I go to a weekly Bible study group with a number of other Lutheran pastors in our county. In preparing for All Saints Sunday, we read a text from Revelation describing a multitude of people robed in white worshiping and praising the Lamb. The author asks someone who these people are and he responds:
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… for 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 (Revelation 7:14-17).
What a gruesome image! Washing clothing in blood is unsettling to say the least. We may be tempted to ignore such grisly images in the Bible.
I once attended a church that sought to be more “seeker” or visitor friendly in a variety of ways. They had a projector screen to display music and images related to the sermon message, they had a praise band, and they recently started up a coffee shop on the church’s campus. I noticed a couple of things in the worship service that were rather different than what I had been accustomed to in the liturgy. The biggest thing for me was the changing of the words of institution over the Lord’s Supper. The presider said, “Jesus gathered with his friends for what he knew would be his last meal. He shared the bread with them saying, ‘Take this bread and when you eat it, remember me.’ And he took the cup of wine and shared it with his friends saying, ‘Take this cup and when you drink it, remember me.’” I quickly realized that the presider had omitted the parts about the bread being Jesus body given for us and the cup being his blood shed for us. After the service one of my friends asked the pastor why Jesus’ words about his body and blood were omitted from the words of institution. The pastor explained, “We are trying to be a place where people feel welcomed and comfortable. All that talk about blood and guts is frankly disgusting. It is a big turn-off for church-goers.”
I find the language of “blood and guts” that we find in the Lord’s Supper and throughout the Bible to be comforting. We are tempted to ignore the violence and cruelty found in Scripture just as we are tempted to ignore the violence and cruelty found in our world.
These past few months, all sorts of violence and cruelty have been revealed to us. Ebola has claimed the lives of almost 5000 people. The Islamic State (ISIS) has taken over hundreds of square miles of territory in Iraq and Syria killing hundreds of civilians and displacing millions of civilians. That is to say nothing of the local tragedies that we face with rampant gun violence in Trenton or Philadelphia, the sicknesses that claim the lives of our loved ones, and the systems of poverty that crush people we see on a daily basis.
All Saints Day, Christmas, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper all share a common message: God is with you. God is here in the midst of the cruel and bloody experiences of our world. God gathers the saints together and promises to wipe away their tears (Rev. 7:17). God became flesh and bone in the person of Jesus Christ, embraced and healed the hurting, and even died for our sake. In baptism we declare that we have been baptized in Christ sharing in his death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-5). In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gives us his very body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins and to gift us with abundant and eternal life.
As we go into the season of Advent we keep watch for the God who promises to be with us in all of the bloody troubles we and our world are in. This is the God who became flesh and walked on the same ground beneath our feet. This is the God who is near enough to wipe away our tears. This is the God who is bread and wine in our mouths. This is Immanuel, “God with Us.”