Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
All Saints’ Day 2018
Today we are celebrating All Saints’ Day, the feast declared by Pope Gregory IV in 835. As I reminded us last year, the early Reformers were unimpressed by the celebration of sainthood, and I want to again read from John Calvin’s satirical 1543 publication: A Very Useful Account concerning the Great Benefit that Christianity will Receive if it takes an inventory of all the sacred bodies and relics which are in Italy, France, Germany, Spain, and other kingdoms and countries just because it makes me laugh. In it Calvin writes that if registers were to be made of all the saints’ relics throughout Europe: ‘one would discover that each apostle has more than four bodies, and each saint at least two or three’. He also wrote of Mary, the mother of Jesus: ‘There is so much [milk held in churches] that if the holy Virgin had been a cow, and had she continued to nurse her whole life, she would have had great difficulty to give so much’. Given this scorn, it’s one of the achievements of the ecumenical movement that Catholics and Protestants now both celebrate All Saints’.
We Protestants celebrate All Saints’ Day slightly differently from Catholic and Orthodox Christians. We use it to remember all the faithful who have died, every Christian who has ever lived. The Bible backs us up. The biblical use of the word ‘saints’ described all those people who would later be called ‘Christians’. It was never a singular word, always plural; never ‘Saint’, always ‘saints’. At the beginning of his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote: ‘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). The most frequent biblical equivalent of the word ‘saints’ is ‘brothers (and sisters)’, as in Paul’s greeting to the Colossians: ‘To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae’. (Col 1:2) Saints were the new community that developed from both the Jewish community in Jerusalem and gentile Christianity. Later, these people were called Christians (Acts 11:26) but the use of the terms saints remains in the Apostles Creed. One of the things that Christians say that we believe in is the communion of saints, the spiritual union that links Christians with Christ and with every other Christian, living and dead. We are all saints, we are linked to every other saint that has ever lived, and we are never alone.
We are saints because we participate in the holiness of God. Luckily for us being holy isn’t something that we have to do on our own through our own strength. We’re holy because we’re connected with God, and God is holy. Living a holy life, again luckily for us, doesn’t mean being dour, stern and strict. For the Prophet Isaiah a life of holiness culminates in end-time feasting; accepting from God a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear. For the writer of the Book of Revelation, a holy life will ultimately be one in which death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things will have passed away. We may not experience the fullness of that joy in our life on earth, but we know that this joy is what God intends for us, and that to be a holy, to be a saint, is to rejoice in all that God gives.
Today, as we remember all those who have died, we can also look forward to a time when we will be reunited with them. As well as prophecies of the end-time from Isaiah and the Book of Revelation we are given a foreshadowing of that end time in the story of the raising of Lazarus from the Gospel according to John.
One of the reasons that I love this story because it takes death seriously. So often today we get so caught up in the idea of ‘celebrating life’ that it seems we almost forget that the death of people we love is really painful. There’s an ad for funerals that I occasionally see which has people describing what they would like at their funeral, and they’re all imagining an event that’s a lot of fun in which people wear bright colours and enjoy themselves. And every time I watch the ad I wonder whether those people realise that they themselves won’t be participating in their funeral, and that the people who love them might actually be a bit sad. So I love that this story has an upset sister asking Jesus where he was, and Jesus weeping at the death of his friend. Some commentators have suggest that when John writes, ‘When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,’ what he means is that Jesus was greatly disturbed at their lack of faith in him, that they believed that Lazarus’ death made a difference in Jesus’ ability to heal him. But John tells us, ‘Jesus began to weep’ when he is taken to see Lazarus’ tomb. He is crying for the loss of his friend.
The story of Lazarus does not end there, with Jesus weeping outside the tomb. This story is a story of the triumph of faith and love over darkness and death. Jesus, the Son of God, raises Lazarus, freeing him from death’s bondage, telling the people: ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’ The grieving, faithful, sisters are reunited with their brother; Jesus has performed another miracle; and presumably the mourning of the family and their friends turns to rejoicing. But if this was all the story was about, the raising of Lazarus, then it wouldn’t necessarily be a story of hope for the rest of us. No loved one is going to be returned to us in the way that Lazarus is returned to Martha and Mary. But like all of John’s miracle stories, the raising of Lazarus from the dead has at least two levels of meaning. Jesus miraculously raises Lazarus from the dead, freeing him and bringing him back to life. And this individual miracle is also a revelation of the identity of Jesus. It’s Jesus who is the resurrection and the life.
Jesus brings Lazarus back to life, and as a result Jesus himself will be put to death. In the passage following today’s reading we’re told that it’s from this day on that the chief priests and the Pharisees conspire to put Jesus to death. The death and raising of Lazarus points to the death and resurrection of Jesus himself. In this story we see Jesus bringing life to one family; but the story also points us to Jesus bringing life to the whole world. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and he’s that for all of us, not just for Lazarus. This is why, when we remember those we have loved who have died before us, we remember them in what the funeral service describes as the ‘sure and certain hope of the resurrection’.
We all have personal saints, people whose lives inspire, people who have guided us, nurtured us, loved us – those without whom we wouldn’t be the people we are. Today, we can think of those of our personal saints who have died as among the people dwelling with God in God’s holy city. Remembering them, we rejoice that God has wiped every tear from their eyes and that they now, according to Isaiah, feast on rich food and drink well-matured wines. Like Lazarus, they have been freed from death’s binding and we can hope that one day we will join them in their freedom.
We bless you, O God, for all the saints who have departed this life in the faith of Christ, especially those whom we remember today with love. And we pray that we may lead faithful and godly lives in this world, and finally share with all the saints in everlasting joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.