All-Saints: Anticipating the Great Reversal

Sermon delivered on All-Saints’ Sunday C, November 3, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Daniel 7.1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1.11-23; Luke 6.20-31.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Today is All-Saints’ Sunday, the feast day where we celebrate the communion of saints, both those who have died in the faith of Christ, the Church Triumphant, and those of us in Christ who still labor in this mortal life, the Church Militant. It is customary for us to focus on the Church Triumphant today, and we will certainly do that. But All-Saints points to a much greater reality and future than just eternal life, massively important as eternal life is. As all our readings attest, All-Saints is an appropriate day for the saints of God to anticipate the Great Reversal when the Kingdom of God comes in full on earth as in heaven as our Lord prayed in the prayer he gave to us, and good finally triumphs over evil. This is what I want us to look at this morning.

On All-Saints’ Sunday, we must be careful not to gnosticize and/or platonize this feast day. While it is very appropriate to celebrate the fact that our loved ones who have died in the Lord are with him in heaven as they await their new resurrection bodies, we must remember that heaven is not our final destination. Many Christians believe this because we have fallen for the old gnostic heresy that claims all things spiritual are good while all things physical or material are bad. But this goes against the overarching story of Holy Scripture that proclaims God created this vast cosmos of which we are part and intends to restore it one day. This is the story of salvation and it culminates in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. As St. Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson, we have a hope in God’s promised new creation because of Christ’s resurrection and as St. Paul tells us elsewhere, we who are baptized in Christ share in both his death and resurrection (Romans 6.3-8). Because Christ is raised from the dead, and because we believe that we are washed clean by the blood of the Lamb shed for us and made fit to stand in God’s holy presence, we have the sure and certain expectation that we will be with Christ when he returns to consummate his saving work by ushering in the new heavens and earth, God’s new creation about which St. John speaks in his Revelation, raising the dead and transforming their mortal bodies as well as the bodies of those who are still alive at that point into immortal ones (1 Corinthians 15.51-52). Hear St. John now:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea [symbolic of Evil] was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children (21.1-7, NLT).

This is the context for eternal life, my beloved, and the destiny of those whom we have loved and lost for a season—God’s new creation. As Christians we are not destined to live in a disembodied state for all eternity. That’s a platonic (and bor-ing!!) notion. No, God created all things good and intends to restore his good but sin-corrupted and evil-infested world to its goodness and human beings to our rightful place as God’s wise image-bearers who run creation on God’s behalf. That is the biblical hope and proclamation, not a disembodied eternity in heaven. Heaven, a blessed state to be sure because it is God’s space and Christ is there, is but a way station as we await the redemption of our bodies and life in the new creation (cf. Romans 8.18-25). This hope of God’s new world where all things evil, including and especially death, are destroyed and all the damage of human sin and folly are undone and healed is what we celebrate today and what our readings proclaim.

We start with our OT reading from Daniel. This passage clearly contains apocalyptic language, a genre of biblical writings that concerns visions or revelations of the end times or age to come. Because it deals with things of God well above our ability to fully comprehend, apocalyptic writings use rich and vivid symbolic language that most of us today find strange and incomprehensible and therefore we avoid them like the plague. That’s a shame because when we skip over writings like this, we miss the blessed hope they proclaim. Let us not make that mistake here. 

In our OT lesson Daniel is terrified by a vision of beasts coming out of the sea (respective biblical symbols for evil and chaos) to terrorize the earth, and we don’t need vivid apocalyptic language to get this. We know what it’s like to live in an evil-infested world where we can be terrorized by mass murder or terrorists, untimely and/or unexpected death, opioid addition, financial catastrophe, and sickness of all kinds, to name just a few. We are bombarded by rancor and divisiveness in this country, and all kinds of perverse thinking. We all know what it’s like to live in a world that serves up uncertainty and fear on a regular basis, and it can make us terrified and challenge our faith. How can God let this happen? Why does God let this happen? Here in Daniel’s vision we aren’t given answers to those questions. Instead we are given a vision of the Great Reversal, the time when the goodness and justice of God will overthrow the forces of evil and wickedness and restore God’s good and just reign on earth as in heaven, and we as God’s people will be the primary beneficiaries of this because of God’s tender love and mercy. No wonder the psalmist tells us to rejoice and sing God’s praises! Like Daniel, the psalmist knows that God’s people suffer greatly for their faith and can lose hope in the midst of the darkness that surrounds them. But the psalmist also knows that in the Great Reversal when God’s new world comes in full, God’s people will be vindicated and freed from our suffering so that we can serve our merciful God in peace and with joy.

