All the Saints

“All the Saints”

Rev 7 multitude white-robes

Revelation 9:7-28 (9:7) – November 5, 2017

Today, we commemorate All Saints Sunday. The first Sunday of November, that day we remember all the saints who are now in heaven, worshiping God in that great cloud of witnesses. We also remember familiar people, relatives and friends known to us, dear to us, who died since last All Saints Day last year. What is it about these formal occasions of remembrance? Often, we remember those who have sacrificed much, displayed tremendous bravery, or were persecuted—even died—at tremendous risk to themselves.

What is it that causes you and me to be listed in among a great multitude of saints like these? Or, aren’t we even to be worthy to be listed on the same page as these rarefied superstar saints? These women and men who followed after God, no matter what?

One of our Scripture readings today comes from the book of Revelation, starting at verse 9: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

We break into the narrative as the elderly John has another vision, this time a scene of heaven. And, instead of seeing a predominance of Jews and only a sprinkling of other tribes and people groups, John sees a great multitude of all colors, all ethnicities, all languages and dialects, from every place on the globe.

I am blown away by that vision, the more I think about it. I am in awe, because the great multitude is of every possible description, every possible people group under the sun. Not just me and my family, not just me and the people from the neighborhood where I grew up. Not just people from one region, or one country, or one ethnicity. But, people from everywhere.       These people of the vision are called “saints,” and many people today have only one specific idea of what a “saint” is. St. Francis of Assisi, or St. John of the Cross, or St. Martha—the patron saint of our neighbor Catholic church, or the newly beatified saint, Mother Teresa.

Robert Louis Stevenson, writer of Kidnapped and Treasure Island, has a different definition of “saints.” “The saints are the sinners who keep on going.” And, both apostles Paul and Peter call their friends “saints” in the greetings, to all of the people who receive their letters.

But, we know very well that life often does not go smoothly. Not for us, not for our friends and families, and certainly not for the multitudes who lived in centuries past. Interesting, that “because we sinners are made holy by God’s grace, and not by our own actions, we are able to keep on going as Stevenson says.  Our keeping on in life often involves suffering.” [1] And, if we know anything about history, we know that believers in Christ often had to deal with grief, pain, suffering, and even persecution.

When John received this grand series of visions that he wrote down in the book of Revelation, he was often puzzled. He had to ask the people or elders or angels around him what it was he was seeing. As is the case here: “Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” 14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”

Leading question, you may say! John persuades the elder to answer the question himself. ““they are before the throne of God and serve God day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. 16 ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat.”

It sounds like to me that these people in heaven, who are identified as “saints” in other places in the book, no longer have to go through that valley of the shadow here on the earth, where God walks right by their side as they are in difficulty. They no longer need to face challenges of health reversals or job loss or crushing poverty or horrible accidents, or various calamities of one sort or another. They are at God’s side in heaven, and never have to experience those trials, losses, hunger and anguish any more.

But we are still left on this side of the veil. On this side, on a troubled world where suffering and loss and fear and anxiety rear their heads all too often. Especially grief, where we mourn the loss of loved ones, friends and relatives who left us too soon.

Rev. Janet Hunt talks about a sad situation like this: “And yet, for all of those for whom I light a candle and remember each All Saints Sunday, there is still really just the one I carry closest of all. One whose dying has me yearning most deeply for the promises of this day.

“It came to me again last week when a beloved cousin came to visit. He had stopped to see his folks the night before he flew out and as he sat with them he told his dad he was going to see Kathleen. “You remember Kathleen, don’t you dad? She was Tommy’s wife.” (Kathleen is my mother.)

“Now in these recent years my dad’s brother does not remember as he once did. For a moment last week, though, there was clarity as he remembered his only brother and as he registered all over again the fact that he had died and with that remembering, his face fell along with his tears. And mine did, too, to hear of his remembering.” [2]

Grief, sorrow and loss are like that, sometimes. We can be fine, content, living our lives. Then, out of nowhere it seems, the thought of that special loved one, that dear friend who is no longer with us in this world, comes to mind.

And then, Janet Hunt reminds us, “nothing makes us more grateful than the gift of that time and place so vividly described in today’s words from Revelation. A time and place:

  • where the whole world will gather and join together in song and where we will be washed clean,
  • where hunger and thirst will no longer hold sway,
  • where there will be shelter from all that would harm,
  • where the very water of life will sustain us,
  • and where God Himself will bend low to wipe away our tears.” [3]

Is such a place even possible? In those times when you or I are grieving anew, remembering with sorrow or longing in our hearts, the apostle John assures us that “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” And, ““Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

In plainer words, from his first letter to the scattered believers in Christ, John gives us further assurance: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”

Today, we have a foretaste of heaven from both Scripture readings. Revelation tells us of the wonderful worship service in heaven, where everyone is praising God. And 1 John lets us know that when our Lord Jesus appears to each of us, we shall be like Him in glory.

“So with all of you, I will light the candles this All Saints Day. In memory and in powerful hope we will light the candles. Standing confident in the very promises of God we will light them.[4]

Amen. May it be so. Amen.

[1] https://preachingtip.com/archives-year-a/pentecost-year-a/all-saints-day-all-saints-sunday/

[2] http://dancingwiththeword.com/all-saints-day-in-memory-and-in-hope/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Riches of God’s Inheritance

“Riches of God’s Inheritance”

eph-1-18-riches-of-heart-paul

Ephesians 1:1-2, 15-19 (1:18) – November 6, 2016

It’s All Saints’ Sunday! The day set apart to commemorate all the saints. Not only the living saints of today, but all the saints, all those who have ever believed in God, for all time.

