Sermon - 4th November 2018
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
[Reading - Revelation 7:9-17]
What a grand and inspiring vision that is - from a book of the bible which is full of visions. The book of Revelation is focused on the world to come, a world which the book’s writer saw as symbolic of God’s perfect achievement of God’s creation.
Thursday of last week was All Saints Day, Friday was All Souls Day, and next Sunday will be Remembrance Sunday. This time of year is a period where our church calendar reflects on our belief that death is not the end of our Christian journey because we are reminded of the hope of resurrection to new life, together the coming of a new heaven and a new earth, where there shall be no mourning and God will wipe the tears from our eyes.
It can be a difficult time of year for some people. It can cause us to relive the feelings of persecution and rejection which are so often part of our own stories and part of the history of our LGBT communities. It can bring back that sense of loss we experience when we recall the friends and family who are no longer with us. It can arouse our shame at the inhumanity of the violence, warfare, genocide and terror which nations, tribes and communities have inflicted on each other throughout human history.
Thankfully, today we live in comparative safety and security in the UK. Our ethnicity, religion, political opinion, sexuality or gender are not usually a direct threat of persecution towards us. From the perspective of history we’re living in an unusual time; we live with the rule of law, in a liberal democracy with enough income to insulate us from the cruel realities of the world.
In many parts of the world, people are persecuted for their faith, their political opinions, their gender, and how they love; a tiny number of these people manage to flee here for sanctuary. So perhaps this passage can give hope to those who live with persecution. Perhaps its promise of a future of freedom is one they can hold on to and perhaps this vision is one we can work to bring about.
The book Revelation relies heavily on the writer’s imagination. We’re drawn into his world and his world was dangerous. He uses imagery to hide some of his meaning, but much of what he meant is crystal clear.
The writer paints a picture of the saints being safe with the Lord – safe to love, safe to worship. Later in the Book he shares a vision of the New Heaven and the New Earth which will come where all will live with the Lord without fear and where death and sickness and mourning and crying will be no more.
The promise he seems to be making is that the saints who have gone before us have the privilege of being the first to experience what we will all experience in due course. It’s a book of comfort for all who need to look beyond the persecution they are suffering in the here and now.
The book was written at a time when Christian believers were emerging from their Jewish tradition and culture and were using the teachings of Jesus to challenge the oppressive regime under which they lived - namely the Roman Empire.
The early Church was persecuted for two reasons. First it didn’t take part in the religious cult of the Roman Empire and was seen as anti-social and disruptive. But, more vitally, it was persecuted because it made some surprising claims. The Roman Empire built its identity in the person of the Emperor. Caesar was Lord. All prosperity, power and authority was bound up with the Emperor who was often declared to be a god after he died.
But Christianity offers a very different view of the world order. Salvation belongs to God not Caesar. That means that the powers and personalities that seek to rule our world for their own ends, the people who seek to enrich themselves at the expense of others, the social systems that seek only to increase the division between rich and poor will be overthrown, judged and condemned.
The saints, the persecuted ones, understood this and their loyalty to Jesus, not Caesar, cost them their lives but, in John’s vision, it brought them into God’s eternal glory.
But that vision opens up another question: is that hope of a better world only to be found in the next world? It seems to be a new realm far beyond the cruel realities of our present world, so we might be tempted to think of salvation as meaning an escape from this life, a release from this world in all its despair, degradation, injustice and oppression.
Where are the signs of sainthood in our present world? When do we draw close to the Kingdom of God in the reality of our present existence?
[Reading - Matthew 5:1-12]
It isn’t a sign of sainthood to opt out of today’s struggle for a better world. It isn’t holy to ignore the needs of those around us. As one hymn puts it, some saints are those “who march with events to turn them God’s way” (Fred Pratt Green - Rejoice in God’s saints) True sanctity calls the world to judgement. True holiness reminds people that Jesus is Lord. True sainthood reminds the world who is in charge.
In that reading Jesus takes the everyday things of life – being poor, mourning, being meek, thirsting for justice, being merciful, being pure, being a peacemaker, suffering persecution, and being hated, and turns these into places of holiness. We are blessed when we realise we can encounter God in the everyday things of life – even the awful things like persecution and derision.
Revelation urges us to look for a better world but, Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, shows how to make that better world in the here and now.
We know that our struggles for holiness, our yearning for justice and freedom, our desire for the New Heaven and the New Earth probably won’t come about in our own lifetimes. That promise is to come when we, and all God’s saints, will be raised to live a new life.
But that promise of resurrection needs to spur us on now as we seek God’s face in our world, as we work to make His coming Kingdom of love and justice real. Surrounded by the saints as a great crowd of witnesses we can draw our inspiration from them as we obey Jesus’ command to follow him – just as they did. Surrounded by the saints of today and tomorrow, we are called to bring God’s kingdom a little closer in the here and now.
In fact, we can go a little further.
It is good for us to honour the saints of our past who are already living the reality of God’s salvation. But we can be a truly practical blessing to the saints of today who bring the love of God, and hope for our future, into our lives today.
You may wish to reflect on who those saints of today are; you may wish to give thanks in our prayer times today for their presence in your life. I believe we are surrounded by them also. They may reject any such title for themselves, but wherever love is at the heart of relationships, friendships and communities, you will find saints.