The Rev’d Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
All Saints Sunday
November 6, 2016
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
When I was a young child, my great grandmother died. She had been a pillar in her community, always at church, always baking a cake or taking a casserole to the potluck, always in her pew. She was a hard worker during the depression. She sewed shirts for a living. She had a beautiful rose garden and was fastidious about waste—she’d reuse the dish water for too long, in fact, trying to conserve the water in the well, as though there wasn’t enough to go around. She hated paper towels and paper plates. Just wasteful, she said. And I tend to agree. But as stingy as she was with water and paper products, she was generous with food and treats. There was always a drawer in her front room where, when you came to visit, you could go and get a butterscotch candy or a stick of chewing gum—no need to ask, the invitation was standing. There were stories that I heard only later about how she looked out for folks in her community—how she helped and supported other people.
When she died, I remember someone saying “Oh, she was such a saint.” Such a good person. To me, she was just my great grandmother. I wasn’t sure what the person meant by that. Was she special in some particular way? Different from the rest of us? She had high expectations, and she didn’t mind saying when they weren’t met. She could get grumpy. She wasn’t, I suspect, perfect. But she was, people said, a saint.
And I wondered, what had those people meant? I know she’d been a good person, as good as she could be, but what does that mean, to call her a saint?
What do you think of when you think of saints? Perhaps you have a grandmother that you recall as “saintly,” like people referred to mine. Or maybe you think of those historical figures in whom the Church has discerned a particular fullness of grace, a particular movement of the spirit that shows us something of the divine, a showing of a way to follow Christ—saints like Francis, who gave away all his earthly wealth to preach the gospel of Christ; Julian, whose writings show us images of the divine that inspire and captivate us with the love that God has for us, his creation—or Mary, the mother of our Lord, whose “yes” to God’s will became part of the divine work in Creation, and through the Holy Spirit gave birth to Jesus, the messiah, the Christ—Mary, full of grace, who says yes to God—the saints who, through particular grace, say “Yes” to God’s will.
Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday, and we celebrate today all those saints—the ones known to the Church as particularly filled with grace—the saints, apostles, prophets, and martyrs who feature in our windows and stories and memories—the ones whose lives show us God’s grace in a particular way, the ones who point us to Jesus’s own life. They show us how to live: Their actions, their lives, give us a particular glimpse of what the kingdom of God could look like lived out on earth—the sort of blessed community described in the Beatitudes that we heard in the gospel.
But what about all those other Saints, the ones on another shore, whose lives may not have been as well known, whose lives didn’t necessarily seem miraculous—whose lives are not remembered on the calendar of the church. The epistles use the term “saints” to mean believers in Jesus Christ—followers of the way. The word shows up as a greeting—the letter of to the Saints of a particular place—the Saints at New Haven—those who believe in Jesus as the messiah, those who follow his way. Or sometimes they refer to those “called to be saints.” My great grandmother would certainly fit that definition.
These ordinary saints, the parents or grandparents or friends or family whom the world may not know but we remember, have shown us a glimpse of the kingdom here on earth, through God’s particular grace—and the souls of all who have passed through this life and into the next who now know God fully, now experience the Kingdom of God, now know these values, these beatitudes, not as something other or foreign, but as the reality of the reign of God, of union with God—these lives who have been and are being enfolded into the very heart of God.
They are ordinary, just like us. They are ordinary, just like the folks on the calendar of Saints. But they have been sanctified by the grace of God—drawn into the very love of God that brings the kingdom, that shows us how to live, not only in that future shore, but here and now. We, like them, even now, are being invited into that loving relationship—invited to give our lives to Christ—invited to live within these kingdom values.
And so we pray for them—for these examples of the grace of God working in the world, here and now. We pray that they are received into the loving arms of God—that the work of union with God, with the divine, that begins on earth is completed in heaven. We pray as a way to remember them. As a way of giving thanks.
And, just as we ask those extra-ordinary Saints to pray for us—Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us—we also realize that our grandmothers, our parents, our loved ones, our friends—just as we prayed for them here on earth—are now also praying for us. That the belief, the lives, they shared on earth are still shared in heaven, through these prayers. That prayer knits us together in the communion of saints.
And this communion of all the saints gathers with us around the altar today at the communions, praising God, singing Holy Holy Holy, and receiving that perfect communion with God—even as we, through God’s grace in the sacraments, receive his very presence, a foretaste, a preparation, a promise—a promise of the kingdom that was, and is, and is to come.
As we all gather around the altar today, as we face east, and they join on the other side of the veil in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, we remember that we, too, are called to be those same saints—here in this time, in this place—those who follow the Way of Jesus, those who open our hearts to God’s grace and truth.
Being a Saint is not about being good. Being a Saint is not even about being nice, though that may happen. Being a Saint is about giving our lives to Jesus—dying to sin and self at our baptism, and rising to new life in him. In our baptisms we are joined to Christ in his death and resurrection. We are invited into the life of the kingdom of God—invited to live differently. To show the world God’s love in a particular way—with our whole lives.
For the Saints aren’t separate from the world. They live within it—even in our consciousness now, in this communion of Saints which we have joined.
Rowan Wiliams, in his book On Being Christian, talks about baptism as locating our lives within the love that is the Trinity—centering our whole being there, in that relationship of love and life. But he says baptism is also a sharing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—that baptism locates us squarely within the world—it doesn’t take us OUT of the world, but puts us right back in it, in the chaos, the mess, and the disorder of all of it. That baptism sends us back into the reality of the world—to be a light of Christ’s presence—to bear Christ to the world. To show what the kingdom of God can look like.
Today as we celebrate the sacrament of Baptism we are reminded that we are washed with Christ, we have died to sin and risen to new life in him. And that as the body of Christ, we will receive his very body and blood, his own self offering, once again in the sacrament of Holy Communion. We will be united with the communion of saints in our praise and worship—and we are united with God in the very body of his Son. We are both being and becoming that very thing that the Saints already know—we are joining the kingdom of God, becoming united with God in Christ, drawn into ever more perfect communion, into the life of God that never ends.
This week I invite you to reflect on the reality that YOU are a part of the communion of Saints. I invite you to recall your promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons. I invite you to expect to see the communion of saints, the presence of Christ, in those whom you meet. What a difference the world looks when we seek him everywhere. And I invite you to gather around the altar with the saints and angels to offer your sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving—and receive the bread and wine, given back as his very body and blood. Hear those words – the Body of Christ – and know that Christ’s very body is present—hear those words, the Body of Christ—and know that you, brothers and sisters, you yourselves are his body—the Church which is his body. Be drawn into the mystical body of Christ, renewed, restored, enlivened, and sent forth to love.
Be a part of the Body of Christ—be a part of the Communion of Saints—that knows what the kingdom of God looks like—and is approaching it every day—that radically different way of seeing the world, of seeing creation—that kingdom of God that the beatitudes speak to. That’s what the kingdom of God looks like. Francis and Julian and Mary know it. My saintly great grandmother knows it, and so does yours. We are coming to know it. Christ himself is teaching us, redeeming, restoring, and renewing us. God is folding us in—into the communion of saints that gather around the throne, who cry, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”