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An Apocalyptic Lesson and the Psalm The Lesson: Revelation 7:9-17
Red Makes White
Setting. The larger context of Revelation 7:9-17 is the opening of the seven seals (Revelation 6:1-8:5), which describe apocalyptic catastrophes that will accompany the close of this age. Revelation 7 is often described as an interlude between the sixth (Revelation 6:12-17) and seventh (Revelation 8:1-5) seals. The chapter separates between a description of the Church being persecuted at the close of the present age (vv. 1-8), and a picture of the Church in heaven in the new age after the saints have passed through the period of persecution (vv. 9-17). These portraits of the Church have been contrasted by past interpreters as the Church militant in the present age and the Church triumphant in the age to come. The lectionary lesson for All Saints Day is the latter half of chapter 7, the picture of the Church triumphant in the age to but it cannot be interpreted without understanding of what it means for the Church to be militant.
Structure. The picture of the Church triumphant separates into a heavenly vision in vv. 9-12 and the interpretation of this vision to John in vv. 13-17. The text can be outlined in the following manner.
I. The Heavenly Vision of John (vv. 9-12)
A. The Song of the great multitude (vv. 9-10)
1. Setting (v. 9)
2. See (v. 10)
B. The Song of the angels (vv. 11-12)
1. Setting (v. 11)
2. Speech (v. 12)
II. The Interpretation of the Heavenly Vision (vv. 13-17)
A. The Elder's question (v. 13)
B. John's response (v. 14)
C. The Elder's answer (v. 14-17)
1. Identification of the Church during persecution in this age (v. 14)
2. Identification of the Church after persecution in the age to come (vv. 15-17)
The heavenly vision in vv. 9-12 separates into two songs by two different groups. First, all the saints from every nation are described as singing before the throne of the Lamb with two symbols of victory, white robes and palm branches. The song in v. 10 is not about their salvation, but about the greatness of God who is able to save. Second, the angels pick up the song of praise from v. 10 and expand it with a seven-fold ascription of praise in v. 12. The scene shifts from heaven to earth (and presumably from the future to the present) in vv. 13-17 with the exchange between the elder and John. The provides the identification of the white-robed singers in two time frames. At the close of the age they were the ones who were persecuted (v. 14), and they now live in the eschatological age (vv. 15-17). The imagery for both parts of this interpretation comes from Isaiah. The imagery of red blood turning white is addressed in Isaiah 1:18, and the eschatological vision is from Isaiah 49:10.
Significance. The larger context of the seven seals as signifiers of tribulations must be kept clearly in mind when interpreting Revelation 7:9-17, for it underscores how the snapshot of the eschatological age is being taken during a time of persecution. Thus the present experience of the Church at the time of John's writing does not support in any way his future vision of it. The power of this text lies precisely in this discontinuity, for it states that our experience in this world cannot be a reliable indicator of the character of God or even of the quality of our salvation. John makes this point through the central image of the text in v. 14, when the elder, who is interpreting the vision to John, makes the paradoxical statement that the robes of the saints have been made white by washing them in red blood. The content of the metaphor is illogical because no amount of experience will support such a conclusion. Red doesn't make white. In the same way, persecution to the point of death cannot be redefined as victory on the basis of literally interpreting the experience itself. Persecution is painful and usually is contained within the limits of human time. Death is final for human existence. No amount of human violence against others can be renamed as redemptive or profitable if evaluated logically in terms of human experience. But the end-time vision is a powerful metaphor (1) because it underscores how temporal human experience is not always reliable, and (2) because our experience does not contain the final word on either God's character or the extent of God's salvation. God can indeed make a robe white by washing it in red. All Saints is a celebration of the same mysterious, sovereign power of God, for in commemorating the dead we are in fact celebrating life. This feast is in many ways an affront to our everyday experience, because in celebrating it, we share in John's end-time vision that is described in Revelation 7:9-17.The Response: Psalm 34:1-10, 22
A Call to Praise
Setting. Psalm 34 is difficult to classify for two reasons. First it incorporates a number of different generic elements, such as a vow to praise, praise, and didactic teaching concerning the goodness of God. Second, the structure of the psalm is determined by its acrostic form. An acrostic psalm occurs when every line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The psalm has been chosen for All Saints Sunday because of the reference to the "saints" in v. 9 (NRSV translates the Hebrew "you his holy ones"). The reference to the people of God as saints is unusual in the Old Testament, because this term usually refers to supernatural beings. This is probably the only reference where the people of God are identified as the saints.
