Rev. Charissa Clark Howe
Liberty Presbyterian Church
I’ve always really enjoyed All Saints Sunday. I love that we have a whole week set aside to remember all the brothers and sisters who have gone before us. That we can celebrate our loved ones worshiping physically beside us this morning and that we can celebrate all of the teachers and pastors and friends and family and mentors and missionaries – all the wonderful Christians who are no longer here in the physical realm with us anymore.
My one big beef with it is that All Saints Sunday is so close to Halloween. Often our day of remembrance and celebration of all the beautiful lives who went before us and are yet to come is overshadowed by celebration of death in a less-than-pleasant light. While All Saints Day celebrates those who have gone before us, Halloween tends to celebrates the scary side of death.
I hate scary movies and scary movies are ALL OVER THE PLACE at Halloween. I hate hate hate them. Someone talked me into watching “Hannibal” once and I didn’t sleep for days. There is one exception to this scary movie rule though: I have a soft spot for zombie movies – the older and campier, the better. I can’t help but enjoy them in spite of myself, even when I wind up huddled under piles of blankets clinging to my dog for comfort. And there seems to be a new zombie movie out every fall. There’s even a zombie apocalypse TV show out now.
Now, it’s not just me because these movies and TV shows make millions of dollars. And there is a reason that we as a culture love zombie movies so much. It’s the same reason we love movies about aliens trying to wipe out the human race and TV shows about what will happen after a nuclear holocaust.
We seem to know that this age we live in won’t last forever and we want to know what will come next. So we have this whole genre of art – apocalyptic movies and TV shows and books – that goes off into the most wild corners of imagination to explore that “what next” question.
Revelation is a difficult book primarily because it’s apocalyptic literature. This is a vision that God gave John about the coming Kingdom – the “what next.” It’s weird and confusing. Many preachers prefer to avoid it whenever they can and I don’t know that I really blame them. It’s one of those books of the Bible about which even the scholars who are experts on it have to say “I don’t know” sometimes.
For some people, just the thought of reading the book of Revelation is terrifying enough, let alone the scary content. It is a vision and visions are weird. They are strange, wild, difficult to contain. There is always something being said without overtly saying it. There is metaphor all over the place and they are often downright scary. That certainly remains true in regards to this vision that God gives John.
Even though it is difficult to parse out because it’s a vision, and even though it’s about scary and uncertain times like death and the end of time, we seem to inherently know that this is really important. This is the rest of forever that’s at stake here and that’s sort of a big deal.
Apocalyptic art and literature wasn’t anything new at the time that Revelation was written, and as we can see from our continued fascination with the end of the human age as we know it, it’s not something that ended then.
It’s important for us as Christians to talk about the “what next,” even when it’s weird and scary and confusing. Jesus spent a great deal of time talking about the coming of the Kingdom of God and if we are to take that seriously, we have to talk about not just what that looks like now, but also what that looks like tomorrow. While there isn’t anything wrong with having fun with the wild imagination in some of the apocalyptic fiction we see today, we have to be careful that our theology of the actual “what next” is solidly rooted in the Bible.
As we near the end of the church year and prepare to start a new one with Advent in a few weeks, we explore together the “what next.” The lectionary is all about eschatology – the theology of the end times – right now. When all is said and done in this life, what will be the difference that the little baby in the manger made?
As we have explored the gospel of Matthew over the summer and early fall, we’ve seen Jesus all grown up and teaching: teaching about the kingdom of God and what that will be like and how we can be reflections of the Kingdom of God here in the present tense. But he also talks about the Kingdom of God as being “already and not yet.” We’ve been looking at the “already” and what the Kingdom of God means for today, but it’s important not to forget about the “not yet” as well. That’s where this particular passage from Revelation comes in: it’s a glimpse into the “not yet.”
One thing that is clear in Revelation – and especially in this passage - is that in God’s kingdom, there is praise. Just picture it:
You’re standing before the very throne of God. The Lamb of God – Jesus Christ is there.