Who is a saint, anyhow? We have the Apostle Paul. He is called a saint by many streams of Christian faith and tradition, and has been known as one for hundreds and hundreds of years. A powerhouse of a believer, that’s to be sure! What about St. Luke, who our church is named after? The only Gentile to author books in our Bible, and a learned man. A doctor. He certainly is lifted up as a prime example of faith in our Lord.

But that was centuries ago. Who do we lift up as saints today? Mother Theresa was just declared a saint by Pope Francis several months ago. Her example as the founder of the order the Missionaries of Charity, and her piety and good works are definitely something for all of us to emulate. What about on the Protestant side of the aisle? Some would say people like Martin Luther King Jr. ought to be lifted up, who did so much to promote the worth and position of people of color, of women and of downtrodden individuals all over the world. What about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who steadfastly stood against the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930’s and into the 1940’s, and trained pastors secretly in a forbidden seminary. He wrote extensively about not only the Christian faith, but the fearsome menace of the Fascists in Germany against not only Christians, but against all people of conscience, all over the world.

Yes, we commemorate all of these, and many more. The Apostle Paul surely would nod his head in agreement. But, what does our scripture lesson for today have to do with all of these big names, all of these rock stars of the Christian faith? Good question! For the answer, let’s turn to the passage from Ephesians, the beginning of Paul’s letter.

Starting at verse one, chapter one: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Do you hear? Saints! Paul calls everyone who belongs to the church in Ephesus a saint. A believer, one who is faithful to Jesus.

One of the commentators I consulted says “In Paul’s understanding the title “saint” belongs to those who have been united with Christ. He routinely calls the members of his churches “saints” (Ephesians 1:1 and 1:15) because of who they are in Christ and not because of what they have accomplished. [1] (italics mine)

We take these writings in the New Testament to heart. We believe the biblical writers not only to have addressed these letters to the stated churches and people, but we consider these writings to be addressed to us, too. So—Paul is calling us saints. In Greek, it is hagioi, or holy ones, set-apart-ones. That is us, too!

Our scripture lesson today lifts up Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian believers, or saints. These are Paul’s friends. He had been pastor in Ephesus in the past for many months, and he had developed some deep, intimate relationships with some of the people there. Now far away, he writes this letter to his friends, his former congregation.

When you have deep, intimate relationships with people, and then move far away, how do you keep in touch? Today, of course, with the telephone, computer and social media, there are many ways to stay connected. But, in Paul’s day? Not so much. Besides returning to see the friend for a visit, the options were personal letters, and visits from emissaries, who might deliver a personal message to a friend or relative.

Paul really wanted to communicate some specific things. He does this in a prayer; the prayer in the passage we read today. Paul prays for the Ephesians…but, how does he pray? For what? He mentions faith! Love! Hope! Riches!

Let’s break that down. He leads off with the two most significant, and in a compliment to his friends, too! Verse 15: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints;” that is, for all of their fellow believers in Christ. And, I think Paul is talking about the Ephesians’ love for all saints, everywhere!. That’s huge! Could someone say that about us? About this group of believers, right here at St. Luke’s Church?

I want us to pay particular attention. That compliment of Paul’s is a great example for us. To love not only believers nearby, who look like us and worship like we do on Sunday morning, but also have love for believers far away, who look and act and speak in very different ways, and may not worship in ways that are familiar, or even comfortable to our way of thinking. Certainly, something to think about.

Let’s get to the heart of this prayer (and the heart of this sermon); look at Paul’s mention of hope and riches. This is his earnest request of God: “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ…may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation…so that, you may know what is the hope to which God has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints.”

Here is Paul’s earnest prayer for his friends in Ephesus, and by extension, earnest prayer for all of us, too! That we may be fully aware of 1) the hope of our Calling by God, and 2) the riches of God’s glorious inheritance.

Let me double check. Then, if we understand Paul correctly, we can tell that we are saints—holy people—set apart—solely because of who we are in Christ, not because of anything we have done, or how good we have been, or any other striving or good works on our part. And that is consistent with exactly what we have heard last week, in our Reformation Day sermon. We are set free—we are made holy people, hagioi, saints of God—by Jesus Christ. Not because of anything we have done, or by our puny striving, or our paltry good works. (What a marvelous tie-in to last week’s sermon!)

You may be wondering why I asked everyone to bring in photos of their loved one who have died. I wanted a visible reminder of these beloved saints, these loved ones who have gone before us, into God’s blessed presence. Paul prays that the Ephesian saints may know the riches of our glorious inheritance—which is salvation! Redemption! Adoption as God’s beloved children. Our loved ones who are now in God’s presence know those glorious riches firsthand.

In a few minutes, we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper. It is not only us gathered here who celebrate, but it is that great cloud of witnesses we spoke of, at the beginning of the service. We have our own cloud of witnesses, too, who are gathered here around the altar. Who we remember and miss and think of with fondness, and who are with us each time we gather together as a congregation in worship.

Each time we gather together at this table, we join the communion of saints—and our own cloud of witnesses to God’s glory and unbounded love. Just as they are feasting in heaven right now, around God’s own banquet table, so we feast here today. A foretaste of that banquet in heaven, and the blessed hope of the reunion to come.

Let us not forget: as the Apostle Paul reminds us, we can also celebrate the riches of our inheritance! That is, our forgiveness by Jesus Christ, our salvation and redemption in His name, and our adoption as children of God. Saints of God! That title of “saints” isn’t just for the superstars of faith, but it’s for you and me, too. To all who believe. Praise God! Amen!

 

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1634  Ephesians 1:11-23, Mark Tranvik, All Saints C, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2013.