Today we celebrate All Saints. The church I grew up in was All Saints so this was always a special day with lots of processions and incense. I think it’s still my favorite festival of the year, because unlike the major feasts which celebrate Christ, this one celebrates us. It’s our day.
We often think of saints as people in icons and stained glass; people who did amazing things; in many cases people that today we would treat with therapy and psychotropic drugs. But that’s not the way that Paul used the word – when he wrote to the churches, he called them saints. And they weren’t all great spiritual heroes. So today we celebrate all of us who are enrolled in the reign of God.
And it’s a fitting day to complete our sermon series on the Nicene Creed, which ends, “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Because most of the saints at this point are dead. It’s simple math. There have been more than 2000 years of saints and any of them who are over 100 and something are dead. So when we think of saints we think first and foremost of dead people.
The Bible is not clear about what happens when we die. There seem to be two different thoughts. On the cross, Jesus said to the man next to him “Today you will be with me in paradise.” That suggests an immediate translation to heaven however we understand heaven. But Paul says, “at the last trumpet… the dead will be raise imperishable and we will be changed.” (I Cor 15:52) and elsewhere he says, “The Lord will come down from heaven… and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (I Thes 4:16) so he seems to think that people remain dead until the Second Coming of Christ, which he thought was just about to happen.
Then in the great vision, the Revelation of St John, John sees “a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne.” (Rev. 7:9) and worshipping God. This is the image that the church has taken for its guide.
We feel a connection with those who have gone before us. We feel a connection with those who built this church, with Howard Vollmer, Jim Franklin, Faith Watkins to name but a few. They are part of us, just as our family are part of us. In fact, we are so influenced by those who teach us and love us and yes even those who get on our last nerve, that they become part of who we are. Each one of us has loved and been loved many times. Each one leaves a mark on our souls and we are not the same.
And we know that in some mystical way, all who are followers of Jesus are knit together in the Body of Christ, and we know that death is not for us the end. So it only makes perfect sense that we are as connected to those we no longer see as to those we see from time to time. This is the communion of saints.
Now I don’t know whether Jesus is right or Paul is right. I don’t know whether we go directly to “Heaven” or whether there is some kind of waiting period, but since once we leave this life we are outside of time, the two options are probably exactly the same. A bit like light being both a particle and a wave. Yes we are raised on the last day, and yes we go straight to be with God when we die.
Many people who have had near death experiences talk about seeing relatives and those who are dying are sometimes reported as seeming to recognize someone they love. It makes perfect sense to me that just as we gather to welcome people home so those who have gone before us will welcome us into our new life. This is part of the hospitality work of the communion of saints. We offer hospitality to one another here, and I’m sure we don’t forget our manners when we pass over.
There’s a useful little guide to Episcopal Christianity located in the red (or black) Book of Common Prayer. It’s called the Catechism. Please turn to page 861. Let’s read the section on Christian Hope together. I’ll ask the questions and you can respond with the answers.
The Christian Hope
|Q.||What is the Christian hope?|
|A.||The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness
and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in
glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the
|Q.||What do we mean by the coming of Christ in glory?|
|A.||By the coming of Christ in glory, we mean that Christ
will come, not in weakness but in power, and will make
all things new.
|Q.||What do we mean by heaven and hell?|
|A.||By heaven, we mean eternal life in our enjoyment of God;
by hell, we mean eternal death in our rejection of God.
|Q.||Why do we pray for the dead?|
|A.||We pray for them, because we still hold them in our
love, and because we trust that in God’s presence those
who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until
they see him as he is.
|Q.||What do we mean by the last judgment?|
|A.||We believe that Christ will come in glory and judge the
living and the dead.
|Q.||What do we mean by the resurrection of the body?|
|A.||We mean that God will raise us from death in the
fullness of our being, that we may live with Christ in the
communion of the saints.
|Q.||What is the communion of saints?|
|A.||The communion of saints is the whole family of God,
the living and the dead, those whom we love and those
whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament,
prayer, and praise.
|Q.||What do we mean by everlasting life?|
|A.||By everlasting life, we mean a new existence, in which we
are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully
knowing and loving God and each other.
|Q.||What, then, is our assurance as Christians?|
|A.||Our assurance as Christians is that nothing, not even
death, shall separate us from the love of God which is in
Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Nothing… not even death, shall separate us from the love of God. That is our great hope. That is what keeps us going even when days are dark. Nothing, even Tuesday’s election, can separate us from the love of God.
Wait, wait there’s more… God can take even our worst mistakes and transform them. We heard in the second reading that God accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will (Eph 1:11). We have nothing to fear.
This is what gave such courage to the saints who are an example to us. It enabled St Francis to become a beggar; St. Benedict to develop monastic communities even though he wanted to be a hermit; and St. Stephen to become the first martyr when he was stoned to death for preaching the gospel of Christ.
I know that I forget that I am so loved by God. Yesterday at the Diocesan Convention I was speaking to several resolutions, and had received some powerful negative feedback early in the day about my participation. I wanted to get up and speak to a resolution that I knew no-one would comment on, but when the fleeting moment came between the Bishop saying, “Is there any discussion? …No, then we’ll vote” I was gripped by the fear of being dismissed as a troublemaker and I was glued to my seat. Given that God loves me totally and unconditionally, why would I be afraid of being a troublemaker?
Most of the saints whom we remember by name were troublemakers. Jesus would not have found it necessary to say “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy,” (Matt.6:22) if being a saint was just being meek and mild and going along with the program. We are called to live courageous, authentic, Christ-filled lives in the power of the Holy Spirit. That is what it means to be a saint.
Yet we often fail. But God is always ready to forgive us, and to give us the grace to forgive others. Saintly troublemakers are also peacemakers, people of compassion and forgiveness.
I am honored to be one of the communion of saints, the troublemakers of God, and I am delighted that the chapter of the communion of saints that I get to live with is all of you. And every time we gather around the table I am thrilled that we get to worship not only with the hosts of angels but also with the multitude of saints from every nation, tribe, people and language.