In this post I offer a brief excursus on All Saints Day and a fuller set of comments re the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time. Some churches will have celebrated All Saints Day on 1 November itself and thus Sunday 2 November will be the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time. Others will choose to transfer the All Saints feast day to Sunday 2 November.
ALL SAINTS DAY 2014
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.
1 John 3:1-3
All Saints Day is an occasion to think forward (to all the saints, on heaven and on earth, being joined as one body of Christ undivided by time or space), to think backwards (in thanksgiving for the saints who have gone before us, leaving us an example and (perhaps, there are arguments here) praying for us (see Revelation 8:1-3) and to think imaginatively (in order to envisage that we on earth living holy lives are part of a great company of unseen saints on the other side of the gate of glory).
For some, celebrating All Saints is an acknowledgement of the saintliness of all holy people (whether known as 'St. X or not); for others the emphasis falls on acknowledging the saints who have recently departed from our midst (though that is something we might do in conjunction with All Souls Day, 2 November): thus some churches use this Sunday to gather families together who have mourned the loss of a loved one in the past twelve months.
Our readings touch on elements of the two paragraphs above.
Revelation 7:9-17 is part of John's vision of the victory of the saints in heaven, where there is no more pain or tears, but their is plenty or praise and adoration of God.
Psalm 34:1-10 encourages God's "holy ones" (= saints) to trust God to save, protect and provide for them.
1 John 3:1-3 urges readers to be open to God's wonderful future for the saints - a future unknown to those of us on earth, but known to those in heaven, in which 'what we will be has not been revealed' (2), except that, in a general sense, we 'do know ... when he is revealed, we will be like him' (2). With this hope, holy ones do what? They 'purify themselves, just as he is pure' (3).
Finally, Matthew 5:1-12, sets out the blessings at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. They are addressed to the disciples. They are promises of consequences for faithfulness to Jesus. The consequences are not rewards of prosperity and power but if fulfilment of divine longings. Those who are pure, for instance, will see God (8).
31st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Theme(s): Hypocrisy // True versus false teaching // Walking the talk not talking the talk // Saying one thing and doing another thing (or, Saying one thing and doing the same thing)
Sentence: All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted (Matthew 23:12).
Collect: (used with Permission Rev Bosco Peters www.liturgy.co.nz )
unworthy though we are
you call us to your table;
may we rejoice in your presence,
and share your bounty abundantly with others;
through Jesus, the Bread of Life,
who is alive with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
OT (Continuous): Joshua 3:7-17 (not commented on below)
OT (Related): Micah 3:5-12 (see below)
Psalm (Continuous): Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37 (not commented on below)
Psalm (Related): Psalm 43
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
This passage denounces religious leaders of Micah's day who spoke falsely and taught wrongly. An obvious parallel with today's gospel passage may be made.
Of particular concern for Micah is the false assurance of 'peace' which comes from these false messengers purporting to tell out what God himself is thinking. The worst form of false teaching in our day is that which lulls people into thinking everything is OK when it is not.
The psalmist walks in the midst of 'an ungodly people' (1) and cries to God for deliverance from 'those who are deceitful and unjust' (1b). This could be Jesus amidst the scribes and Pharisees (see today's gospel reading).
Importantly, also relative to the gospel reading, the psalmist yearns for 'your light and your truth' - the direct communication of God's Word which will lead him to God's 'holy hill' (3b).
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
This passage forms a nice counterpoint to the gospel reading in respect of the concept of spiritual fatherhood!
Paul writes about the days when he and his companions 'worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God' (9). As they did so their conduct was blameless (10) and they acted as spiritual fathers to the newly formed Thessalonian Christians (11) whom they urged to live a life worthy of God (12).
Paul thanks God that what the Thessalonians received was not a 'human word' but 'God's word' (13). Only such a word is able to enter into the soul and mind to work powerfully.
What about spiritual fatherhood in the light of the gospel passage today?
An important word is that Paul says their dealings were 'like' a father with his children. Paul makes no claim to the role of God the Father himself, nor to a title 'Father.' His claim is that in the process of spiritual rebirth and initial stages of growing as an infant in Christ, Paul's role has been similar to that of a father bringing up a child.
These verses are the opening salvo in a sustained, systematic and searing attack on the scribes and the Pharisees through chapter 24. Jesus 'has it in for' his opponents and it is worth asking, "Why?"
What he does not seem to object to is the Law of Moses itself. Already in the Sermon on the Mount (5:17-20 in particular) Jesus has upheld the law, on some matters even intensifying its demands. Now he says, "Do whatever they teach you [from Moses' seat, 2] and follow it." What he then says is the clue we need to understand how Jesus can be so aggressively antagonistic towards them:
"but do not do as they do ... they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others ... They do all their deeds to be seen by others' (4-5a).
Thus Jesus first is concerned - angry, we should say - at hypocrisy (not doing what one teaches) and "Woe to you ... hypocrites" is a recurring refrain through the chapter; secondly, at teaching the application of the law in a way which oppresses people rather than gives life (the primary purpose of Moses' Law) and made worse by then not doing a thing to help people (4b); thirdly, at the lack of recognition of God: what deeds are done are done to receive praise from others rather than praise from God.
A definite question for the church is whether we are acting in scribal and Pharisaical ways: Christians are not automatically immune from hypocrisy, from translating the 'law of Christ' into a new set of burdens, or from seeking the praise of others ahead of the praise of God.
Jesus goes on in verses 8-11 to say of his disciples that they are not to be called by titles such as 'rabbi/teacher' or 'father' or 'instructor'. Before we discuss application of this today, let's note the reasoning of Jesus in giving this edict: there is one and only one teacher of the faith, Jesus the Messiah himself. In the light of that simple observation about life in the kingdom of God, we should underline verse 11 - which is repeated, more or less, many times in the gospels: "The greatest among you will be your servant." And then repeat to ourselves verse 12, also a recurring gospel theme.
What is the application of these verses today, especially in churches which are hierarchical to the point where people are addressed as 'Bishop,' 'Reverend Father or Mother,' 'Archdeacon,' or 'Canon'? (Yes, fellow Anglicans, I am asking you!)
Given the history of these titles and the length of their usage, the next few words are not going to resolve a potentially distracting debate when other things are more important.
But I suggest, first, that all those who receive and are addressed by such titles do a conscience check and ask whether it matters if an addresser forgets to use the title. If it matters, has the title become important in a way which is at variance with Jesus' teaching?
Secondly, for those of us who address people by title, do we do so in a way which means we are placing a trust in them and forming a dependency on them and their office which is at variance with the point Jesus makes here in this passage, that he is our supreme teacher and leader?
We might usefully juxtapose for our reflection the specific direction against 'titles' such as father with Paul's endorsement of the role of spiritual fathers in the epistle reading for today.
A final, general observation: for those of us who do teach other Christians, we are more prone to charges of hypocrisy etc. Is it not a relief to think that the one teacher of the kingdom is the One who is beyond hypocrisy?