The glory is more than you ever could have imagined in your wildest dreams and all around you are Christians washed clean by Jesus’ saving life. There are people from all over the world and across the span of time. There are black people, white people, Asian people, native Americans, people from places you’ve never even heard of speaking languages you didn’t even know existed. They are washed so clean, their clothes are gleaming, bright white and blinding. Bleached cleaner white than any laundry commercial you’ve ever seen. They are holding palm branches just like at Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.
In one giant, collective voice, they are shouting, “SALVATION BELONGS TO OUR GOD, WHO SITS ON THE THRONE, AND TO THE LAMB!”
And the angels! All sort of angels! Every type you’ve seen described in the Bible. More beautiful than any movie or book angel you’d encountered. More frightening than you even thought. Strange creatures all around and they are praising God too! “AMEN! PRAISE AND GLORY AND WISDOM AND THANKS AND HONOR AND POWER AND STRENGTH BE TO OUR GOD FOREVER AND EVER! AMEN!”
Someone asks, “Who are all these people?” But you know it’s a rhetorical question. He knows the answer and so do you. These are all the people who have been saved, washed clean by Jesus. They have been washed clean by Jesus – made righteous in the eyes of God – and now they spend day in and day out serving God and praising God. They are forever in the shelter of God – their Rock and Redeemer – without another earthly thing to worry about ever again.
“Who are all these people?” is a great question. While in the vision, it’s rhetorical, it’s less so for us now. We are faced with all sorts of explanations from all angles about who goes where and why when they die. Who’s in? Who’s out? What difference does it all make? And this passage gives a pretty simple answer.
More people than we can count are who we’ll run into when we get to heaven! All sorts of people from across all lands and times and cultures. This almost sounds like John is saying everyone is going to be there, but it’s not quite that. There is something significant about these people. They all have something in common – those clean, white, bleached by the blood of the lamb garments that they are wearing. These are God’s people – the ones who have approached the Father by the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit – the ones who have embraced the Lamb in the “already” of the Kingdom of God are there singing his praises in the “not yet.” With all the hosts of heaven, singing God’s praise.
If we look back at the short passage we read from John’s first letter this morning, we will see John’s more overt answer to the question – the children of God – Jesus’ followers – Christians – us! We are in that multitude. While he doesn’t have all the metaphysics of this figured out – he says “What we will be had not yet been made known” – what he does know is that we will be made pure like Jesus – we’ll get to wear those bleached clean robes. We can look forward to being counted among the saints if we proclaim Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and allow ourselves to be united to God through him.
Today is “All Saints Sunday.” This is the day we celebrate all the saints. In the Presbyterian tradition, we don’t celebrate saints in quite the same way that some other traditions do. We proclaim that all Christians – all of God’s children are saints – and that we are all connected by our union to God through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. That means not only are we connected to one another, but we are connected to all the saints – all the Christians – throughout all the ages.
Sometimes we experience times or places we might call “thin” places in which we can almost physically feel the presence of saints gone by with us. It’s like our connection with those who got to join the multitude before us is more tangible in some times or places or as though the presence of God feels thicker some times than others. Perhaps one of the reasons many cultures have a holiday celebrating those who have died before them around this time of year is because Autumn often feels like one of those thin times: like we can almost reach out and touch our loved ones who aren’t here on this physical earth anymore. The island of Iona felt like one of those thin places where the saints who worshipped there through the centuries have moved on to worship in heaven, but there was something about the connection to them that felt stronger there.
It’s not that God left part of them behind when they were freed from this stage of life. It’s not that their spirits stuck around on earth when their bodies gave up. It’s not even that God lets them go on some sort of field trip to visit every once in a while. It’s more like those here in the “already” are lifted up to catch a glimpse of the “not yet” like John did in his vision.
I love that we’re celebrating communion today. In communion, we are lifted up to God. We are given in communion a “thin place” where we celebrate with all the saints of all the ages the grace given to us in Jesus Christ the Lamb who washes us clean and makes us more pure than we can even imagine so that one day, we too will get to join in that multitude of all the saints singing the praises of God Almighty.