This year, the Feast of All Saints comes on a Sunday, so it will “bump” Pentecost 22 in many places. In general, our scripture for today speaks of the great community of believers. They come from every place and every age. They have a single-minded focus on God, and for them, the community transcends even death. They trust in God.
Revelation 7:9-17 This is John’s vision of the Multitude from Every Nation. When we say that the community transcends even death, this is the description of it. The multitude standing before the throne comes from every nation, tribe, people, and language, and its sweep includes time, the sweep from earthly life to heavenly life.
This heavenly multitude is splendid to both the eye and the ear. They’re all dressed in white robes (sometime, we’ll talk about the colours black and white in different cultures of the world), and the sound of music as praise is wonderful (you’ll recognize the chorus from Handel’s Messiah: “Blessing and Glory ….”).
One of the elders steps forward and asks John, “Who are all of these people, and where do they come from?” John replies, “YOU would know that,” and the elder then describes them: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The “ordeal/tribulation” is persecution for their faith.
The colour imagery is striking. How do you wash a robe white in blood? The answer is that this is meant to be seen metaphorically, not literally. The idea of washing as purification can be traced back at least as far as Exodus 19.14-15.
The “blood of the Lamb” is another metaphorical use. Blood can be taken literally; Jesus’ blood flowed during his crucifixion. At the Last Supper, Jesus equates the wine as his “blood”, so the metaphorical reference is to the wine of communion, in which we—metaphorically—wash away our sins. And last, blood is a sign of life in the ancient world. When blood leaves the body from a wound, not only the blood, but also life ebbs from the body. Jesus’ blood gives life.
The community of the blessed in heaven knows no limits of race, language, culture, or nation. Their one and only job is worship—praise to God. To this day, music is one of the key elements of worship.
Psalm 34.1-10, 22 This psalm/poem is directed to the poor, i.e., the powerless and the humble. Both of these are categories which are addressed in the Beatitudes (see below). The psalmist wants to thank and praise God for help in a time of trouble. This is the sort of exhortation you’d expect in the community of the faithful, i.e., the church, i.e., the saints.
1 John 3:1-3 The community of saints has not only a present, but also a past and a future. Since death is not the end of life, the community is enlarged, and we share a common future.
Matthew 5:1-12 These are the Beatitudes, statements of blessings. Some refer to them as the table of contests for the gospel. They all begin with “Blessed are ….” This is a way of avoiding saying the name of God, which was forbidden in ancient Israel. So what they really say is, “God blesses ….”
Note that these are statements which are directed to the oppressed and persecuted. They are about the way things are for certain people, not an encouragement to show/develop the characteristic mentioned. They are also statements about the way things are in the present, not how they’ll be in the future. “Blessed are,” not “Blessed will be ….”
This narrative takes place on a mountain. Matthew often situates important events on a mountain, just as Moses received the Law on a mountain.
The word "blessed" is the past participle of the verb "bless", which is from the same semantic root as the noun "bliss"; blessing is a feeling of bliss. So each Beatitude is, “How fortunate are …” or “How lucky are …” or “Happy are …” or “How blissful are ….”
Who is this teaching for? It may be that it’s for the disciples, but it may be that bystanders are also meant to hear it, i.e., Jesus is teaching over the heads of the disciples. It may be that some of the disciples already possess the characteristics Jesus refers to, and that he’s commenting on it, sketching it out.
The poor in spirit. These are not the poor as we normally think of it—those who have no money or other resources. They are poor in the sense that they are humble people—not self-reliant and proud. They humbly rely on God’s grace.
Those who mourn. There are lots of things to mourn over, e.g., the death of a loved one, the loss of health, the loss of a job. This Beatitude is not to comfort those who mourn someone’s death, but rather those who mourn over all the things which are wrong in the world, those who see injustice and are incensed by it—those who want to see things go right.
The meek and the righteous. The images here are drawn from the psalms, especially Psalm 37. Our word "righteous" developed from an earlier English form which is equivalent to "right-wise". It has to do with living life in the right way. So, righteous people are generous, they speak for justice, and they seek to do good for others.
Meekness is not timidity or passivity; it is patient trust that God will act. It is insistence on nonviolence in a violent society. It is satisfaction with having enough, but only enough, in a society which craves ever more possessions.
Merciful. Those who are merciful are compassionate. They are kind to others.
The pure in heart. Much of this is based in Psalm 24.4 – “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.” Their faith is genuine, they have integrity.
The peacemakers. This is quite different from LOVING peace. MAKING peace can be very difficult, and any attempt to do it can easily make enemies. This peace is "shalom", total wellbeing everywhere in creation, so it’s way more than just the absence of war.
The last of the Beatitudes speak of troublemakers. It’s a warning that we should not expect to be loved and admired when we do the right thing. In fact, doing the right thing is as likely as not, in a world based on greed for power and possessions, to make us enemies, to lead to scorn and persecution. But Jesus insists that even then we are blessed because we are following the pattern and example of others who have tried to do the right thing, e.g., the prophets, many of whom were also persecuted.
Note that everything in the Beatitudes is backward. Societal values are often at variance with the values of God’s kingdom, yet we’re blessed when we adhere to kingdom values, rather than those of the society around us.