(Modified 2021-11-07: Added audio recording of this sermon.)
Sermon. All Saints Sunday November 6, 2021. St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, Regina. Nathaniel Athian Deng Mayen.
Today we are celebrating the great and wonderful Feast of All Saints, or as it used to be called, “The Feast of All Hallows”, from which we get the word ‘Hallowe’en’.
Rather than doing scary things, I would like to give a brief summary of the readings before we talk about the concept of the ‘communion of the saints’ and its significance to our faith.
In Isaiah 25:6-9, we read about God’s deliverance of the faithful from the oppressive regimes of the world, that is, sin and death. It is from the Scripture such as this that suffering, persecution and martyrdom, the blood shed for the sake of our faith in Christ, are considered signs of sainthood in ancient Christian theology and teaching. We suffer and die now on earth in hope that our faith will be accredited righteousness in the new life to come with Christ.
Psalm 24: 4 describes the characteristics of the saints, the signposts that guide Christians in our relationship with God in hope of salvation. These characteristics include truthful and honest acknowledgement of God (do not swear deceitfully), possession of pure heart and clean hands (no corruption), and restraint from the worship of idols (do not lift up their souls to what is false).
The expectation is that our God is holy and righteous. We should be living a holy life in respect of his nature. God is the ultimate and impartial justice deliverer, and will reward our actions with equal consequences if we do not live up to his will and expectations in our relationship with him.
Revelation 21:5, 7 explains the new covenant with God and its significance to Christian living and relationship with God and with one another: “I am making everything new … I will be their God and they will be my children.” This relationship is sole a decision by God to come down to human level, to meet us where we are at to reconcile us in Christ, the groom of the church.
The Gospel reading explains the tangible results of the Christian teaching that those who believe in Christ will see the glory of God (John 11:40). This glory is the mystery of the resurrection, in which God will release the bounded and the oppressed from the chains of sin and death.
Jesus’s order, “Unbind him, and let him go” (John 11:44), is a divine command to give Lazarus the freedom he has been denied by death, to give Lazarus the life so that he shall live, to give Lazarus the justice so that he shall testify the glory of the Lord without fear. Freedom at last!
The key message from all the readings this Sunday is the eschatological hope in the joining of heaven and earth by the sole decision of the Almighty God, who comes down to the level of the mortals and lives with us as our God and we, his children.
As this covenantal relationship continuously magnifies and progresses, the powers of the world, of sin and of death, and all the signs of their dominance, such as pain, suffering, crying and mourning, will go away because the first things have passed away (Rev. 21: 4).
What first things come to mind? I think this eschatological verse reminds us about the journey of faith we have travelled, and everything else we have left behind when we believed and received Christ as our Lord and Savour. The fall of humanity, as a result of sin, finds the final cure in the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the LORD and Lamb whose blood has made everything reconciled to God. No more condemnation for those in Christ Jesus because God has sealed us with the Spirit of the new covenant and of new life in Christ (Romans 8:1).
The home (tabernacle) of God is among us. God dwells or lives with and in us through his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. God will forever be our God, and we will be his children. Our joyful acknowledgement of the presence of God or the thanksgiving of such presence reflected in our Sunday worship is a foreshadowing of the glory of God, the revelation of his presence among us. This is actualized in the Holy Communion, where we gather in the name of the Lord, raising our voices and singing “with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name; evermore praising thee and saying: HOLY, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Glory be to thee, O Lord Most High. Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest” (BCP 81).
Our relationship with the company of heaven is our communion with God and with one another in remembrance of the believers who have died before us, those who are alive and worship with us, and those who will come to faith in Christ, to acknowledge the Lord, after us. Such continuity of faith is a key aspect of the communion of saints, which we recite together with the resurrection of life in the witness of the Spirit in the Nicene Creed and Apostles’ Creed.
Who is a saint? In the traditional sense the term is used in the Nicene Creed and Apostles’ Creed, a saint refers to ‘a believer’, who has believed and been baptized in Jesus Christ. More specifically, the saints are the people of God, the disciples, the baptized, the Christians, and the faithful who have given up their former early lives to believe, worship, love and serve God.
Therefore, ‘the communion of saints’ (Latin: communio sanctorum) is a fellowship of the believers, both the living and the dead, who are united to Christ in baptism.
All of you who are gathered here this morning at St. Mary the Virgin are all saints because you have satisfied the baptismal aspect of sainthood. Congratulations!