I. Call to Praise (vv. 1-3)
A. Vow to praise (v. 1)
B. Praise (vv. 2-3)
II. Exhortation to Seek God (vv. 4-10)
A. The Experience of the psalmist (v. 4)
B. The Exhortation of the psalmist (v. 5-10)
III. Conclusion (v. 22)
The outline underscores how the psalm moves in two directions. The first part of the psalm focuses on the relationship of the psalmist and God through the vow to praise and the praise itself. The second section of the psalm expands the focus to include the worshipers who are with the psalmist. At this point the psalm takes on a didactic quality as the psalmist encourages the other worshipers to taste God's salvation. Verse 22 concludes the psalm with a promise of redemption to the worshipers.
Significance. Psalm 34:1-10, 22 provides an important complement to Revelation 7:9-17. The good news of Revelation 7:9-17 was that God's salvation is better than anything that we might experience in our everyday lives. The central metaphor used to convey this message was that God can make white from red. Our hermeneutical application for proclamation on All Saints Day was that there is life in death. As we saw this message incorporates a critique of experience. Psalm 34:1-10, 22 moves in a different direction and invites the reader to explore experience. The difference is that the psalm is concerned with the experience of God's salvation. The exploration of salvation is done in the first person in v. 4, when the psalmist recounts an experience of deliverance, and it is repeated in v. 8 when the other worshipers are encouraged to taste and to see that the Lord is good. The two messages of Revelation 7:9-17 and Psalm 34:1-10, 22 are complementary, because it is the maturing of our experience of God's salvation that allows us to evaluate critically our everyday experience with the eyes of faith and to celebrate all the saints.New Testament Texts
The selection of these New Testament passages for All Saints Day seems related to the mention of purity in both texts. Saints, or sanctified ones, are purified, and they are called to purity (I John 3:3) and blessed for it (Matthew 5:8).The Epistle: I John 3:1-3
Children of God
Setting. The verses of the epistle for All Saints Day are three of five verses, 2:28-3:3, that form a meditation on the theme "children of God." This unit of thought is located in the first major section of this epistle (1:5-3:10), which works with the metaphor of "walking in God's light" to reflect upon the meaning and the manner of living according to God's will.
Structure. The lesson is a series of statements which (1) recognizes the love of God that makes believers into children of God, (2) explains the indifference and animosity of "the world" toward God's children, (3) declares both the present reality and the future hope of being God's children, (4) reminds the children of the promised future revelation of the Son, and (5) calls those who hope in Jesus to Christlike purity.
Significance. The text opens with the words, "See what love the Father has given us." The reference to "love" is christological, for the love of God given to humanity was none other than God's Son, Jesus. God's gift of Jesus has had transforming effects on those who believe in the Son, so that they are now called part of God's family. This new identity is but a description of the real transformation of lives through the establishment of a new relationship with God. Yet, as the passage admits, the reality of the relationship does not alter all of life's experiences, for "the world" (that is those outside God's family and in opposition to both the Son and God's children) does not recognize the relationship.
Nevertheless, the Elder boldly states the reality of Christian "childhood" and goes on to remind the readers that the future holds even more than they are currently experiencing. There is both a realized and a future dimension to the life of faith, and these dimensions are complementary in that the future gives amplified meaning to the present. Moreover, the future hope of the life of faith in the present is not an ambiguous wish; rather, it is the clear expectation of the future revelation of the Son with the attendant belief that his revelation will itself effect the ultimate transformation of believers into complete children of God.
