11/07/21 – Feasting with the Saints

FEASTING WITH THE SAINTS

November 7, 2021
All Saints Sunday
Isa. 23: 6-9; Ps.24; Rev. 21:1-6; John 11: 32-44
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

Most cultures across the globe have a festival to venerate their ancestors or the dead in general. All religions which believe in an afterlife in some form, of which resurrection is one, include thanksgiving for the deceased in worship. In early Christian tradition, saints’ days began as a way to mark the anniversary of a martyr’s death. Yet, by the 4thcentury, when the Emperor Constantine enacted a decree of tolerance for Christians with the Milan Edict of 313, there were too many Christian martyrs to give each a special day. The answer to this problem was the institution of All Saints’ Day to honor all martyrs, known or unknown. The date of Nov.1 was set in the ninth century.

The Reformed emphasis on All Saints’ Day is not on individual believers who have departed this life. Using the Apostle Paul’s definition of a saint, we give thanks for the whole people of God. We give thanks for the lives of all faithful Christians of the past. It has become a common practice to name those in our congregations who have died in the past year.

Death is the ultimate interruption of our earthly lives before we go on to be with God. Each of our scripture passages acknowledge the existential reality that when our earthly lives are over, others will take on the challenge of, as John’s gospel describes: “being in the world but not of the world.” Another similarity among our readings from Isaiah, John and Revelation, is that each were written in a time of crisis.

There is debate among biblical scholars as to the authorship or date of chapter 25 of Isaiah. Whenever it was written, this poem is part of a collection that is put in the historical context of the Assyrians’ capture of the northern kingdom of Israel, which then led to long siege over Jerusalem.  As John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, looks to a brighter future under God’s reign than their current situation, so too does Isaiah.

Mt. Zion in the poem has been used to identify several different biblical cities in Israel or to the whole nation of Israel. Cities were, generally, built on higher elevation because it was easier to defend them against invaders. This Isaiah passage announces the salvation of Israel at which time there will be a total realignment of the social order. Likewise, our passage from Revelation declares the same social upheaval for Christians in the late first century in the Roman Empire. The psalmist asks rhetorically: “3Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? The liturgical response is: “

4Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.” Salvation is not a matter of military might or political machinations but following the righteous and just ways of the Lord.

In Isaiah, the end of Israel’s suffering will be celebrated with a lavish banquet. The word feast comes from the same Latin root as festival. Eating a special meal is how we commemorate a special event. For a population that was well acquainted with starvation sieges in warfare, God’s salvation of Israel would be the ultimate feast.  In their history the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans had used food scarcity to force Israel into submission. We see this tactic used today. In our own cities we have “food deserts” in the most marginalized and economically vulnerable populations. Isaiah 25 envisions a time when God will take the beleaguered children of Israel and give them a permanent home of peace and abundance. As it is today, a homeland and a home are the signs of security and well-being. Once African slaves were legally free in this country, the next means of domination was overwhelming obstacles to owning land and a home.

The author imagines a meal fit for a privileged people with sucking the marrow out of the bone and fat dripping down one’s chin. This imagery reminds me of people in fancy restaurants, eating lobster, with butter trailing down their chins onto their bibs. In the gospels, Jesus also uses feast imagery. In Mark’s account of the Last Supper Jesus tells his disciples he will not drink wine again “until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God. Of course, Jesus was talking about more than food or drink, at the Last Supper. So too, in Isaiah, food represents a radical change in the world. The feast symbolizes economic and shared abundance.

Revelation is the last book of the Bible and with Genesis, forms a set of bookends to the whole bible. Genesis announces at the beginning of the bible’s sweeping saga of God’s relationship with humanity. in its first three words: “In the beginning.” In chapter 1, verse 8 God declares:  8“I am the Alpha and the Omega…who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. (“Alpha” and “Omega” are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet). This letter addressed to 7 Christian churches, is an apocalypse, a vision that foretells the future and presents an understanding of the past. It tells of the struggle between good and evil, and the ultimate victory of Christ. Writing in symbolic language, its author urges Christians to keep faith in a period of Roman persecution.  Revelation has been historically misunderstood and avoided in preaching because it requires studying the literary style and the historical context to understand the meaning of the symbolic language.

