Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. This is one of the principle Feast days of our liturgical year, and it is on this day that we are bid to remember the lives of the saints and profess the mysterious reality of this great multitude with whom we are bound together with Christ. Our passage from Revelation identifies these saints as those who have “come out of the great ordeal” and who eternally stand before God in worship and proclaim God’s salvation.
Over the centuries, much ink has been spilled in speculation over just what this “great ordeal” was or is. The apocalyptic nature of the Revelation to John seems to leave it an open-ended question due to the symbolic language used to describe what John saw. But to get stuck on trying to identify exactly what John meant by this distracts us from the mysterious beauty of the vision. Whether John is identifying the “great ordeal” with the oppressive imperial rule of Rome, the violent destruction of the temple and the subsequent persecution of God’s faithful, or some other event, what is important to focus on is the saints’ proclamation that “Salvation belongs to our God.” In other words, the great multitude who stand before the throne of God did not earn or achieve the salvation,they now experience. It is God’s alone, and God offers it as gift and invitation.
In our contemporary moment, particularly for those of us who are in the dominant sides of power structures, it can be difficult to grasp the significance of this salvation. In the West, and especially here in the U.S., we have a tendency to spiritualize and privatize the notion of salvation. It has become entangled in the Protestant work ethic that pulses through our nation’s veins, contributing to the falsehood that “God helps those who help themselves.”We have made salvation a story of self-reliance and self preservation. But the pairing of this passage from Revelation with the Beatitudes offers a corrective to this notion.
The Beatitudes form the introductory remarks to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew. Literarily, the Sermon on the Mount acts as Jesus’ manifesto, his description of, and summons to, the kind of life that characterizes the kingdom that Jesus has come to proclaim. It is difficult to recapture just how startling these words would have been to hear because they have become so familiar to us. But Jesus’ words completely destabilize and upend the categories of blessedness, of righteousness and piety, of integrity and right relationship with God. The way of God’s kingdom will not operate like the kingdoms of this world – the normal structures of power and dominance, of violence and intimidation, are not compatible with the vision that God has for all that God has created. Those who are wealthy, healthy, and powerful will not be extolled as the epitome of blessedness and righteousness. What Jesus proclaims stands in stark contrast to the mindset of the privileged who see their material wealth and health as an indication of God’s favor.
The Beatitudes were a proclamation of hope for the crowds who were experiencing various kinds of oppression within the power structures of imperial rule. They promise God’s salvation, not as a reward for enduring suffering but as a sign of God’s presence and activity in this world. The salvation that God offers is not a spiritual category disconnected from the trials and tribulations of this life, but an all encompassing gift intended to liberate humankind from the cycles of violence and oppression that we are so prone to create as a means of protection and security.
Many of us here today do not understand the kind of oppression that Jesus’ listeners experienced. Our notion of “persecution” has been limited to a kind of infringement on our personal and private convictions and ideals. Many of us do not know the weight of imperial rule, we do not experience the systemic injustices of a depraved world-order that criminalizes poverty and refuses the status of “humanity” to those who fall outside the bounds of white-heteronormativity. We do not experience the degradation of personhood, due to lack of basic necessities. And so, it can be difficult for us to grasp just how radical the hope is that Jesus offers.
What might the Beatitudes have to offer us, then? What word is Jesus speaking to those of us whose privilege protects us from persecution and oppression that the poor, the meek, and the hungry experience? Perhaps we can find a clue to what this word is in verse 4 of our passage. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” The word that our English versions of the bible translate as “comforted” is rooted in the same word that we see in John’s description of the Holy Spirit as the “comforter.” But “comfort” here is not about sympathy, it is not about making us feel better. Rather, it has the connotation of “advocacy.” Those who mourn will be advocated on behalf of, and it is in this statement that we see the implications of these proclamations for us. We are bid to follow the way of Jesus as advocates for those whom God honors, to use our privilege and power to confront the systems that perpetuate the conditions that lead to poverty and mourning.
To be clear, this is not an invitation to dole out salvation to the “less fortunate.” The call to advocacy is not saviorism. As John so aptly reminds us, salvation belongs to God alone. But we are bid to enter into it, to appropriate it and manifest it in our lives and in the way we engage the destitute in our midst. This is a call and invitation to stand in solidarity with the very people that the systems and institutions of our world attempt to erase, control, and oppress. This is a call to center the experience of those who bear the weight of our sin and to actively confront the policies and circumstances that lead to their marginalization.
We must fight the urge to keep this word spoken to us in the realm of the theoretical. It is a word that summons us to engage our minds and bodies, our resources and our energy to stand alongside the poor and afflicted. And, though we may not be gathering today in our beloved parish building, we need not look beyond our parish property to see the very people that Jesus offers this radical word of hope to and summons us to advocate on behalf of.
On this Feast day where we are bid to remember the lives of the Saints who’ve come before us and who live among us, let us follow their examples and turn to those who live on the margins of our society to proclaim this message of hope, to advocate for their security, and to demonstrate the love that God has for them. May God give us the grace and the strength to follow the way of Christ and to join with God’s saints in this most holy of work.