The present status of believers as God's children, their future hope of the revelation of the Son, and their own full and final transformation has real ethical meaning for the present. The new identity and the future hope are a call to a thoroughly Christlike existence in the present. Purity of life (or sanctity) is the proper preparation for full childhood, for believers are called now to be as they will be when the Son is revealed. In this thinking, Christian hope is not pie-in-the-sky; rather, it is the substance and motivation of real life in the present world. A sermon or meditation on this lesson should deal with the God-givenness of "childhood," the christological basis of our new identity, the continuity between current Christian living and the future expectation of the realization of God redemption.The Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
The Blessings of Discipleship
Setting. Matthew 5:1-12 is the lesson for the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany in Year A, so the following commentary is essentially a repetition of that entry.
In Matthew 4:24-25 one learns that Jesus attracts a large following as he goes about his ministry. This week's text opens with Jesus looking upon that following and, in turn, teaching them about the characteristics of his disciples. Verses 1-12 are formally the beginning of the famous section of Matthew's Gospel called "The Sermon on the Mount" (Matthew 5:1-7:28). The lectionary reading offers direction for knowing what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
Structure. Verses 1-2 introduce the well-known "Beatitudes" in vv. 3-12. The material is structured deliberately, as can be seen from a careful comparison of this passage with the comparable text in Luke 6:20-23. There are four pronouncements common to the two Gospels, and Matthew's list contains five beatitudes without parallel in Luke. Luke's text seems more primitive than Matthew's balanced and elaborate passage. Matthew offers two sets of sayings structured in an A/B/A/B pattern, which cohere by beginning and ending with the line "for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," and both end with a stated concern for "righteousness":
A poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
B hunger and thirst for righteousness
B pure in heart
B persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven
The final beatitude, which is somewhat different in form and tone, epitomizes the beatitude for the persecuted.
Significance. Matthew tells the reader that Jesus "went up on the mountain." He does not name the mountain, however, for it is of more symbolic than geographical importance. In the Old Testament mountains are regularly the place where divine revelation occurs. One thinks immediately of Horeb, Sinai, and Zion. A precise identification is not necessary, but the Beatitudes begin the Sermon in a manner similar to the way the Ten Commandments introduce the law, so that the analogy to Matthew's mountain may well be Sinai, with Jesus re-presenting the law as the "New Moses." Nevertheless, on a place where one expects a divine communication, Jesus sits (the normal, authoritative teaching posture of his time) and then, speaks.
Even the basic pertinent information for interpretation of the Beatitudes is voluminous, so the following remarks focus on matters to stimulate thoughts for preaching.
First, throughout the Beatitudes, Jesus' address is to "you" in the plural Greek form. These statements relate to community life, not merely personal piety. Jesus' words describe the life that believers are to live in relation to one another and to the world.
Second, in v. 3 Matthew "spiritualized" the concept of the poor (as he does mourning, hunger, and thirst in the subsequent lines), moving beyond a literal sense. In Israel, a class of people, often genuinely impoverished, called temselves "the poor." The term designated a style of piety that allowd nothing other than God to be the basis of security. Being poor, having nothing, was celebrated as an opportunity for absolute, radical dependence upon God. Such piety was not passive, however, for faith was no placebo. Persons fully committed to God were extremely free. One thinks of John the Baptist and Jesus as examples of such piety.
Third, from the statement in v. 4 itself, it is not immediately clear how Matthew interpreted mourning as a spiritual disposition. The parallel line in v. 6 mentions righteousness as the object of hunger and thirst, so that perhaps those mourning are grieved by their lack of righteousness. In any case, the promise to the mourners is striking: They shall be comforted. This line contains a common phenomenon in biblical literature-namely, the "divine passive." The unnamed actor in such a text is God. The use of the passive came originally through the concern of pious Jews to avoid using God's name or even referring to God directly. Verse 6 is quite similar to this line, though its sense is more straightforward.