Now John sees the new creation, “the new Jerusalem,” when God comes down to earth again in Jesus Christ. He uses the imagery of marriage as a symbol of the intimate union between Christ and the faithful. Some have interpreted the bride as the church, set apart for God’s mission in the world. In this new entity of heaven and earth merged, pain, mourning and death will be wiped away like tears.

In our gospel reading from John, the scene is a household in mourning, sitting Shiva, because Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus has died. All three were close friends of Jesus. Mary and Martha had sent word, from their home in Bethany just outside of Jerusalem, to Jesus that Lazarus was near death. Yet, inexplicably, he delayed his visit until three days after Lazarus had died. John’s gospel, filled with imagery and other literary devices, uses this story to foretell Jesus’ own crucifixion and resurrection after three days. The raising of Lazarus from death is the seventh and final healing miracle in John.  Jesus’ reaction to the news that Lazarus has died, gives us the shortest verse in the bible if you are using the King James translation, “Jesus wept.” These two words pack a powerful theological punch — – Jesus the divine, the son of God, was also human. He grieved for his friend Lazarus.  Why did he grieve? Because he loved. When we love we make ourselves vulnerable to suffering, to mourning, to loss. The paradox is that without love, there is no life, no joy.

The Greek text tells us Jesus was not only saddened, but he also became angry at the news. Not angry at the crowd, or himself, but angry at death. Who hasn’t experienced anger that death has taken someone we believe was gone from us too soon? Death had bound Lazarus in its clutches. Then, Jesus used this tragic circumstance to demonstrate the powers that God demonstrated through him. Jesus ordered the stone to be removed, as it would later be for his own tomb. He called Lazarus by name and commanded he walk out. Though still wearing the linen bindings of his shroud, Lazarus was freed. Death no longer held him. Yet, Jesus made a point of ordering, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Notice that Jesus performed the miracle of raising Lazarus to life, but the process was not complete until human beings took the step of removing the bindings that they had originally placed on him.

We know lots of bindings that trap us from living free and full lives. Mostly, they are of human origin – often by our very selves. In biblical Greek classes, the first verb you learn to conjugate is “to loose,” because it appears so many times in the New Testament. Jesus “looses” us from whatever form of death binds us. Christ frees us now, in this life, if we do not cling to the ways of death. Today we are seeing the death-dealing ways of fear, bigotry, selfishness, and greed. In Christ, we are freed to a new life that recognizes the image of God within all God’s children. We are freed to a new life that risks loving our neighbors as well as suffering with and for them. We are freed to unbind those that we, either intentionally or neglectfully, have bound.

Jesus’ first disciples began with missteps in their quest to follow Jesus; but they stayed the course providing a strong enough witness for the next generation of disciples, which grew in numbers and served as witnesses to Christ with an exponential increase into the following generations. More than two millennia later and here we are – the current generation of saints that will one day become part of the cloud of witnesses for future generations. If we have stayed the course, remained faithful and active in our discipleship, when our earthly lives are over, there will be disciples who will continue the missions we have not finished.

We come to Christ’s table of love and reconciliation, cognizant that we share this table with those that came before us and will come after us. We would not be who we are, we would not be where we are today, if not for that cloud of witnesses to Jesus Christ that came before us. We all have people for whom we are thankful and who, in some way, shared their faith with us and inspired us. They are with us at this table and will be there to sit beside us in the heavenly banquet where all deathly bindings are released, all tears wiped away and a rich feast of divine love will be set before us to share. We thank God for the people that continue beyond the grave to share in the journey of faith and life with us.

Amen. May it be so!

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2021, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
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