In Greek translation, the ‘communion of saints’ refers to the sharing of the benefits of membership in the church and the communion with the saints (the baptized). The New Testament expands this definition to affirm that the baptized are united with Jesus Christ, who shares in their human nature, and that their goal is to share in Christ’s present glorified state.
We are still working towards achieving the second aspect of sainthood, which is Christ’s present glorified state attainable through the bodily resurrection, in which the righteousness of God given to us will be affirmed. Through resurrection we will meet and dwell with Christ, the crucified and risen Lord who is presently sitting at the right hand of the Father and who will come in his glory to judge both the quick and the dead. This is our hope and our commitment in faith.
The Protestant reformers, after recognizing our relationship with other Christians (believers), both the living and the dead, and with Jesus Christ, declared that this new relationship has replaced the covenant relationship of the Old Testament because the new covenantal relationship extends beyond the confines of the nation of Israel to other cultures and nations. The reality is that there is no replacement for the old covenant because the concept of the communion of saints includes those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who although we have no evidence of their baptism in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, were accorded membership in God’s community through circumcision, an equivalence of baptism for the believing community.
We may ask: was Abraham’s faith accredited to him as righteousness after his circumcision or before his circumcision? Apostle Paul has clarified that Abraham’s faith was made perfect by the grace of God. Abraham only “received circumcision as a sign, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is then also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also follow in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (Romans 4:11,12).
Both baptism and circumcision are gift by God to perfect our faith. The beneficiaries of the signs of God’s accrediting of righteousness are those who follow in the footsteps of the faithful. This third aspect of sainthood is significant because the connection Christians claim with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and other faithful in the God of Israel is solely by faith in Yahweh, the True God and Lord. This faith is preserved and taught by the famous Jewish Shema (Deuteronomy 6: 4-9), which Jesus Christ referenced in what has become known as the Greatest Commandment in Christian liturgical teaching (Mark 12: 28-34), the summary of the Law which we in the Anglican tradition cite in place of Ten Commandments during the Holy Communion every Sunday: “Hear O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (BCP 70).
This continuity with the God of Israel who sent his Son, with Israel as the archetype of the church, with each in this parish and other Christians living across different cultures, and with the faithful departed, and those who will continue to profess this faith in the God of Israel is the communion of saints we proclaim every Sunday in the Nicene Creeds or Apostles’ Creed.
Anybody who feels threatened by this fact, who gives room to identity politics and succumbs to the misconception that we have different faith from the God of Israel because we cannot worship an ethnic God of Israel and we should create our own gods, cannot pass on the correct teaching of Jesus Christ. He has counted himself away from the saints, whose sole responsibility is to profess this one true faith that preserves our bodies and souls into eternity. The saints will worship the Lamb in the new heaven and the new earth because their God has blessed them and given them the truth of life that keeps them in the hope of their destination, their salvation.
The concept of the communion of saints is the continuity of our faith, starting with baptism through communal worship in the local congregation to the eschatological hope in resurrection.
For this reason, we recognize the saints, such as the St. Mary the Virgin, for whom our parish has been named because we believe we are able through the grace of God to walk in the ways that Mary and other faithful departed had walked in their faith and service of God in the world. We are called to live out our discipleship through the lenses of the saints in the church. We affirm our hope in the promise of the resurrection of our own bodies.
In his sermon for All Saints on November 1, 2020, rector Claude Schroeder observed that “Our celebration of All Saints today comes to us as a reminder of our hope of our ultimate destination which is the sheltering presence of God, where there will be no more hunger, and no more thirst, and where Jesus Christ, both Lamb and Shepherd, will guide us to the springs of loving water, and God wipe away every tear from our eyes.”
Look around your environment. Where are you among the saints? Are you hiding for fear of being accused to worship the God of Israel? Are you told not to worship, love and serve the True God because your ancestors did not know Him? Come to the eternal rest and overcome your fears. You are not bound to your ancestral loyalty after you believed in God. Our God is all powerful and above all gods and Great King above all kings, and calls us at different times.
Because we are not able to preserve our own righteousness, maintain our faith and please God to accredit us the righteousness without the guidance of the Holy Spirit, let us ask the Almighty God in the prayer request put forth by St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople (A.D. 397- 407), who writes, let each one take care of his soul and make it pursue the economy of the future life as well as cause it to depart from the present life to the next.” Amen.