Theme: All Saints (For All the Saints) Who are the Saints?
Sentence: Know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of the glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of God's power in us who believe. (Ephesians 1:18-19)
you have always taken men and women
of every nation, age and colour
and made them saints;
like them, transformed,
like them, baptised in Jesus' name,
take us to share your glory.
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Introduction - different to most Sundays, all the readings relate to the feast day theme, All Saints
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Relating to 'All Saints' the key words are 'the holy ones of the Most High' (v.18).
The verses read here set the scene of a terrifying vision Daniel receives in the context of Babylonian exile which look ahead to four great kingdoms dominating and opposing God's holy ones, Israel. Readers familiar with 'end times' speculations regarding the meanings of such visions will be familiar with proposals for interpreting the four beasts. One example: Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome. It is widely thought by Daniel scholars that the vision occurred in the period when Greece was the imperial power dictating terms to Israel and acting in profane ways in the Jerusalem Temple. Its setting in the story of Daniel as a court official in Babylon enables the readers of Daniel to believe that God will prevail for the Babylonian kingdom fell and the Babylonian Exile of the Jews came to an end. Thus verse 18 is a ringing affirmation of the biblical truth that God always wins in the battle between good and evil and the holy ones or saints of God never suffer or die in vain.
This psalm starts off in cracking form re the saints of God singing God's praises. As the holy ones of God are his special people may it indeed be so, 'Let Israel be glad in its Maker.' What a great encouragement for all the saints that 'the Lord takes pleasure in his people.'
But the psalm takes a darker hue when in the second half of v. 6, which has begun 'Let the high praises of God be in their throats,' we read 'and two-edged swords in their hands.' The rest of the psalm is about the vengeance of Israel on the nations. A tricky psalm to say without some explanation for we must presume that the psalm has a reasonable explanation for its second part.
One thing to note is that this is the second to last psalm and if we go to the second from the beginning psalm (Psalm 2) we find a strong theme of sovereignty for Israel, expressed through talk of the royal Davidic ruler of Israel. At the least we might understand Psalm 149 as a psalm written after Israel has suffered an infringement of its sovereignty. The oppressors against Israel have had judgment decreed against them (149:9) and now Israel executes the judgment and restores its sovereign status. Read in this way, the psalm is in keeping with much talk in the Old Testament of Israel's many battles with invading forces from near neighbours or far off empires.
As Christians we might read 'two-edged sword' as the written Word of God, the Bible, and think of ourselves as a people who praise God and proclaim the Word of God. Vengeance on the nations, on this understanding, would be the Word of God undermining the prevailing 'word of humanity' or ideology which drove the nations forward in their malevolent ways.
Ephesians is, arguably, the purest 'gospel theology' of all Paul's letters. It has a clear and coherent argument from start to finish (we might contrast the enigmatic 'bump' in the argument of Romans when we read chapters 9-11). One great theme is the wholeness of the gospel: it is a message to the whole world setting out God's plan for the whole universe to which all people are called to participate in Christ who is the totality of the whole life of God. Our passage today is a substantive portion of chapter one in which this great theme is introduced and developed.
On this Sunday, 'All Saints', our eye is caught by v. 15, 'I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints ...'. Here is a sharp reminder that saints are 'just God's people', you and me, the ordinary people of God for whom God has extraordinary plans (as Ephesians articulates, especially through chapters 1-3). Paul rejoices here in the members of the church to which he writes: they have faith in Jesus and they love one another without exception.
Among many wonderful theological pearls we might pause to admire in this passage, two more deserve mention in connection with 'All Saints'.
1. Paul prays that his readers may know '... what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe ...' (vv. 18-19). God's future is never for us as individuals. Our glorious inheritance is not a personal, individual pass to paradise. Rather it is to fullness of divine life in the corporate family of all God's people. We live Christianly in the church on earth (with all its difficulties and tensions) as preparation for the greater day when we live eternally as the bride of Christ in the heavenly realms. 'All Saints' is a reminder, on this matter, that we are called to be in fellowship with all God's people.
2. '... for the church ...' (v. 22) Despite the many frailties of the church, which were an experience of church life then as well as now (see various concerns through Ephesians about failure in the church), God's amazing plan for the universe involves the church (i.e. all the saints as the body of Christ). Christ is head over all things for the church. The church is the body of this supreme Christ, filled with the very life of God itself.
How good is that!
Who are the saints of God now that Jesus has come proclaiming his gospel? They are the ones who are disciples of Jesus, learning the way of God's kingdom while also enduring life in the kingdom. These ones are blessed. Yet the blessing of 'the poor' and the contrasting woe of 'the rich' points to a characteristic of disciples, reworked as a theme throughout Luke's gospel, that they have left material possessions behind and entered into the kingdom trusting in God for provision of material needs. On such understanding, saints are those for whom their most treasured possession is the kingdom itself, that is, life lived under God's rule.
Holiness, then, for the holy ones of God is the distinctive way of life which receives the blessing of God and the opprobrium of the world (vv. 22-23). In this distinctive way of life, the response of the saints to opposition is not like for like retaliation but love for enemies, good for those who hate, blessing on those who curse and prayer for abuser (vv. 27-28). Generosity of spirit and purse (vv. 29-30), thus, is the way of Christ's holy ones.
We might make one very important final observation: whatever the merits of calling particular people of God, 'St. Someone', there is an important demerit to this churchy custom. It implies that the calling to saintly or holy living is for the special few and not for all who follow Jesus. All today's passages are addressed to all God's people. We are 'all saints'.