Is Unity Possible?
All Saints’ Day [Observed]
Twenty-Third Sunday after Trinity
November 4, 2018
About twenty miles off the coast of Turkey and across from Greece is an island about ten miles long and six miles wide. In ancient times it was used by the Roman Empire for political prisoners. In the second half of the first century the apostle John was exiled to this island, the island of Patmos, as he says, “because of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” In exile he says that “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit” and was given a vision.
On this small part of the globe the apostle saw heaven. In the suffering and patient endurance he experienced with his brothers and sisters in Christ he was shown eternity. The First Reading for our celebration of All Saints’ Day gives us a small portion of this vision. He saw “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
This is heaven and eternity. There is no time or space apart from this world. So no matter where John had found himself, he was given to see the true reality. It is the reality of so many people that they can’t be numbered, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. They are all standing before the throne and before the Lamb. The revelation to John also shows their response: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
This is the true reality. It is unity, all the saints together in unison. It is what we confess in the Apostles’ Creed: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints. And in the and Nicene Creed: I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church. There’s a note at the bottom of the Creed that you need a magnifying glass to see. It regards the word Christian. The note says the ancient text of the Creeds say “catholic,” meaning the whole Church as it confesses the wholeness of Christian doctrine.
When we and Christians around the world confess the creeds of Christendom we confesstheholy catholic Church, the communionof saints. And we confess the oneholy catholic and apostolic Church. It’s as if we’re already in heaven. Already speaking in unison, celebrating our unity as we stand before the throne of God and before the Lamb. Well, we know we’re not in heaven yet. But is this true? It better be, because when you make a confession of faith you are saying that this is the truth and when you were confirmed in the faith you promised to renounce all before denying it, even your own life.
But our eyes tell a different story don’t they. It’s obvious the Christian Church isn’t in unity but rather is shattered into thousands of denominations and factions. What is taught at one congregation can directly oppose the teaching at another. Our life in the Christian Church here on earth seems a far cry from the glorious picture of the saints in heaven. And at the worst, it seems a mockery of it. How can we Christians who profess the one true faith in the Creeds be so at odds with each other? Are we being hypocrites in confessing the one Church when there is vehement disagreement among so many hundreds and hundreds of our churches?
It would seem that the Church would be the place we could escape divisiveness. We would hope that the Church would be a true sanctuary in a world that is full of hostilities and division and hatred. There is no end to nations going to war against other nations. In our own nation we are deeply divided. What has transpired up to this election on Tuesday is saddening and sobering. We citizens who are supposed to be one nation are factionalized and often spiteful against one another.
But even in our homes we sometimes are unable to escape. So often family members are at odds with each other. Whether it’s parents and children in a struggle for control or husbands and wives not selflessly loving each other or siblings or even extended family members tired of not getting things the way they should be, that is, the way they think they should be.
Is it even possible to be in unity? In this life, we will never be fully free of division and hatred. When sin entered the world all creation has felt its harmful effects. All we can really hope for is to love others as best we can because we are unable to overcome the assaults of Satan, the world, and our own sinful flesh in tearing people apart.
But that’s life in this world. What about the Church? The one true Church. The holy catholic and apostolic Church, the communion of saints? Is true unity possible? Can we actually exist as the picture is given of all the saints before the throne and the Lamb? We’ve all experienced a friend or relative being offended when speaking of doctrine and finding out that we believe that they’re wrong. We ourselves may have been offended at someone claiming that we are wrong in our beliefs. Even in the Sacrament of the Altar, which we also call Holy Communion, is a cause for division as we learn in the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that those who partake of the body and blood of Christ in an unworthy manner receive it to their judgment. Even at this most holy Sacrament, the place where we are most at one with each other, where we commune even with the angels and the archangels and all the company of heaven, there is the warning that those who do not discern the body of Christ are to withhold from communing.
At one point in the ministry of Jesus we learn that at this teaching of Christ concerning the eating and drinking of His body and blood that many of his disciples were offended and left Him. As He saw them go away He turned to His twelve disciples and asked them, “Will you go away also?” Peter responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Jesus did not change His teaching so that the large number of people would stay. He held to the truth, because the true reality is in Him. It is not in us. It is not in me, or you, or us as human beings, or us as Americans, or us as family members. The true reality is in God the Father and the Lamb.
Our unity is in Jesus. Notice what every one of the Beatitudes in today’s Gospel reading characterizes the saints of God as: those who are humble. This is not just the act of humbling yourself. It is also the experience of you being humbled. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
What the saints of God on this earth experience is not the unending glory of the saints in heaven. What we experience is often lowly, and hard, and humbling. But you see, this is how we see the true reality. This is how we come to see that we have true unity. Because when we lose ourselves we gain Christ. When we lose everything we hold dear we gain everything. The first beatitude says that those who are blessed have the Kingdom of Heaven. The last beatitude says the same.
The Kingdom of heaven is ours even now, just as it is for all eternity as is shown by the revelation to John. The Lord of all, sitting at the right hand of the throne of God is, after all, the Lamb who was slain. Amen.