St. Paul says something similar in our epistle lesson. He speaks of an inheritance for the saints of God who compose Christ’s body, the Church. While nowhere in this passage does St. Paul speak explicitly of the Evil, Sin, and Death that reign and destroy and corrupt God’s people and creation, it is implicit in all that the apostle says here. God raised Jesus from the dead. That is the basis of our hope and future because it demonstrates God has power even over the evil of death and the Sin and that causes it. Not only that, but Christ now sits at the right of of God, biblical language that proclaims the Lordship of Christ as ruler over all the cosmos, and who rules until he returns to consummate his saving work. When that happens, the Great Reversal will be complete. Good will prevail over Evil in full and God’s people in Christ will reign with Christ over God’s new world forever. What an astonishing hope and promise (cf. 1 Corinthians 6.1-8)!! Until that day comes, however, we Christians can expect to suffer for our opposition to the ways of the world and must constantly remember both our inheritance and the fact that Christ reigns now so that we do not lose hope. To the contrary, St. Paul tells us elsewhere to rejoice in our sufferings for Christ because they are signs that we belong to him and that is the only future and hope available to humankind (cf. Romans 5.1-11).

In our gospel lesson, our Lord himself speaks of the Great Reversal where those who have used and abused the ways of the world to enrich themselves at the expense of others will be judged severely by God the Father who abhors injustice and unrighteousness, and those who suffer injustice will find themselves being the recipients of God’s goodness, mercy, love, and justice. Many of us get uncomfortable talking about God’s judgment but a good God must judge at some point. To ignore the injustices and Evil that currently afflict us and God’s creation is to be party to it and God cannot be party to evil of any kind. Ever. So it is for our good and an integral part of our hope that God’s judgment and justice will one day fully prevail, and we must take the promise to heart and not lose hope or fall into despair. 

But glorious as it is, the Great Reversal and our Christian hope of living in God’s new world where God’s kingdom reigns on earth as in heaven is in the future. That’s massively important because without hope we all die. But what about now? What do our lessons have to tell us about the living of our mortal days? If we really do have the hope of God’s new creation, we are to live out our hope to the fullest in this life, imperfectly as that will be because we do not yet live in God’s direct presence, and we still live in a world that is profoundly broken and laboring under God’s curse and the inexplicable reign of Evil. In other words, we are to be living signs of new creation. And how do we do that? For starters, we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We don’t retaliate when evil is done to us and we love others, especially those in our parish family, at least as much as we love ourselves. We proclaim the right and oppose the wrong. We realize that the ways of the world are self-centered, evil, and corrupt, and we avoid them whenever we can. We are quick to forgive and slow to speak and act evilly. This way of life is called holy living, my beloved. We live this way, in part, because our Lord commands us to this kind of living. But we also do it because this is the way we will live in the new heavens and earth, and God gives us the opportunity in this world to demonstrate our love for him and commitment to his way of living as the fully human beings God created us to be. 

 When we live this way, the way of the cross, we proclaim to the world that we have a real hope and a future, despite the chaos and darkness around us. We proclaim to the world and ourselves that Evil and Death do not have the final say, that despite our imperfect living we are forgiven and healed and reconciled to God the Father through the blood of God the Son and in the power of God the Holy Spirit. We will be mocked and scorned and despised for living in these ways and for our sure and certain expectation of God’s new world. But we are in good company because those in the Church Triumphant also were mocked and scorned and despised for their faith. And more importantly, so was our Lord Jesus, who died for us so that we could enjoy communion with the Father now and forever. This is what we celebrate today, my beloved. Let your new creation faith and your belief in the communion of saints heal and refresh you, and let us encourage each other with this hope in the living of our mortal days. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.   

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.