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Before and After Pictures

October 26, 2020

We are drawn to “Before” and “After” pictures documenting amazing changes in people, places, and things.  We love to see dramatic transformations and we want to know how to achieve the same results. Magazines show “Before” black and white pictures of overweight people in dowdy clothing that are juxtaposed with “After” color photographs of the same people—now slimmed down and sporting new hairdos and fashionable outfits.  Worn, outdated homes are remodeled and refreshed into comfortable and stylish digs. Patches of dirt and weeds are transformed into gardens of serenity and beauty.  

The Scripture texts for next Sunday, All Saints Day, depict “Before” and “After” pictures of the spiritual transformation of all saints and the tools to achieve certain results.[1]  The texts confirm that God has opened his arms to everyone from every nation and race.  We are shown the “Before” photos of our lives as we embark on life’s trials and are part of the Church Militant, engaged in spiritual battles against the forces of evil.  And we see the “After” pictures, at our life’s end, when we rest in the everlasting arms and join all saints in the Church Triumphant.

John gives us our first “Before” and “After” pictures in his description of two visions he had.  The first vision depicts a believer’s life before life’s endwhile he or she is enduring the trials of life on earth: “Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: ‘Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God’ (Revelation 7: 2-3). 

John’s “Before” picture demonstrates that God is with us before we join the Church Triumphant.  He describes an angel coming to put the “seal of the living God” on believers. The living God is our lifelong protector. When we enter the family of God, we are his family; we are under the King’s protection.  The Holy Spirit goes with us throughout our lives to protect and guide us. 

 The reference to the “seal on the foreheads” is reminiscent of the origin of the mark of the cross based on Ezekiel’s vision in which an angel was instructed to make a mark of a Greek letter, in the shape of a T or cross, on the foreheads of all of the righteous Israelites (Ezekiel 9:4).  The “servants of our God” are all of the saints who enter the family of God during their lifetimes through baptism, who repent, and who continue to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This “Before” picture explains that when we become part of God’s family, we are under his spiritual protection throughout our lives.

John’s second vision is the “After” picture that depicts the life of all of the saints[2] who have survived the trials of life on earth and have been ushered into eternal life by persevering in faith in Jesus Christ and his saving grace: “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they stand before God’s throne” (Revelation 7:14-15a, New American Bible, Revised Edition). 

God gave John a glimpse into his truth through these visions.  They confirm that those who are marked by the cross of Jesus have secured God’s protection throughout all trials of this life.  And when the saints are called home, God will put an end to all suffering and will wipe away every tear: “They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17).

God blesses us with the assurance of his presence throughout our lives, and also assures us that when we meet him face to face, all wounds will be healed, and suffering will cease. These verses also give us a sliver of insight into the problem of suffering:  it has a finite end.  We know that the saints who have gone before us are no longer burdened by their physical or emotional limitations and wounds. They have been healed in the new Jerusalem.  This “After” picture is a great comfort to me, knowing that my mother and other saints in my family and among my friends are no longer burdened by the ailments and concerns that caused them so much pain for many years of their lives.

The First Letter of John was written to a church in the throes of an internal rift, apparently involving basic doctrine. John seeks to dispel any doubts about the divinity of Jesus. This text gives us yet another “Before” and “After” glimpse into our lives as Christians spanning from the here and now into eternity: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1-3a, New American Bible, Revised Edition, emphasis added).  John confirms that we are in God’s family and under his protection during our lifetimes.  This is our present reality. When we see him face to face in the life to come, he will somehow be reflected in us: “we shall be like him.” 

In the gospel text Jesus instructs us how we should live during our earthly lives. Speaking on a hillside near Capernaum known as the Mount of Beatitudes, Jesus gave the best-known sermon in all of Christendom–the Sermon on the Mount.  The introduction to his teaching, called The Beatitudes, is this week’s gospel text.  It’s not a surprise that this text was chosen as the gospel lesson for All Saints Day.  It explains the life of the authentic Christian and how he or she responds to God’s call during our “Before” lives here on earth, and the rewards of the “After” life with God.  

Dr. Bill Creasy explains that the text consists of nine statements, each of which has a built-in apparent paradox or contradiction. And each statement builds on the last. These gentle lessons explain what our posture before God should be and how we are to model Jesus’ example as we live out our lives as saints on earth.  When Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he was referring to the person who has a gaping hole in his or her heart—a hole that can only be filled by God. Recognizing that the heart yearns for and needs God is the first step to loving God.  It is the first of a series of verses (Matthew 5:3-6) also blessing those who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness—which all describe what our posture before God should be.  We should recognize that the hole in our hearts that can only be filled by God; we should mourn the absence of God; we should humble ourselves and thirst to be close to God—to seek his holiness. 

The next three verses (Matthew 5: 7-9) are a call to action.  Jesus explains how we should act toward others: be merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers. We respond to God’s mercy by being merciful to others.   Being pure in heart means that we come to God because of who he is, not for what he can do for us.  And we are called to do our best to mediate disputes, to resolve our differences, instead of escalating them. 

Jesus brings it home by emphasizing that those who insult and persecute you because of him [Jesus] are blessed, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5: 11).  Jesus is not saying that you will be blessed if you are insulted and persecuted because you are an evil person and deserve it.  Instead, he is saying that if you are insulted and persecuted because of him, you will be blessed.

He emphasizes that point and goes even further in saying that if you are insulted and persecuted on his account, “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5: 12). This is a glimpse into the afterlife—the “After” picture. When we are persecuted, insulted, rejected, excluded, scorned, or rebuffed because of our belief in God, we will be rewarded in heaven. 

Follow Jesus’ example to be merciful, pure in heart, and a peacemaker.  Be assured that if you are a follower of Jesus, God has put his spiritual seal of protection on you and will help you throughout your earthly trials and sorrows. And at the end of your short time on earth, you will be welcomed into the Church Triumphant by God who will wipe away all your tears and lead you to your reunion with all of the saints. 

Prayer: Father, we praise and thank you for your protection throughout our lives on earth and pray for your continued help as we live out the trials of life on earth. You know the shock and sadness we feel when we have lost a loved one—we are bereft in a sea of despair. Comfort us in the depths of our sorrow.  Give us the hope and assurance that our loved ones are now unburdened by their ills and are resting in your arms with all the saints in the Church Triumphant. We ask these things in the name of your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for All Saints Day are Revelation.7:2-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew. 5:1-12.

[2] “. . . great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9).

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