserved assurance in 3:2a: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.”

The author’s caution probably springs from his christology, ecclesiology, and pastoral sensitivity. It is impossible to claim with certainty, when history’s final curtain is rung down, how Christians shall appear: they are but images of Christ, who himself must first be revealed. “When he is revealed [by God], we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (3:2b). 

In practical terms 1 John addresses a congregation seared by schism, riven by those who have gone beyond the confession that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (4:2-3) and have bolted the church for an unbelieving world (2:18-23; 3:1c; 4:5-6). Within that context 1 John’s author reins in a dangerous progressivism that moves too far ahead of the apocalyptic curve. Yet he dare not generate hopeless agnosticism of the church’s future; and so he insists that the Father of Jesus Christ now authorizes our being “called children of God; and so we are” (3:1 [RSV]; see also 3:9-10; 4:7; 5:1-2, 4, 18).

Such language of kinship accents the affinity of believers with God and with Christ. First John 2:28–3:3 highlights two family traits among God’s children. First: “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him” (2:29, my emphasis). In Christ, God’s new age is rectifying everything that has been thrown out of joint (see also Matthew 13:43, 49; 25:46; Romans 5:21); thus it follows that Christians aligned with that movement are putting things to rights in accordance with the norm of God’s own justice.

Second: “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3)  “Purity” (hagnos) could be translated “moral sincerity” or “unimpeachable rectitude” (see also Philippians 1:17; 1 Timothy 5:22; James 4:8; 1 Peter 1:22). To sum up the sense of 1 John 3:1-3: God’s future — for both Christ and Christians — flows from faithful integrity in the present.

Precisely how children will mature is impossible to predict; we do know that children resemble their parents and tend to grow even more so. Like mother, like daughter. Like father, like son. Like God, like Christ (4:9-10) and Christians (3:7b-10).

In characteristically Johannine fashion, that last observation leads us back to this lection’s beginning (3:1): “See what love the Father has given us.” Neither here nor anywhere in 1 John is our integrity or purity a precondition for being God’s children. Quite the contrary: “Little children, you are from God“; “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live though him“; “we love because he first loved us” (4:4a, 9b, 19b, emphases added). 

Christians are in no way self-made creatures for the irrefutable reason that children do not beget themselves. The vocation of believers in 1 John is to respond to God’s prior action for them. The child of God is a responsible agent and is responseable — enabled to respond — by the endowment of God’s prevenient love. In Bargainers and Beggars (1919) James Huntington, Episcopal priest and monastic, hit the nail on the head: “In [God] alone do we find the full realization of bestowal, of donation. For only his own love prompts him to give existence to his creatures, and to continue to endow them with what they have, or are, or ever can become.”

In such light as this we may reclaim observance of All Saints Day. The term “saint” has become nearly incomprehensible in Protestant Christianity; if anything, secularism has made even greater hash of it. Nowhere in 1 John — nowhere in the Bible, for that matter — does “saint” refer to a person of conspicuous virtue. Paul addresses the church in Corinth as “called saints [klētois hagiois] … sanctified in Christ” (1:2), but 1 Corinthians offers abundant testimony that its recipients are not poster children for moral excellence.

In Roman Catholicism a saint is one granted the beatific vision in heaven. That chimes with the honor of faithful Christian martyrs in Revelation (4:8-10; 13:10; 14:12), though Catholic doctrine has interpreted Scripture in a distinctive way. A Presbyterian layman once expressed to me grave discomfort with my reference to “saints” on the grounds that the Reformation had rendered the term defunct. What, I asked him, did he mean when he recited the Creed’s belief in “the communion of saints”? He didn’t know.

First John can help. In this letter “sanctity” does not refer to impossible, static goodness now or a vision relegated to the coming age. To abide in Christ is to be fully anointed by his truthful teaching (2:27). To be a child of God is a divine vocation, articulating the depth of God’s love for us (3:1a).

The church’s integrity wells up from, and is channeled by, God’s calling (3:1b; 3:3). To be a saint is to live in the same love by which God has loved us (3:16-18; 4:7-12). On the Sunday of All Saints we give thanks to God for those who have abided in divine love, who have educated us in love “because he first loved us” (4:19). We rededicate ourselves to that company of saints, called to “walk in the light as he himself is in the light [and to] have fellowship with one another” (1:7).