All Saints, Year C
All Saints Day was actually Nov. 1st. We are allowed to celebrate it the following Sunday, which is what we are doing today. The day after All Saints Day (Nov. 2nd) is All Souls Day. Why two different days? It sounds like the same thing. Originally the term saint was used to describe all Christians. That would include everyone here today. However, early in the history of the church, the meaning of the word saint began to evolve. It came to describe people who did marvelous deeds, achieved heroic sanctity and piety. The Roman Catholic Church even created an extensive process to determine who was and who was not a saint. Saints became the especially holy people, the people Christians looked to for inspiration.
Because the word evolved to such an extent, it was decided that a new day needed to be designated to commemorate all the departed. It is this day when the church remembers all the people who might not be officially approved saints. It is a time to remember all those who have died, but are still near and dear to our heart. They might not have performed official miracles, but their existence was miraculous to us nonetheless.
Most churches combine the two and read the list of those who have died in the All Saints Day service. This is a good an appropriate thing. At St. John’s, we have separated the two. We have a separate service Sunday night when we remember our friends, our family—the people from our community of believers (St. John’s). It’s more of a solemn and contemplative service with beautiful music from our choir. But if we do that for our evening service, what do we do this morning?
This morning, I want us to focus on the original meaning of the word saint—which is all Christians. That is why we asked people to submit names of those living saints in their life. In a way, it’s a trick question because every Christian is a saint. That list could be virtually endless. In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he thanks the Ephesians for their love toward all of the saints. He was talking about how they cared for one another in their fledgling Christian community.
At first glance (or in my case, for the first several hours of studying) the reading from Ephesians seemed…well…unhelpful. Compared to the clarity of the Gospel reading, it seemed too elaborate, too full of churchy language, stuff that is totally irrelevant to our present day. But the more I studied, the more I realized this is probably more relevant now than it has been for about 1800 years.
The people who Paul was writing to were committed Christians, but also people who were part of a small faith group. They were a minority community in very new territory and they were not sure where they were going. What they had was written letters from Paul, and maybe stories from the Gospels that were passed on orally. They had no established church, no formal rules and directions on how to be church. Paul was telling them how thankful he was to them for remaining faithful and caring for one another in an uncertain time.
He was also praying for certain things for them, certain attributes of a Christian. He asked God to give them the spirit of wisdom and revelation to know God more fully. He asked that God might enlighten their vision so that they may know the hope to which God has already called them. But he also reminded them that they already had been sealed by the Holy Spirit—which means these lofty attributes that Paul is praying for them are things that they already have. They just can’t see it. They lack the vision and clarity to fully understand what God has already given them.
While we are in a place and a time much different than Ephesus, we share some of their needs. We too lack vision and clarity. We lack the wisdom to see what we have already been given. We lack the strength to fully claim those attributes. We lack the confidence. We didn’t end up printing all the names that many contributed. We were overwhelmed by names, which is good for our faith, but hard on us administratively. What I was surprised to see was that about 2/3 of the names were people from St. John’s. I don’t know why that surprised me. It shouldn’t have. But I would guarantee you that most people who were listed would have been a little surprised to learn that someone saw them as an inspiration.
Therefore since we didn’t print the names, I have a favor to ask you. Tell them. Tell the person whose name you submitted that you listed them as your saint. If you are shy, pass them a note, send an e-mail, write a text. Because they need to know. All of us need to be reminded that we are sealed by the Holy Spirit. God has already given us wisdom and enlightenment. We just need to claim it.
We desperately need to claim it as a church today. We are not that different than Ephesus. Our churches are dwindling every year. In the past 10 years, attendance at Episcopal Churches has dropped by 25%. Churches used to be important in this country. They are not anymore. And you know what, that is not our concern. We don’t need our world to affirm our reason for existence; we need to be the ones affirming the world of their reason for existence.
One of the last lines of our reading is, “And he put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Now if I had 30 more minutes, I could explain what that means. Instead, I want to read from another translation which is called “The Message.” “The church is not peripheral to the world; the world is peripheral to the church. The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.” That’s us St. John’s. We are the saints of God and we have some work to do on this world around us. We also have some work to do on ourselves.
And you know what, sometimes I am consumed by worry that we can’t do it—that it’s too late, too hard. But then I read this text and I am reminded that we have everything we need. We have the wisdom of God. We know the hope to which God has called us. More importantly, we know Jesus Christ and he knows us. We have everything we need. We just need to start acting like we believe it.