For All The Saints
A reflection by Rev. Dr. Thom Bower
For 6 November, 2016, All Saints Sunday
Based on Ephesians 1:11–23 and Luke 6:20–31
Ephesians 1:11–23: After giving thanks for the faith of the Ephesians, the writer affirms that, through the “seal” of the Holy Spirit, these saints in Ephesus are living in God’s power and protection. The writer prays they will welcome Jesus the Christ as head of the church
Luke 6:20–31: Imagine the scene: Jesus goes up a mountain to pray and stays all night. The next morning he calls the disciples together and chooses twelve of them to be apostles. As they come down the mountain, there is an enormous crowd of people waiting for them, seeking healing. In this group there are other disciples, Jews, and Gentiles. Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “Blessed are you…”
I have struggled with feelings that I should preach today about voting, to lift up how this ugly campaign season has revealed deep rifts in our society and also demonstrated the increased need for people of faith to be addressing the unjust, ungodly parts of our culture. But on the church calendar today is not “voting Sunday.” As the Sunday that follows November first, today on the church calendar is all Saints Sunday. And that takes higher precedence than our civic calendar.
A couple weeks ago I suggested to Mike that “For All The Saints” would make a good choir anthem, and gave me a good place to begin my sermon. Thank You Mike for accepting that suggestion. That hymn was written in 1864. The original had eleven verses. (Mike, Thank you for leading the choir in only a few.) The first verse is based on a statement in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the communion of saints.”
Communion is one of those words whose meaning has shifted across the decades. It has come to primarily mean the Eucharistic sacrament – but US Protestants decided that “Eucharist” sounded too Catholic. “Communion” used to mean an intimate relationship – so a “communion service” was an intimate worship that included the sacrament. “The communion of saints,” then, is an intimate relationship between saints.
And “saints” is another of those words whose meaning has shifted. Among Catholics, these are persons who have demonstrated some aspect of godliness; because of their exceptional and exemplary virtue, they have been canonized so their witness will be remembered by the church. Protestants, though, have tend to shy away from lifting up those exemplars: now I find myself returning to last week’s comments about us all being a mixture of saint and sinner so central to Martin Luther’s description of our lives. Because Protestants of all theological traditions have tended to maintain that none of us ever attain perfection in this human life, we tend to remember no matter how godly a person may have been in some acts they have also been sinful in other acts.
And yet, within Protestantism, we have this fabulous tradition: whenever we gather for the sacrament of communion we are surrounded by a great cloud of saintly witnesses – meaning the entirety of the church is gathered together in our eating of the bread and drinking of the cup. Some of those saints preceded us in life, some of those saints are living and yet separated from us by geography but somehow through God’s grace they are here with us. And so the hymn stanza:
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
we feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
All Saints Day is about recognizing God who is present to us through the lives of people; this is a day for considering how God has shown God’s self in the lives of people – even, perhaps, in the lives of people we have known. That is what is underneath the practice of remembering those who have died in the previous calendar year: through their lives we have encountered some portion of God’s presence.
There’s been a lot of different practices connected to that act remembering: reciting, reading or otherwise listing names; lighting candles, ringing bells, releasing balloons; special meals. Most of those practices tend to emphasize those who have died in the past twelve months, a way to honor their memory without memorializing every person we have ever lost in the entirety of our lives.
We recite the names of those whom we lost in the past year not because we need to remind God these souls are traveling from the realm of the living to the realm of eternity. We recite these names because some portion of God’s love was encapsulated in this human life. We are reminded how persons have responded to God’s presence in their lives: accepting the invitation to join in God’s work, accepting the cost and joy of discipleship, willingly trading short-term happiness for a deeper sense of joy by being committed to God’s way of doing things.
We call out their names to remind us that
God has been revealed in their lives,
and our remembrance of the life they shared with us is a means of knowing God better.
But there’s an unusual thing about the Christian act of remembrance. When we take this bread and cup and remember the life, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, we are not just recalling historic events: we are proclaiming that these events impact our lives because Christ is present to us in the act of remembrance. When we remember the lives of saints, we are not just recalling their good deeds: we are proclaiming that by remembering how God was part of their lives, God is part of our own living. Because we have seen God’s presence in the lives of others, we are asked “How is God active in our own lives?” – our lives as individuals and our lives as a covenantal community of faith that seeks to join with God in God’s work.
All Saints Day is a day for asking how we will be disciples who proclaim and share God’s grace. All Saints Day is a day for asking what kind of legacy of faith we leave. We live as disciples because God’s love is so wonderful that we must share it with others. We live as followers of Christ because God’s power of life is greater than death as revealed in the resurrection of Christ.
So let us now remember the saints in our lives who have concluded their earthly lives this past year. After I read each name, a chime will be sounded so we may remember God’s presence in that person’s life. This year we have twelve names to be read from this congregation. After they have been read, I will ask you to speak the names of others who have died in the past year. I will then conclude with a prayer before we sing our reflection hymn.
Let us remember the saints.
Blessed and generous God,
for all the saints, / who from their labors rest, / who Thee by faith / before the world confessed, /we are thankful for the ways their lives have guided us into your presence.
May we rise to their witness so others may know you through our lives, and may the communion of saints be strengthened through our shared witness, proclaiming the name of Christ. Amen.