A Stretched People

Last week I mentioned that I was preparing to preach a sermon for the first time, at Salem Covenant Church of New Brighton, MN on All Saints’ Sunday. Despite my fears, it seemed to go well yesterday, and I thought I’d post my text in case anyone who wasn’t there was interested in reading it. The sermon was also recorded and will eventually be posted on Salem’s website. (I’ll post an update once that happens.)

This fall my wife and I have had the joy of taking our twin toddlers to God’s Children Sing, a music program led Wednesday evenings by the wonderful Sonja Grimes. One song we’ve been learning goes like this: “I see a boy with a blue shirt on, / blue shirt on, / blue shirt on / I see a boy with a blue shirt on / Who are you?”

It’s an easy question for my son; his name is one of his favorite words. (The challenge is simply to sing the response.) But he knows who he is: Mommy and Daddy’s son, and Oma and Opa’s grandson. But we know that “Who are you?” gets trickier as we get older. Our identity gets more complicated, even conflicted. All the more so when you ask the question not of an individual, but of a community: “Who are we?”

For example, living where we do, we might answer that “We’re Americans.” Simple enough, right? But if you search Google for “America” and the phrase “identity crisis,” you’ll come up with 8-9 million hits. Whether because of economic uncertainty, political polarization, “culture wars,” or something else, Americans increasingly seem to be unsure who they are as a nation. Or, we think we know who we are, but we don’t know that other Americans agree, or that we think they’re really American. I pray we’re not quite a house “divided against itself” (Mark 3:25), but it increasingly feels like consensus escapes us.

So perhaps it’s even more important than usual that — gathered where we are — our response to the question, “Who are we?”, starts with the affirmation, “We are Christians.”

But what does that mean? In a post-Reformation, post-denomination, post-modern, perhaps post-Christian era, do we know — even in this one gathering of disciples — just who we are?

In one way, we’ll answer when we affirm the Apostles’ Creed in a few minutes, but let me suggest another way of thinking about Christian identity that Americans — as members of the most presentist culture in world history — may neglect. Writing in defense of liturgies like the one we use at Salem, philosopher Jamie Smith contends that Christians

are called to be a people of memory, who are shaped by a tradition that is millennia older than the last Billboard chart. And we are also called to be a people of expectation, praying for and looking forward to a coming kingdom that will break in upon our present as a thief in the night. We are a stretched people, citizens of a kingdom that is both older and newer than anything offered by “the contemporary.” (Desiring the Kingdom, p. 159)

Who are we? A stretched people, shaped by memory of the past and expectation of the future.

If that’s true, then we’re asking the wrong identity question. We should focus less on who we are and more on who we’ve been and who we’ll be.

And if those aren’t questions you’re accustomed to asking… Well, you’re in the right place at the right time. Because this is both All Saints’ Sunday and a Communion Sunday, a time doubly dedicated both to remembrance and expectation. We remember the saints who departed this life in the past year, and our Christ who mounted the cross. We expect the coming life those saints experience, and the kingdom that is both now and not yet.

So in my remaining time, let’s “stretch” and think through who we’ve been and who we’ll be.

The task of remembrance will come more easily for me. Not only because I’m a historian, but because members of this church have done such a wonderful job of preserving its past that we’re already very much Smith’s “people of memory.” Just visit our archives, volunteer with our historical commission, and before we reach our 125th anniversary (two years away now), go back to our 100th and read Glen Wiberg’s This Side of the River. In it, Glen suggests that the reason we pay attention to the past, what drives our quest to remember, “has to do with seeing what the forebears saw, hearing what they heard, being gripped by what held them—in short, discovering anew the living faith of those few and poor who were the seeds in the planting and flourishing of Salem” (p. 2).

Or ask the relatives of those whose names hang on the wall about their loved ones. Collectively, the saints we honor today represent several centuries of time spent in membership at Salem Covenant Church of Minneapolis-then-New Brighton; their stories are the story of Salem.

