Use the eyes of your body, people loved by God, and the Church can look pretty wretched. Think how the hymn describes her: “Though with a scornful wonder, men see her sore oppressed; by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” And that’s not even mentioning the bad behavior of her pastors and her laity – for how often do we bring shame on the holy name of our Savior by the words and deeds of our own lives? Yes, the Church looks like a first class train wreck.
Odd as it may sound, things weren’t too much different toward the close of the first century when St. John was writing. You know, he outlived all the other apostles. And so he got to see the countless assaults that attacked the first plantings of the church. False teachers arising right from the midst of the people of God and spouting off their own crazy ideas as Gospel truth; the heavy hand of the Roman state crashing down on the Church over and over again to wipe her out; the luke-warmness of those who began to take their faith for granted – oh, they showed up for the Divine Services, but they’d lost their first love. It all became a bit ho-hum for them.
And now exiled and sitting all by his own alone self there on Patmos, God gives John a priceless gift that he shared with us by writing it down: a vision of the Church as she truly is, as God sees her and declares her to be, and will finally reveal her to all the world: a vast multitude – you number lovers, give up trying to count them, impossible – and they are from all over the creation: every nation and tribe and people and language. But they are gathered in one spot: before the throne of the Father and of the Lamb. They are clothed in gleaming white and they bear in their hands the palm branch of victory and as they wave it they announce that: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!” That is, they stand before the throne and every last of them owns up that salvation came to them as pure gift from the hand of God and the Lamb, our Lord Jesus. Not their doing!
When John is asked who they are, he gives the wise answer: You better tell me. And tell him the elder does: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation – the great trouble." THIS age! They have washed their robes in Lamb’s blood and so they are white and they stand before the throne and they worship day and night in God’s holy temple. And He shelters them. Gone the hunger, the thirst, the threat from sun with its heat. The Lamb is their shepherd. He guides them to springs that flow with living water. And God Himself wipes away all their tears.
Want to see the Church? Listen and see with your ears this stunning picture. That’s what we really are. Not the mess. Not the shame and the disaster you see before you eyes – but that huge and noble assembly of all the elect children of God gathered into the worship of God and the Lamb by and in the Holy Spirit.
And so the very same author wrote to the churches in his first epistle, marveling at the massive love that the Father has given you – not will give you – HAS given you. That right now you should be His children. And John says it only gets better. We can’t even begin to guess how it will end up when Christ appears in glory – except for this: we will be like Him. We shall see Him in that moment as He truly is, and seeing Him we shall see – yes, with our eyes – ourselves as we really are in Him. And everyone will see in that moment the gleaming white, the palm branches, the massive crowd of those who have been redeemed, clothed and sheltered throughout the difficulties of this present age. John says: If you have this hope, you purify yourself, just as your Jesus is pure. This hope focuses your life, and you spend the time left to you in your pilgrimage here practicing for the age to come, where love has triumphed over all and there is only joy and peace and thanksgiving and praise in response to the God who has given you everything: your body and soul, forgiveness for all your sin, and a life that is so strong death turns tail and runs away from it.
It is in light of what shall be, that our Lord pronounces His beatitudes. This is His first teaching He gives to His disciples. In it, He trains them to keep the focus on what will be in light of what they have been given already and so that they may endure the hardships that await. The gift now to the poor in spirit and the persecuted is the very Kingdom of God itself – first and eighth beatitudes. That kingdom shows up in Jesus. He is the gift of God’s gracious reign in our flesh and blood. You are blessed indeed when you have Him; when He is your King and you get to serve Him in everlasting “righteousness, innocence and blessedness.” That’s to wear the white robe that is blood washed and to stand in the great assembly – unseen now, but truly there – singing and offering praises with all the rest.
But notice that all the middle beatitudes – from second through seventh – are future, not present. The mourners will be comforted, the meek will inherit this earth, the people who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled, the merciful will receive mercy, the purified in heart will see God, the peacemakers will be called His children. Which is our Lord’s way of saying: “now and not yet.” Now the Kingdom. Now His gracious presence, reigning in your heart. Working all things together for your good. And not yet. “For the troubles of this present life are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed” is how St. Paul would put it later. Lot of agony and sorrow here and now as you live in His kingdom, but through it all His presence sustains you, and trains you to focus on what will be. Even as He did: “Who for the joy set before Him despised the cross, scorning the shame, and sat down at the right hand of God with angels and principalities subject to Him.”
As with the Head, so with His body. You don’t focus upon the hardships and the griefs and the heart-breaking sorrows, your failures to live as His people, your constant falling and crawling back to His grace. No. You focus through them all on where and how it ends. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,” St. Paul says, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Phil. 3:13,14. “Our citizenship is in heaven and from it we await the Savior who will transform our lowly bodies to be like His own by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.” Phil. 3:20,21. All things – even your weak and straying hearts. “We WILL be like Him for we shall see Him as He is.”
So, All Saints. The day for us to learn to see the future and to press toward it by the power of God’s Spirit as Christ’s own blessed people. Not the mess of the church as she appears in this world; not the weakness of your own Christian life; but the final result of Christ’s saving work which will appear in all its glory only when He appears again. Behold it now by faith, love it, ache for it, and live towards it – for in the end that blessedness which is yours and hidden now will be yours and visible on that glorious day.
To Christ, the Lamb whose blood has washed away our sin, to whom alone belongs salvation, be all glory, honor and praise, with the Father and the Holy Spirit in His holy church now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen.