Tension Among the Saints
You can usually cut the tension with a knife. If I have learned anything in my short time in ministry it is that when we gather around a hospital or hospice bed to say good-bye to a family member or dear friend tensions can run high. While this is not always the case, it has been my experience more often than not that when it is time to say good-bye to someone who was a saint in our life, we respond in two ways: it is a time of great grace, where we celebrate our dear saint and thank God for the saint’s role in our life, or tensions run high as personalities, who in the past have typically avoided one another, are now forced to come together. In these moments the tension causes us to take our focus off of God, and the promise that is to come (where our dear saint will no longer face things like hunger or thirst). In taking our focus off of God and the saint laying before us we turn our attention to the behavior of the personality we have avoided for so long. We ignore whatGod has done and is doing.
We focus on what they are doing or did, instead of God’s presence and promise in these holy moments, causing tensions to rise.
There is a tension between our two scripture readings this morning. One focuses on the early church, and really the church today, and the other looks to the church that is to come, meaning God’s Kingdom reigning. The tension lies between the behavior of you and me, the saints of today, and the saints in their full glory. Paul is writing to a church living in the tension between the relationship of holy teaching and holy living while John is writing and looking to what is to come.
Paul himself lived a holy life. Even before he was blinded by the light he was a holy man. Paul was a Pharisee, and as I mentioned a few weeks ago, the Pharisees were hardliners when it came to the Torah. That is he, Paul, and they the Pharisees, followed and expected others to follow a strict adherence Jewish law. This is why he thought it was so important to root out the early Christian Church from the Temple and Jewish communities. Paul wanted to destroy the early Christian church, and he tried to do so with extreme violence against anyone who confessed the faith he would later devote his life to spreading. One of the reasons Paul was so successful at rooting out the early Christian Church and later at spreading the gospel was because he lived a holy life which backed up his teaching. Paul walked the walk he was telling others to walk. Paul is writing the Thessalonians to tell them that yes the work of the Church is holy but so too is the worker. So while it is important to teach the gospel, and to spread the gospel, it is also important to live lives worthy of the gospel at the same time.
On the other hand, Revelation is looking to what is to come, to what the saints of yesterday and tomorrow are experiencing and will experience when they arrive in glory before God. And let’s be honest with each other, Revelation gets a bad rap. We often think of multi-headed beasts, robes dripping in blood, and condemnation for those we deem are “outside” the Christian faith when we think of this book of the Bible. Revelation has gotten a bad rap over the years.
But that is not what John is writing about. Through the sacrifice of the Lamb, the Lamb refers to Jesus, we experience redemption and glory. The purity expressed through the wearing of white robes is more a result of the blood of the Lamb washing all of us clean and less about holiness we attempt to live out. This text provides comfort to those of us, and those we know, who have been weak or reluctant in our/their following of Jesus and the gospel message.
Even though we, at times, are reluctant or stumble, it is the Lamb of God that allows us to be in the presence of God and worshiping, even if our lives have been less than holy. Everyone being present, from all times and places, confirms that not only is the number gathered too many to count but also that those outside of Israel, Gentiles, people like you and me, are present as well. This is confirmation of Jesus’ ministry to Jews and Gentiles. So while the text from Thessalonians speaks to the holiness we, and the saints before, should live with, our reading from Revelation is concerned with the holiness and sacrifice of the Lamb.
Do you feel the tension?
Are we to be focused on our behavior and actions or only on the Lamb who can purify us, making us pure as white cloth, able to stand before the Father?
Is it about us or about Jesus?
Every week people like me stand before people like you and try to navigate this tension. Holy living now or the greatest sacrifice? And to tell you the truth, those on this side, would prefer to avoid the tension. We lean towards works, the legal checkboxes, things Pharisees like Paul would have loved, that need to be done to live a lifestyle considered holy or we lean towards the sacrifice of Jesus. But rarely do we stand in the middle of Thessalonians and Revelation, and stand in the middle of the tension that is the life we live now and fullness of life we can look forward to when we worship God with countless others without ceasing.
A few years ago I stood at a graveside service for a dearly departed saint in my life. Sonny was a man’s man to many but to me he was Granddad. He could fix anything, out cuss anyone I know, and sing every classic hymn better than most in the church choir. As we stood at the graveside service I reflected on what I knew about Sonny. He rarely missed church and he loved the classic hymns. But when the preacher said we could not be sure if Sonny was saved in this life I felt the tension rise. I do not know if anyone else felt it but I sure did.
I leaned to my brother Drew and asked, “did he really just say that!?” “That’s not how you do this!” I thought to myself.
I am not a seasoned pastor but I have been in church long enough and taken enough counseling and worship classes to know that what the preacher said is exactly what you are not supposed to say. In the midst of pain, suffering, and grief you do not add questions of salvation.
The two scripture texts presented to us this morning make me want to shake my Bible and shout that on All Saints Sunday you do not add tension. You do not on one hand speak of holy living and on the other tell us that only Jesus can make us holy before God. Because if Jesus is the only one who can wipe our slate clean, holy living does not make much sense because we are left with the same question posed at Sonny’s graveside service: we do not know if we are saved or not. It is
You do not add tension on Sundays like this.
On a day when we remember those who have helped to strengthen our faith, at a graveside remembering a Saint that has now dawned a white robe, you do not raise these questions. You do not make those gathered anxious, uncomfortable with the tension now taking hold of the room or cemetery.
Fleming Rutledge, an Episcopal Priest and theologian wrote, “life is difficult. Suffering is inevitable. Failures and disappointments are more likely to come to us than not. Separation and abandonment are part of life. Many questions cannot be answered in this world. Death is real."
Perhaps what the graveside preacher knew was that in the midst of our tension, Christ is present. Because none of us, on our own, can be sure of our own salvation, or the salvation of the saints dearly departed. But what we can be sure of is that in the midst of “failure and disappointment,” “separation and abandonment,” questions, and death, the only power that can overcome that tension is present. The power of our the risen and ascended Jesus, Christ conquering death, is what overcomes the doubts we have in our ability to live the holy lifestyle Paul writes of.
What we miss in avoiding the tension between Thessalonians and Revelation is that while it may be hard in this life we have the confidence of knowing what happens at the end of the book: God wins. We win. Christ’s holiness wins over “failure and disappointment,” “separation and abandonment.”
Paul’s emphasis on holy living makes no sense if what John wrote in Revelation is not true. Knowing the Lamb slain is on the throne enables us to live in a way that otherwise feels like we are living in tension with the rest of the world. We know how the story ends! We know that while on one hand people will tell us it does not matter how we live because we do not know what will happen in the next life, but because of the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf we know that when we join the saints dearly departed we will join those already gathered in worshiping the Lamb whose blood washed us clean.
We are able to believe this promise because the same God who raised Jesus from the dead is “a God who is able to keep promises” and does keep promises.