One of those saints — the one I knew best — exemplified Smith’s ideal of Christians as a stretched people. Especially in his last years, Jim Hawkinson was widely known as the master storyteller of the Covenant Church: one of the leading keepers of its heritage. But he was also a forward-thinking leader who loved to experiment with new media to help communicate the Gospel. He called his blog Rooted Wings because he wanted to encourage us to be nourished by the past even as we move into the future and become more the people we’re called to be.

It’s when we look to the future and take up the calling of expectation that I find myself less certain. As a historian, I am comfortable imagining the past. But how do I envision the future? Even our epistle text warns that “what we will be has not yet been revealed” (1 John 3:2).

Perhaps our text for today from the Book of Revelation gives us glimpses.

Now, some read Revelation as a blueprint for the future; others as a coded description of events that had already happened. I would suggest that it’s about future and past, since, as author Virginia Stem Owens writes, the apostle John is not given a linear narrative so much as a collage-like peek at eternity, “where earthly time is dissolved in God’s encompassing reality” (Renovaré Spiritual Reformation Bible, p. 2265).

So as you hear today’s text, let it both remind you of what was and shape your expectation of what will be:

9After this I looked, and there was 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. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Rev 7:9-17)

Jan Van Eyck, "The Adoration of the Lamb"
Jan Van Eyck, "The Adoration of the Lamb" from The Ghent Altarpiece (1432)

There’s much to say about this passage and what it tells us about our identity. (The importance of worship alone could be a sermon theme.) But I find myself coming back to three distinctive elements of our identity as it has been and as it will more perfectly become.

First, we are a multitude. By this word verse 9 indicates that the people of God are not small in number, but it also evokes multiplicity, not singularity. While we have much in common, we come “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages….” And I don’t think that list of diversities is meant to be exhaustive. At this church, for example, we pride ourselves on being multigenerational, at once old and young. We are also women and men, Republicans and Democrats, employers and employees, poor and rich, fans of Johann Sebastian Bach and fans of David Crowder, people who root for the Vikings and people, like my wife, who root for that team in Wisconsin.

Gathered together out of a culture bent on tearing itself apart according to narrowly construed, bitterly exclusive categories, we of Salem and the Covenant are “in it together.” Our epistle reading for today reminds us that we are “children of God,” and so we are “no longer strangers and aliens”; we are, with all those we celebrate on this and all previous All Saints’ Days, “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19).

At the same time, hearing that description ought to challenge us: who we’ve been and who we are might diverge from who we will be. As it long has been, Salem remains relatively homogeneous in terms of ethnicity, despite the fact that we worship within a community that includes dozens of nationalities and languages. While we have been and already are a multitude, may we become one that looks more and more like the image of Revelation 7:9.

And perhaps who we’ve been might help us in this respect, for our founders were a people who changed one nation for another, one language for another. To use a great King James word that has all but disappeared from our bibles, they were sojourning, living in this world without ever being “at home” in it. So, too, we are sojourners, the second distinctive element of our identity that I see in this passage.

We will be, like those robed in white, “they who have come out of the great ordeal…” (v 14). Now, those listening to John’s vision in the late 1st or early 2nd centuries must have thought immediately of loved ones who had died in Roman persecutions. But later commentators adopted a broader understanding: one thought the act of being washed in the blood of the Lamb symbolized baptism; another that the white robes simply suggested spiritual gifts. The 6th century African theologian Primasius commented that some Christians were martyrs by “private character” if not “public acts.”

Depending on your view of the End Times, this “great ordeal” might have a more specific meaning. But I think the larger implication here is that we should expect to experience ordeal in this world, each in our own way, whether it be disease, poverty, prejudice, or the violence that still afflicts the church in countries like BurmaIraq, and North Korea.

All of which is to say that we live here without true comfort, security, or stability; we will only find those things in their fullness when we are “before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple.” When the one “who is seated on the throne will shelter them” (v 16).

