Sermon: "All Saints Day!"
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Wisdom of Solomon 3.1-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21.1-6a; John 11.32-44
Today is All Saints Day; tomorrow is All Souls Day, or the Commemoration of all Faithful Departed. Why the difference? All Saints Day traces its roots back to the 3rd Century. The day was made official in the 9th Century when Pope Gregory IV (828-844) urged Emperor Louis “the Pious” to celebrate the day throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Holy Women, Holy Men characterizes this day as follows: “The desire of Christian people to express the intercommunion of the living and the dead in the Body of Christ by a commemoration of those who, having professed faith in the living past in days past, had entered into the nearer presence of their Lord, and especially of those who had crowned their profession with heroic deaths…” (p.662). Early in the 10th Century, it became customary to extend All Saints Day by setting aside the next day (All Souls Day) to remember “that vast body of the faithful who, though no less members of the company of the redeemed, are unknown in the wider fellowship of the Church” and to remember family and friends (p. 664).
Initially all Christian believers were known as saints. In St. Paul’s salutation to Philippians, we read, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi…” (Phil. 1.1-2; NRSV). In the first chapter of Romans, we read, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 1.7; NRSV).
The saints are the beloved of God, God’s holy people who have been sanctified, or set apart, as members of the kingdom of God. In the Old Testament, they are often referred to as the righteous, as God’s faithful ones, e.g., “God will not forsake his faithful ones” (Psalm 37.28; NRSV) and “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones” (Psalm 116.15; NRSV). The latter verse is often rendered as, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints;” this verse is inscribed on my parents’ tombstone. The Wisdom of Solomon further assures us: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them… they are at peace” (3.1-3; NRSV).
In today’s reading from the Psalm, we are asked, “Who can ascend the hill of the LORD? And who can stand in his holy place?” In other words, who can go up to God’s temple and stand in God’s presence? The Psalmist answers: "Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, who have not pledged themselves to falsehood, nor sworn by what is a fraud” (Psalm 24.3-4; NRSV). The saints! That’s who! In the beatitudes we read, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Mat. 5.8; NRSV).
Physical and spiritual death entered the world through sin; sin leads to death, for death is part and parcel of Satan’s domain. In contrast, believing into Christ leads to transformation and life. Listen to the way C. S. Lewis characterizes this transformation:
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself (emphasis mine)(Mere Christianity).
C. S. Lewis is describing the process of sanctification, the process whereby we are set apart and become holy, where we ultimately achieve that purity of heart. In sanctification we experience the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit such that we become God’s faithful ones, God’s saints.
If we are to fully comprehend how the Gospel relates to this, we must expand the context of the Gospel reading. John 11 begins by telling us of Lazarus’ illness. Jesus said the illness would “not lead to death; rather, it is for God’s glory so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11.4; NRSV). Jesus then tarried two more days before telling the disciples it was time to set out for Bethany in Judea. The disciples promptly remind Jesus he narrowly escaped stoning on his last visit. Jesus tells them Lazarus has fallen asleep, and he must go to awaken him. They reply, “Let him sleep; he will be Ok.” So Jesus then tells them Lazarus is dead, and says, “let us go to him.” At this point, Thomas exclaimed, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11.16; NRSV). I have to laugh at Thomas’ comment, “Jesus, if you are going to get yourself killed, we might as well go along for the ride, too!” It appears the disciples were not too eager to travel to Bethany, which was only two miles from Jerusalem.
When Jesus arrived, he discovered that Lazarus has been in the tomb four days. Since they were so near Jerusalem, many Jews had come to console Martha and Mary. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming she went to meet him, and said: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him” (John 11.21-22; NRSV). Jesus told her that Lazarus would rise again and Martha replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11.24; NRSV). Then Jesus spoke these words which have reverberated across the centuries: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11.25-26). Martha replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11.27; NRSV). Martha then goes to get Mary.
When Mary came, the Jews from Jerusalem came with her as they believed she was going to the tomb to weep. Mary knelt at Jesus’ feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11.32; NRSV). Jesus was deeply moved, “disturbed in Spirit,” most likely at the sorrow which death brings, and Jesus also wept.
Jesus asked to be taken to the tomb; he commanded the stone be rolled away despite Martha’s objection that there is a stench. Jesus then asked Martha: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (John 11.40; NRSV). Then Jesus prayed, “Father, I thank you for having heard me, I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me” (John 11.41-42; NRSV). Then Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11.43; NRSV). Lazarus came forth, and Jesus involved the crowd in the he commanded them to unbind Lazarus and let him go.
Was this a resurrection? No, Lazarus was not given a resurrected body. Lazarus was resuscitated; he would once again face physical death. But Jesus, by his actions, showed his power over death. His actions foreshadowed his coming death and resurrection. Within five verses of the end of our reading, the authorities are fearful that Jesus actions will cause everyone to believe in him such that the Romans would come and destroy the Temple and the nation. So Caiaphas says, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11.49-50; NRSV).
What a powerful story! What lessons can we take away?
First, I submit, may we choose to live a life of sanctification that our souls may be precious in the sight of the Lord; may we choose life rather than death; may we become pure in heart; may we be counted among God’s faithful ones, among God’s saints. In John 5.28-29, we read, “The hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have one evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (NRSV). May we live such that we are called to the resurrection of life!
Second, becoming a saint is an ongoing process which does not happen overnight and it involves suffering. If we are to become a saint, we must say “Yes” to the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. We must permit Christ to transform our “house” into a castle! This consent leads to the death of some of our self, of some things within our self – it “hurts abominably” and at times it “does not seem to make any sense.” Let’s not get discouraged if we are not making the progress we would like. God’s timing is best.
Third, we too are to call others forth to new life -- to help unbind others from their “grave clothes” that they may be let go, and find life anew.
Let’s face it, when we strive to become holy, and when we call other forth to new life, many will think we are crazy, “Crazy Christians,” in the words of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Nonetheless, we experience joy unspeakable as resurrection people, as the saints of God. Let us give thanks to God for all those saints who have gone before us, for the fact that we a members of the communion of saints, and for the great cloud of witnesses with which we are surrounded.