Fourth, the reference to the meek in v. 5 recalls Psalm 37:11. "Meekness" is akin to "poverty" in much of the Old Testament, and as such it refers to the submission of human will to the divine.
Fifth, v. 7 foreshadows the words of the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." The NRSV translation, "for they shall receive mercy," may be misleading. This does not mean that we gain mercy by being merciful; rather, grace begets grace. Those experiencing divine mercy live merciful lives that bespeak the mercy which they themselves receive.
Sixth, the reference in v. 8 to "the pure in heart" indicates persons who are singlemindedly devoted to God. Thus the promise "they shall see God." Soren Kierkegaard wrote eloquently of this notion in Purity of Heart, as did Jonathan Edwards in True Virtue. This line is a positive critique of divided loyalties that compromise complete devotion to God.
Seventh, in v. 9 the "peacemakers" refer to persons who are actively engaged in the pursuit of peace. Clearly they are doing God's will, as though they were, and in fact are, God's own children.
Eighth, v. 10 blesses those "persecuted for righteousness' sake" and promises them "the kingdom of heaven." This statement is consistent with all that went before, but the pronouncement alters the tone of the passage as it introduces the idea of experiencing persecution as a Christian. This frank recognition that true piety does not guarantee an increased popularity is a sobering reminder that Christian faith is not a rosy-glowing, saccharin-sweet piety. True faith, Jesus says, may be tough and costly. The more elaborate statement in vv. 11-12 develops this idea and forms a crucial parallel between suffering for righteousness' sake and suffering for Jesus' sake.All Saints: The Celebration
All Saints Day is the Church's Memorial Day, a time to remember those who have died in the faith of Christ. It is traditionally celebrated on November 1, but may be observed on the first Sunday in November instead. For Protestants, for whom the observance of special days for saints may be problematic, we understand that in the strict sense of the word this is a festival day in honor of the grace of Christ. In the classical tradition the calendar was divided into two patterns, the dominical cycle and the sanctoral cycle. The dominical cycle included all Sundays and other days of the year which celebrated and recalled the major events in the life of our Lord (hence "dominical"). The sanctoral cycle emerged as the Church sought to remember the witness of particular saints, especially martyrs, on the day of their death (their heavenly birthday). Gradually, however, the popularity of saints days tended to crowd out the days of the dominical cycle as the number of saints to be remembered grew. By the time of the Reformation only the most major of the days in the dominical cycle were not displaced by one of the saints, and so the reaction was to get rid of saints days altogether. Four hundred years later there is a growing appreciation of the witness of the saints and the appropriateness of remembering them on certain days. Many denominational calendars have now restored saints to the list, including very recent ones such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Florence Nighting1ale. All Saints Day, however, is not a part of the sanctoral cycle.part of the dominical cycle (hence it can be transferred to the following Lord's Day), because in the last analysis it is not a celebration (or deification) of the saints but rather of the victory of the grace of Christ in the saints. We are celebrating what Christ has done in and through the witness of us, the saints, through the ages.
The color white is appropriate for today, as is the celebration of Holy Communion. This can also be an opportunity to explore in the sermon the meaning of the creedal term "the communion of saints" in relation to the words of the eucharistic preface, "with . . . all the company of heaven we praise your name. . . ." The names of those who have died since the previous All Saints service may be read and remembered as part of the service.
The administration of Holy Baptism is particularly appropriate for today, since in baptism we make new saints, in keeping with the New Testament's understanding of the word. As we remember those saints who have gone before, so we also rejoice in God's provision that the gospel will not be left without witness as others are added to the apostolic company.
See Hickman, et al., New Handbook of the Christian Year (1992) for expanded suggestions for a full service for this day.