At the core of the concept and calling of discipleship is the idea that, while journeying with others as they learn, we are learning more about our own faith, about ourselves, and that God’s Love is around us and within us all the time. And so, it is hard to justify interpreting Paul’s journey to Macedonia as being only to evangelize others or to “save” a rich merchantwoman from eternal Hellfire and Damnation.
Our scripture readings this morning all touch on different aspects of the issue of Discipleship.
In Acts 16, we see Paul and his team of co-workers responding to Paul’s vision that they are to minister in Macedonia. Once they arrive there, we see a woman in turn responding to Paul’s evangelism. She establishes a church within her own home; a church that Paul’s Epistles tell us supported him and his ministry for the rest of his life. Yes, Paul, Silas and Timothy were all Disciples. But, so was Lydia and so were those who succeeded her in the Church at Phillippi, and so are we.
Our reading from the end of the Book of Revelation is John’s penultimate vision of New Jerusalem: descending from Heaven, unifying Heaven and Earth. We will finally see the face of God; forever free from any curse or sin.
Paul’s dream, his work, and ours, are all part of preparing for the New Jerusalem; which is the goal of our Discipleship: the vision in the Book of Revelation is of what will be made manifest when our work, as disciples working together to build the Kingdom of God here on earth, is complete.
But, Literalists tend to see this passage, and the Book of Revelation as a whole, as a declaration of how everyone must become a Christian, and that those who refuse that call will perish. (Meaning us too, since we do not interpret the Bible in the same way they do.) For many of them, the Book of Revelation is an affirmation that there is one and only one true faith, and that it is theirs. It saddens me how those who believe there is a very narrow path to salvation are often equally certain they are one of the few who have actually found it.
But, did Jesus actually teach this? Is it a helpful interpretation of scripture?
To Christians, the veil of Death, that dark, impenetrable horizon that marks the end of the journey of all of our lives, is not a fearful boundary between the worlds of the living and of the dead. It isn’t the end. Yes, the dead do not return – yet, but there is nothing to fear – as Christians we know that our journey will require us to travel through the valley of the Shadow of Death during our lives, and then beyond – into the realm of death itself. But, Jesus has returned, has shown us that God’s love – the undying and uncompromising love of our Creator, the creator of all that is, including Time itself, is a love that is more than sufficient to pierce the veil that separates these two worlds.
Halloween is a very ancient festival, known as Samhain by the Celts. It was the Festival of the Dead. Cattle were brought back from their summer pastures and livestock slaughtered for the winter. Bonfires and lanterns would be lit; and the spirits had to be propitiated so that the people and their livestock would survive the winter.
Like most major feasts in ancient calendars, Samhain was a day of transition: in this case marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the season of darkness: a time of concern. In these ancient communities, which did not have the safety nets or resources we have now, a bad winter, or a bad harvest, or a delayed Spring, could be catastrophic. They knew something had to be done to calm supernatural anger. It was necessary to seek help from friendly spirits and from one’ ancestors who were already in that realm.
Many ancients, not just the Celts, believed that at this time of year the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest, making it easier for us to communicate with those – the spirits of the dead and supernatural entities – who are part of that realm, but it also made it easier for them to trouble us if we didn’t treat them right! Halloween and All Saints Day both recall these beliefs, which have persisted for thousands of years, or more.
All Saints Day was a joint celebration for all the Saints of the Church – since there were far too many to each have their own feast day, and All Souls Day was a day to remember the faithful who died in the previous year.
Most Protestant Churches have either merged these three days into a one day celebration that recognizes all saints of the church – known and unknown (meaning us, when we pass, too); or else they ignore the Festival completely – like the old Calvanists did – disdaining the Holiday, as they did all Holidays, as being too “Popish” in nature.
The tie that links Halloween, All Souls Day and All Saints Day together is the same ancient belief the Celts had, that the veil between this world and the next is thinnest at this time of year. It was a day very appropriate for seeking to calm our fears and uncertainties in this world by reaching out to the next, as the three days in the Medieval Christian Festival each did in their own ways.
I want to reflect for a moment on my last sermon, given on October 4th, where I spoke on the concept of Belief. I pointed out that as Christians, we often think that “believing” is a goal – of having a firm, unshakeable commitment to the absolute truth of God. But, I argued that belief is actually a process – a journey with God, not a journey to God. Belief is not something we achieve, not a goal. Belief is something we do. We don’t know where Belief will take us in our journey through life, but we know where we’re going to end up.
The point of this morning’s reading from The Revelation of John is similar: we’re not certain what road we’ll follow to get to the end, but that we’ll get to the end is certain.