1 Nov 2015
“When Jesus saw that [the scribe] answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’” (Mark 12:34) In the name …
Every November 1st the church celebrates All Saints Day. This year it happens to fall on a Sunday. It’s the reason for the reading from the Book of Revelation, the one about the white-robed multitude singing their praises to God. These are all the saints. The saints come from every nation, every people, every language. They are the ones who have led godly lives. They are triumphant people of faith. But we can’t forget that they were once us. I have heard people confuse the saints with angels. Angels, however, were always angels. That’s the way God created them and that’s what they’ll always be. They were never human. In about a month the church will enter the season of Advent and in Advent we hear about Gabriel. Gabriel is the angel-messenger who carried news from heaven to Mary and to Joseph about the coming birth of Jesus. Gabriel was never a person. Gabriel was always an angel. But the heavenly saints were once us.
The reason I mention this distinction is because it’s already hard enough to imagine the connection between us and those white-robed saints gathered before the throne of God in heaven. but they were once us. Paul often opens his letters to the various churches by addressing the congregation as saints: “To God’s beloved in Rome who are called to be saints;” “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints;” “To the saints who are in Ephesus;” “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi;” “To the saints and faithful in Christ in Colossae.” And if you take the time to read Paul’s letters to these churches, you know that everything is not perfect, beautiful and smelling like summer roses. Paul wrote to these first congregations to encourage, but just as often to correct. And yet these churches are made-up of the saints of God. We don’t want to forget this fact because if we do then the saints become strangers to us. Their example becomes so aloof that they can’t inspire us to be like them. If we make them into angels, then their example of lives devoted to God here in the ordinariness of this world is lost. We have to remember that all the saints were once us, and we have to remember that we are called to be the saints of God. We have to remember that they struggled and sometimes failed, but that can all be part of becoming one of the saints because they persevered. They never gave up on trying to live the faith better.
Remembering the ordinariness of all the saints is how we can make their works our own. Remembering that all the saints struggled to believe and act godly helps us to locate their heavenly glory on the more humble map of our lived experience. Remembering that the saints were once us helps us to believe we can be saintly too. The saints weren’t always these fluttering, white-robed choir members singing God’s praise in heaven. The saints were once us. What they did we can do.
You know, you can get up at 2AM and move your clocks back one hour when the time changes, or you can anticipate it before going to bed. The anticipation makes a lot more sense to me. And that’s what we’re doing when we realize now that we are someday going to be the saints in heaven. And I think this is what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel. The Gospel sets the scene by telling us that Jesus is being questioned by a religious teacher. This is not the usual Gospel-story of confrontation, however. This scribe respects what Jesus has to say. He gets Jesus’ connection between loving God and loving neighbour. When he then adds “this is much more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices,” Jesus commends his insight by saying, “‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’” And this brings us back to the idea of the ordinariness of the saints. By combining the commandment to love God with the equally important commandment to love each other, Jesus has brought heaven and earth together. The saints in heaven already acted saintly here.
I just finished teaching a Confirmation catechism class to teenagers. It’s hard to get them to talk in class. Now I’m teaching a First Holy Communion catechism class to eight year olds. It’s hard to get them not to talk in class. Their hands are always up in the air ready to ask a question or make a comment. And they all had questions about heaven. Can you see God in heaven? What’s He look like? Can you see what’s happening on earth when you’re up there? How can God have no beginning? How can there be no time in eternity? What will we look like in heaven? They’re so excited about their questions I hate to have to tell them, “I don’t know.” I have no clue what heaven is going to be like.
This is why I think Jesus keeps our attention focused on what we do now. Love God is the first commandment. Love God with everything you got. But, says Jesus, don’t dare think you understand the divine if you can’t even understand why we need to care about each other. Heaven is an unknown. I don’t think even the Book of Revelation is telling us much about heaven. I wonder if God really sits enthroned up there and for all eternity the saints fall prostrate before Him singing, “Blessings and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might.” Does God really need to be reminded like this forever that He’s God? And is that all that heaven is going to be for the saints? I hear in these words the revelation of heavenly adoration and joyous acclamation, but I’d be real surprised if this is exactly how they play out in heaven. I hope heaven is more. I think spending a lot of time trying to imagine that “more” of heaven is not at all productive. And again, I think that’s why Jesus brings heaven down to earth when He links together the commandments of loving God and each other.
Heaven will make sense when we get there as all the saints, but until then we need to act saintly here. I can’t describe heaven. It’s not even easy to agree on what loving God means. And this is why Jesus keeps us grounded by telling us to care for each other. This is when we know that we too are not far from the kingdom of God. May Jesus help us to be saintly now, in His name we pray. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo