Monday, November 02, 2009

Freed to be part of the Elect

Psalm 24.1-6,Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9, John 11.32-44, Revelation 21.1-6a

Every member of the human race belongs to God. But does that make everyone a saint, a member of God's family? Not according to the Psalmist. Only someone whose deeds, motives and intentions are pure can be blessed and vindicated by God. Everyone else is out of luck. But that leaves us with a problem, because which of us is pure?

If we aren't good enough to worship God in the old temple in the old Jerusalem, what about the new Jerusalem? There is no temple in the new Jerusalem for in Jesus God comes to be with us instead of waiting for us to have the moral stamina to ascend to meet him on his holy mountain. Nor does God come in judgement. He comes ready to comfort the afflicted and the bereaved.

However, the way things are now will be swept away. The world will be turned upside down. And that cannot be good news for the powerful and the privileged, who maintain their position at other people's expense. Furthermore, we can be sure that one day this prophecy in Revelation will come to pass for the future has already been determined.

The Gospel reading could look like the odd one out here. What has it got to do with the saintliness, or otherwise, of all God's people? One connection is that Jesus is seen comforting the bereaved. The other connection, I think, is that God's love is seen in action saving Lazarus from death, and not just from physical death. The impurity of Lazarus' death and decay in the tomb represents all the impurity which separates human beings from God, and from which Jesus can free us like someone unbinding a mummy and commanding the corpse to return to the land of the living. As George Matheson said, 'Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free' - free to join all of the saints on earth and in heaven.

And so to the Wisdom of Solomon. This passage really is the odd one out because it comes from the Jewish Apocrypha and not from the Old Testament. However, it is alluded to in the Letter to the Hebrews and elsewhere in the New Testament.

It was written after a time of fierce persecution when most of the Jewish people had finally come around to belief in the resurrection of the dead. Otherwise it was hard to understand why so many good people had died without God intervening to save them. The writer can only cope with this calamity by imagining that they were plucked like brands from the burning, so that they only seemed to suffer and die whereas in fact God had beamed them up to safety on the mother ship.

This is an idea later inherited by some Christians - who were nicknamed Docetists after the word 'to seem' which is used about the martyrs in the passage here, who only seemed to have died. What distinguished the Docetists from other Christians is that they said Jesus had only seemed to die on the Cross. The Prophet Muhammad encountered Docetic Christians on his travels as a merchant and assumed that they represented mainstream Christianity, so to this day Muslims also believe that Jesus only appeared to have died and that no torment had actually touched him on the Cross.

However, the writer of the Wisdom of Solomon wants it both ways. He wants the martyrs to have escaped ultimate disaster and yet to have been tested in the furnace of affliction. Christians were surely right in the end to conclude that suffering pain and death is not incompatible with being close to God and being vindicated by him. So here is another reason why the Wisdom of Solomon is the odd one out from these passages.

But there is a third and final reason. As we saw this morning, All Saints Day is not about special people, it's a celebration of the great mass of ordinary believers who bear faithful witness to God's goodness in everyday acts of loving kindness. However, the Wisdom of Solomon is about the vanguard of the faithful, people who were prepared to be sacrificed for what they believed. There is a sense in which all of us are called to follow their example, and that's certainly what Jesus said when he talked about his disciples shouldering their own cross in order to follow him. But the writer of the Wisdom of Solomon sees the martyrs as set apart from everyone else, like the traditional understanding of the word saint. Their deeds make them shine forth and run like sparks through the stubble of history, and they will therefore have a special role in God's plan as his cadre of senior managers. In this sense the passage is closer to the Roman Catholic practice of canonising saints, who are somehow seen to be different from the rest of us.

And yet, in the end, the writer comes back to the idea of sainthood as being something which is ultimately open to everyone. God's grace and mercy can help us all to follow in the footsteps of the martyrs. We can all be helped to trust in God and to understand the truth. We can all be empowered to be faithful and abide with him in love. We can all join God's elect, which is a circle drawn to include people in and not to shut them out.

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