So we have no shelter, no home in this world. Or, as Hebrews 13:14 puts it, “Here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”

And well our ancestors knew it. Because the people who started this church were immigrants — a people who had sold what little they possessed, abandoned the only homes they’d ever known, and joined a great exodus of millions who crossed an ocean and settled in a new land. Once they arrived, writes Glen Wiberg of Salem’s founders, “They were resident aliens who had become outsiders to the people they had left and were still outsiders among the people to whom they had come” (This Side of the River, p. 36).

Our forebears did not expect any earthly city — whether Stockholm or Minneapolis, Oslo or St. Paul — to be their true home, but they looked to the coming city — where the children of God would come before His throne, blessed forever to “worship him day and night within his temple” (v 15).

As our friend Efrem Smith reminded us at the Covenant’s annual meeting this past June, it’s easy to forget that we are an “immigrant church.” As years and generations went by and they accumulated wealth and status and mortgages and power, one-time immigrants and their descendants were tempted to stop sojourning, to settle down and become what no Christian under ordeal should ever become: comfortable. Here we ought to let who we’ve been shape our understanding of who we will be.

For example, as we talk more and more this month about stewardship of our resources, and as we look ahead to November 20th, when we will gather to consecrate our giving, we should expect to feel a bit uncomfortable; but let me encourage you to respond by embracing our identity. Let your giving remind you that we are sojourning in this world, not clenching fingers to possessions but releasing them to live already as those who “will hunger no more, and thirst no more…” (v 16). That’s the legacy of the “few and poor” who founded Salem and the Covenant: they shared generously of their meager resources, pooling them together in order to send out missionaries to Alaska and China, and to found hospitals and orphanages, retirement homes and schools.

Then second, at Consecration Sunday, let us affirm that we are in this together: a multitude, of whom some can give much money, much more than they already do; some of whom already give every mite they have to spare, but who have boundless energy and passion to share.

But November 20th is still two weeks away, and I’m mindful of the fact that this is not only All Saints’ Sunday, but a Communion Sunday. So let me close with the third and most important element of our identity: we are the Body of Christ.

The other sources of identity have little meaning apart from Christ. A community can be diverse and a people can sojourn without being “in Christ.” But as John Stott, another saint who went to his reward this past year, wrote, “…union with Christ is indispensable to our Christian identity” (Life in Christ, pp. 41). For Stott, while rituals and doctrines and other elements of Christianity are important, they all fall into place if we understand first that we are in Christ.

Only the Word through whom everything — and everyone — came into being (John 1:3) could gather such a multitude as is described in Revelation 7:9. Only by the light that shines in the darkness (John 1:5) could a sojourning people see the difference between the world and their eternal home, and only “the Lamb at the center of the throne” (v 17) could inspire a choir singing the words of Revelation 7:12. The one who “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8) was, is, and will be our shepherd.

If he is not yet your shepherd, but you find yourself wondering what kind of person could draw such a multitude, and sustain such a citizenship, and inspire such praise… who could bless the poor and the meek and the persecuted… If you long to have every tear wiped from your eye, I know that our pastors or myself (or any of our members) would be happy to talk with you about what it means to live in, with, and for Jesus Christ.

If you do confess Jesus Christ as your savior, in a moment we will invite you to join us in sharing the elements of Communion. Here too, we are taught that we are a stretched people. For Communion is, first, an act of remembrance. As British theologian N.T. Wright puts it, “we become for a moment the disciples sitting around the table at the Last Supper.” But that’s only “half of it.” Communion is, second, an act of expectation, of “the arrival of God’s future in the present, not just the extension of God’s past (or of Jesus’s past) into our present. We do not simply remember a long-since dead Jesus; we celebrate the presence of the living Lord. (Surprised by Hope, p. 274)

So join us now in a litany of remembering those resurrection people who have gone to be with their Risen Christ. Then come to His table, where we remember who we were, expect who we will become, and so truly know who — and Whose — we are.


Salem Covenant Church
New Brighton, Minnesota
All Saints’ Sunday — November 6, 2011

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