SJF • All Saints’ Sunday • Tobias Haller BSG
God has put all things under Christ’s feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Halloween is just past and so I can confidently say that in the world at large it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! But I invite you today to put on the brakes a little bit, and hold back from the momentum with which the merchants of this world urge you to be swept along, and rest here for a moment on this All Saints Sunday. Today is something like one of those scenic view turnoffs on the highway towards the coming Advent, which is itself the church’s proper anticipation of Christmas. And the view is worth a stop.
The festival of all the saints also reminds me of graduation day — and the work involved in getting ready for the mandatory class photo. I went to a big high school, and my graduating class was about 500 strong, so it took a while to get the class photo organized. Even after it was taken the little faces in the picture were so small it was hard to pick out who was who. Yet each of us there on that day were individual souls, with our own gifts and talents — a gathered assembly, yet made up of many members.
But I would like to think of another image for All Saints Sunday, attractive as the mountaintop view, or the image of the saints as a graduating class may be — as the poet Dante pictured them sitting in a huge heavenly Colosseum forever giving glory to God. It is a wonderful image of the saints above — but I would like for us today to think about the saints below: that is, the members of what used to be called “the church militant” — those who still serve here upon this earth in anticipation of the day when we will serve the Lord for ever in heaven.
+ + +
When Saint Paul wrote about this earthly church and its relationship with God — which he did on many occasions — he also used many different images and symbols. Often at a wedding we will hear the passage in which Saint Paul likens the relationship of Christ and the Church to that of husband and wife. He also used architectural language in which he refers to Christ as the cornerstone and the church as the Temple built upon a foundation of the apostles and prophets. And he also spoke of the Church as a flock of sheep under the custody of shepherds — good or bad! — though that message to the Ephesians is only recorded as a speech in Acts of the Apostles, rather than in the Epistle from which we heard a reading today.
In that Epistle as elsewhere, Paul makes use of yet another image: describing the church as the body of Christ, of which all of the members form parts. You may recall that he made use of this image when he was trying to get the people in Corinth to stop fighting with each other — telling them how absurd it was for the various organs of the body to contend with each other rather than working together for the good of the whole body, under the direction of the head — who is Christ.
This is a very powerful image, and it makes a great deal of sense. For just as the various organs or parts of the body all work together for the good of the whole body, so too the church functions at its best when different people with different skills combine them to the good of the whole church. As Paul would say, not all are apostles, nor evangelists, not all have the gift of healing or the gift of prophecy — but each and every member of the church, like an organ of the body, has some particular function however humble or however exalted. And when all of these body parts work together the body is healthy and able to do all of the things of which each of the organs would be incapable alone — all of them needing their mutual support.
After all, if the mouth doesn’t eat, the stomach can’t be filled, and the other organs can’t be nourished through the blood that is pumped by the heart. If the muscles of the diaphragm do not move then the lungs do not breathe, oxygen cannot enter the blood, and the brain and other organs will soon shut down.
And so it is in the church: the various ministries function together — and it is the saints of God who carry out these ministries — to do the work of the church under the direction of God through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. And each and every minister — which is to say each and every one of us, whether a layperson, a deacon, a priest, or a bishop — all of us saints below and saints above — each is like an organ in the body of Christ.
+ + +
Saint Paul talked about the body parts working well — functioning at their best efficiency. But when we look at ourselves and those around us, we might well feel that we are not always doing our best, at least when judged by the world’s standards.
Fortunately, Saint Paul also assures us that we need not and ought not judge ourselves by the world’s standards. Rather, Saint Paul preached the gospel of the Cross — that God’s power is revealed in weakness. What the world calls defeat is actually victory. The head of the church, Jesus Christ himself, suffered, died and was buried. In union with him, the members of his body also suffer. And yet we are assured that even in our weakness and suffering we are still embodying the presence of God — even when we are unworthy servants, the one whom we serve is exalted.
And God will raise us up in him. We, the saints below, as feeble and frail as we sometimes are, will one day be exalted with him. This is a promise he himself has made and he ratified the promise in his blood.
When he speaks as he does in our Gospel today to the people who follow him, he assures them that their poverty is a blessing, for it certifies their possession of the Kingdom of God. Those who are hungry will be filled to overflowing; those who weep will laugh. And those who suffer harm, those who are hated, excluded, reviled, defamed and insulted on account of him, because they bear his name — they are to leap for joy. Not someday, he says, but then and there “in that day.” Their reward is great in heaven — not “will be great someday” but is great now.
What he assures us of is the fact that being a saint is something we are called to do right now, even in the midst of weakness and being less than perfect — it isn’t something that happens to a good person once they get to heaven. God’s kingdom is among us now, and we are citizens of that kingdom even now — even in our poverty and our hunger and our tears; even amidst the hatred, exclusion, and insult — just as Jesus Christ was Lord of the earth and Son of God even as he hung upon the cross.
+ + +
I want to conclude with a true story about two of the saints of the church now at rest, the Reverend Canon Edward Nason West, long a fixture at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, and a sister of a religious order not too far away from there, to which Canon West was chaplain. Canon West certainly had his failings and his eccentricities, and the sister I have in mind was also a good example of the kind of imperfect saint that all of us are. She was assigned as head of the order’s altar guild — though she didn’t have a real gift for it. But as a good obedient sister she kept at the task she had been assigned. Canon West was mildly annoyed that she could never quite figure out how to fold the linen corporal correctly, and he became a bit angry with her when she almost burned down the chapel as hot coals flew out of the thurible.
Well, this sister fell ill and it turned out her illness was terminal. And Canon West visited her in the infirmary quite often in those last few weeks. And one day she said to him, “Father West, I know I haven’t been very good on the altar guild.” Canon West stifled his agreement and simply nodded wisely. She continued, “I know I’m not perfect. I never did get the knack with the altar linens, and burnt that hole through the carpet in the sanctuary. I’ve never really been very good at anything. But I can do one thing — I can show how a Christian dies.”
This good sister taught the old priest a lesson — reminding him that God doesn’t judge us for our success; God doesn’t judge us on our ability to fold a linen correctly, or knowing how to swing a thurible without burning the church down; or however well we may preach or sing or serve. God loves us because we are his, and empowers us in our faithfulness, even when we are at our weakest. God does not look to our success, but to our faith, faith which remains strong even when we are weak. Just as Jesus Christ showed us what God is like most perfectly in his death up on the cross, so to, we his saints can show ourselves most like him even in our weakness and our death. For God’s strength is made perfect in weakness. Even when we are hungry, thirsty, or poor; when we are persecuted and excluded; even when we are dying — we shine as lights in the firmament, like stars appearing — showing forth the glory of God, whose strength is perfected in us.
You know the old song, I believe in the sun even when it’s not shining? Well Jesus Christ is the Son — the Son of God — even in his suffering and his weakness — and his death. And we who have a share in his sufferings, persevering as saints in the offices and ministries with which God has equipped us as members of Christ’s body — we shall also be raised with him. Our weakness is but a passing shadow — it cannot hide the sun for long, and makes it even more glorious in its reappearing.
So rejoice, my brothers and sisters, rejoice now even as we look forward to the day when all of our sufferings and weaknesses will be at an end and we are clothed upon with the resurrection in Jerusalem the golden. Even as we hope in Christ, so let us continue on the pilgrims’ way, continuing to do the work God has given us to do, called as saints, knit together in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Jesus Christ our Lord.+