For us Methodists, the focus of the Christian life is something called “sanctification,” by which we mean continuing to grow in love for God and our neighbor throughout our Christian journey. We have this phrase, “going on to perfection,” which reflects our belief that the Christian journey is about ongoing spiritual growth. Which is to say, the Christian journey is about allowing the Holy Spirit to work a real, continuous change within us throughout our lives. “Going on to perfection” does not mean that we expect to achieve a state of sinlessness. Instead, it means that we believe that it’s possible — in this lifetime — to attain perfect love for God and neighbor. Probably only in glimpses. And probably not for long. But we believe that it is possible, by the power of the Holy Spirit working within us.
Because the idea of sanctification is so central to Methodist theology, much of our energy as Methodists is spent talking and studying about Christian living. Doing the things that draw us closer to God. Doing the things that demonstrate and deepen our love for neighbor. Serving others, and working for justice as God desires it for God’s creation. Ours is an exceedingly practical, hands-on approach to the Christian life, and it’s one of the things that I love most about being a Methodist.
But our focus on Christian living does not diminish the fact that we have an important theology of Christian dying as well. Our focus on practical matters of the here-and-now does not diminish the fact that we have an important theology of what comes after this life, a theology that is both hope-filled and comforting. And of all the days of the Christian calendar, All Saints Sunday is the day we focus most on this important aspect of our faith.
Over the years, a fair number of church members have told me that they’re not all that fond of All Saints Sunday. So much so that some of them avoid coming to church on this day altogether. Because for them, All Saints Sunday is a painful reminder of what they have lost. I certainly understand that sense of grief, of course.
For me, though, having lost over the years a fair number of family members and church members whom I love dearly, All Saints Sunday is both a beautifully sacred opportunity to intentionally remember those who have gone before us, as well as an all-important reminder that while life is wonderful and is to be celebrated and cherished, what lies on the other side of resurrection, after this life, ain’t too shabby, either. That’s our focus for today.
One of the saints that we named this morning was a man named Jack Hall. I first met Jack shortly after I moved to Sherman. When his wife, Alice, died after a long illness, hers was the first funeral I did as the Senior Pastor of this church. In the years since, Jack and I became pretty good friends.
If you knew Jack, you know that he was a smart, funny man. A native of Sherman, he had built a successful insurance business here that still bears his name. A lifelong Methodist who had grown up in this congregation, he actively served both this church and this community his entire life.
Jack had a running joke, both with me and with my predecessor, Dr. Jim Pledger. Every year at this time of year — stewardship season — he’d let me know that his pledge card was turned in. He said he wanted to be sure that his fire insurance was up to date. It made me laugh every time he said it.
But then I’d remind him that Jesus had paid that premium in full, for all of us, a long time ago. So that when the end comes for each of us, we can approach it with the confidence of the children of God…
We’re going to be reading this morning from a book of Scripture that people tend to either love or hate. People tend not to be neutral on the Book of Revelation. I fall into the former camp — I find much comfort in this book.
An important note before we read — this is not the Book of Revelation-s (plural). It is one long revelation. To a person named John who is not the author of either the Gospel of John of the three Letters of John. We don’t have time this morning to get into how we know that. You’ll have to take my word on that for now, and join me in some future Bible study to hear more.
No one knows for sure when the Revelation to John was written. Perhaps in the 60’s, during the time of the Church’s persecution under the Emperor Nero. Perhaps in the 90’s, during the time of the Church’s persecution under the Emperor Domitian. Whenever it was written, it was written as a message of hope and comfort to a people who were being persecuted for their faith. And John’s message is clear — “Hang on! Things may be bad now, but God will make it all right in the end!”
We’ll be reading from the seventh chapter of Revelation this morning, verses nine to seventeen…
[Read Revelation 7:9-17]
Those who dislike Revelation are often put off by its sometimes violent imagery. This is the book with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, after all: famine, pestilence, war, and death. This is the book with “…the lake of fire that burns with sulfur,” after all, which has given people the heebie-jeebies ever since its writing (19:20). This is a book with beasts, and a dragon, and a thousand years of tribulation. If we took the words of this book literally, there would be plenty in it not to like.
But part of the reason that I love Revelation is that my first true reading of it coincided with the first funeral I ever led by myself. It was a family funeral, which of course brings with it plenty of emotions. My Great Aunt Nina died the spring of the year I was taking New Testament in seminary. Her sister-in-law, my grandmother, asked me to preside at her funeral. I had assisted at a couple of funerals before that, but I’d never done one by myself. That same week, Revelation was the assigned text in my New Testament class.
Honestly, I was dreading having to read this book, for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned. But the Lord works in mysterious ways. Because as I was preparing for Aunt Nina’s funeral and having to read this fascinating and mysterious book, I ended up finding tremendous hope and comfort in the Revelation to John.
I learned that this book is part of a very specific genre of biblical literature, called “apocalyptic” literature. I learned that when we read biblical apocalyptic literature, we should compare it more with the classic Disney movie Fantasia than with some sort of historical documentary. Which is to say, this genre is closer to fantasy literature than it is to the Herald Democrat. Because, I learned, the fantastic, dream-like imagery of this genre of literature is not meant to predict the facts of things that will occur at some undetermined point in the future. Instead, it’s meant to convey theological truths for us here and now.
I learned that the John who wrote Revelation was assuring God’s faithful that, no matter how bleak or difficult things may appear right now, not only is God with us through it all, God will also make it all right in the end. I learned that John was writing to people who were suffering and dying for their faith at the hands of the Roman Empire. I learned that the four horsemen and the lake of fire and the tribulation were metaphors to explain that God would someday, in some way, conquer the enemies of God who were persecuting God’s people. And I learned that, even though those more violent images did not resonate with me, they certainly would have resonated with John’s audience.
And more importantly, I discovered the other, hope-filled, beautiful images in the book that sometimes don’t get as much attention, but that are incredibly powerful promises of our faith. As I read this book, at the same time I was trying to think of words I could say to comfort Aunt Nina’s husband, and their children and their grandchildren, the great promise of Revelation resonated with me in a way that I never could have expected.
And I actually found myself being moved to tears as I read John’s vision of what God has in store for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose: “…they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat [as my friend Jack Hall would say, we’ve all got eternal fire insurance after all!]; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Passages like these moved me to tears not because they are literally true. I don’t believe that Jesus in heaven will look like a lamb seated on a throne. Rather, passages like these moved me to tears because they convey — in poetic and evocative and memorable terms — a theological promise. A promise in which each of us can take comfort when we have lost someone we love. A promise in which we can place our hope and our trust for what our own future holds. The promise that whatever comes after this life, it will be good. And it will be with God.
In Christian theology, there’s the concept of “going on to glory” after our time here in this life comes to an end. In John’s Gospel, Jesus talks about sharing with us the glory of God (John 17:22). Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, also talks about our sharing the glory of God (Romans 5:2). “Glory” is a theological promise that what comes next is good.
So on this All Saints Sunday, we give thanks to God for those who have gone on to glory. And we give thanks to God for the promise that one day each of us will join them. Thanks be to God.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.