There are two things a little out of the ordinary this evening. On this “First Tuesday”, which happens to be All Saints Day, we invite you to come downstairs after the service for a soup supper. And this feast of All Saints is one of the occasions when we renew our Baptismal vows. Following these reflections, we’ll stand together, renew our promises and be sprinkled with water as a reminder of our baptism into Christ, into his death and resurrection, baptized into his likeness.
We stand together in this life on a kind of threshold, a threshold between two rooms. The room before us and the room behind us are both infinities, infinities that we only vaguely comprehend. The room behind us is an infinity of nothingness, of un-being, of non-existence. We have come out of that “un-beingness” and now actually do exist. The other room, the room before us, is an infinity of being, of what we call “eternal life”. The threshold upon which we stand partakes of both rooms. Like in the narthex of this chapel, we can hear the sound of traffic from one direction and we can smell the incense from the other, and yet not be in one place or the other.
Something of the room behind us and something of the room before us make their way into this threshold life. Un-being, non-existence is with us in the decay and demise of all things, even our own death. The life of eternity before us filters into this threshold place in the guise of grace, beauty and love, love in its many manifestations. Living as we do in this threshold can be difficult and disorienting, with both life and death making claims upon us. When our suffering threatens to overwhelm us, we can fail to notice the light that filters through even now into this threshold life, this liminal place.
A church can be a liminal place. A church can be a numinous place where our vision of that infinity of life is renewed. It’s one reason we renew our baptismal promises. A church can be a place where we come to know that this new infinity is our birthright. That having called us up and out of non-existence, the creator invites us to be with him in the place of infinite life. The place where the Saints have gone before us.
The visions of the Book of Revelation take us to the very throne of God. The One who is and was and is to come. The One who is himself the Lamb. The Lamb of God. Who has taken away the sins of the world. Guaranteeing access to the throne room for all—a free pass for all, all who wish, that is. All who wish may join the heavenly choir, dine at the heavenly banquet. We’re all “unworthy” of such a thing, but the Lamb is worthy. His blood assures us that, regardless of our sense of unworthiness (be it from sin or any human frailty), we are still invited.
Ancient Israelite religion held two contradictory intuitions in a kind of dynamic tension. On the one hand, our sense of being drawn into relationship with God, our desire to be close to the One who created us. And on the other hand, a sense of our unworthiness to be in the presence of One so holy. The gap between these two, between the desire to be close to God and our sense of unworthiness to be in God’s presence, was bridged by a system of sacrifices, animal and otherwise. The purpose of the sacrifices was to make us acceptable in the eyes of God, to restore the relationship. Even in the Hebrew Scriptures, however, we see some skepticism about whether this works.
Christians believe that God has himself bridged the gap—a gap that no merely human efforts could fill. Permanently, once for all, by the death on the cross of Jesus. He is the perfect sacrificial Lamb whose worthiness is bestowed upon us as a free gift. We may now not only enjoy being drawn into relationship with God, but know that through the worthiness of Christ, we too have been made worthy, worthy to enjoy his nearer presence, and, ultimately, worthy to cross over from this threshold into the fullness of eternal life.
Standing on this threshold as we do, we don’t see either the room behind us or the room before us very clearly. We have only a vague sense of the infinity of non-being, and only a vague sense of the infinity of eternal life. Partly because “What we will be has not yet been revealed.” [1 John 3:2] And partly because this threshold life is itself magnificent beyond description, vast beyond comprehension, and—as you have probably discovered by now—sometimes deeply compelling in its joys and sorrows, and sometimes unbearable.
There’s a paradoxical quality to living this threshold existence as Christians. We are called to live in this world for a time, fully engaging its joys and sorrows, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, striving for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being–as if this is the only world that really matters. And we are called to live in anticipation of the life to come, as if it, too, is the only world that really matters.
We do well to engage this present life fully—we’ll find ourselves in the next room soon enough. Maybe today, maybe tomorrow. Maybe later—but not much later. I keep forgetting that my soul may be required of me this very night. I wonder if you might have forgotten.
As we make our way through this life some of us behave well. Some of us behave badly. Most of us behave well and badly. But the Lamb says, “Come”. Come anyway, come as you are. The Lamb says, Come—I’ve paid your admission.
“The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come’. And let everyone who hears say ‘ Come’. And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” [Rev. 22: 17] A gift!
Many, of course, have come. “A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” [Rev. 7: 9] Many have come through this great ordeal, having “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” [Rev. 7: 14]
All the Saints who have come came not because they were worthy, but because the Lamb is worthy. They came not because they were good or beautiful or intelligent or successful or strong or fast or rich—or even all the above. They came because the Lamb is worthy. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” [Rev. 5: 12]
A church ought to be a place where the Lamb is lifted up, lifted up for all to see, for all to be drawn, for all to know that all are welcome to come. Pre-paid admission for all, all who wish.
We know not the day or the hour, but the day will come, the hour, the very moment will come and we shall stand no longer in this threshold life, this threshold life magnificent beyond description, vast beyond comprehension, overwhelming in its joys and sorrows. But the moment will come. “OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.” The last words of Steve Jobs, quoted by his sister in her eulogy*. Steve Jobs (?!) Apple computers… “OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW,” he said, looking past his family gathered bedside.
But we are here, so we strive. We strive to be “worthy of the promises of Christ”, as one of our prayers puts it. That all we are, all we say and do might partake of the grace and beauty and love of what lies ahead. We turn our backs on death and its legions. We turn our gaze instead toward resurrection and its infinite epiphanies. Death has been defeated, “swallowed up”! The Saints stand ready to greet us. They join the Lamb, the Spirit and the Bride saying, “Come”.
“To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing, to God and to the Lamb, I will sing. To God and to the Lamb, who is the great I AM, while millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing, while millions join the theme I will sing.” [Hymnal 1972 #439]
*Op-ed piece in New York Times, Oct. 30, 2011, by Mona Simpson, Jobs’ sister
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