Saints Past and Present: All Saints Sunday

Saints Past and Present: All Saints Sunday

Proper 27: November 7, 2021
All Saints Sunday: 24th Sunday after Pentecost

Year B: Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

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Today we celebrate All Saints’ Sunday, a day to celebrate the countless saints of God who have lived and died before us and who live forever in God’s eternal realm.

The Catechism at the back of the Book of Common Prayer says, “The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those who we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.”[1] Those whom we love and those whom we hurt.

Imagine. The word “saint” appears 62 times in holy scripture – Paul’s letters and epistles contain frequent references to saints; the term saint appears 44 times in Paul’s writings.[2]

The saints figure prominently in our Christian scripture and the early church. The early church commemorated the life and witness of the martyrs, those who died for the faith, from the earliest times. The church has widely observed the festival of All Saints continuously for 1500 years. It has been celebrated on November 1st since 735. In the Episcopal Church, we always allow for All Saints Day on the Sunday following November 1st.

We often think of saints as mythical figures who lived a long time ago and lived legendary lives. We think saints are people in stained glass windows (and they are).

But saints are so much more. Who are saints of God? What makes a saint a saint?

There’s no easy, straightforward answer. The word saint is used in so many ways. And the use of the term saint depends on the context and denomination.

Unlike the Roman Catholic church, there are no formal criteria for defining saints in the Episcopal Church. In the Anglican tradition, all of the faithful deceased in heaven are considered to be saints.[3] Faithful witness is celebrated, and many individuals identified as saints are so honored because they bring forth the love of the risen Christ and the Spirit to the world.[4]

Some theologians and scholars would want us to believe that only perfect people or “perfected beings,” as one writer described, are saints. I don’t believe that, and I’ll stake a claim to an even broader heresy: saints can be those who perhaps aren’t Christian but whose who inspire us to live better Christian lives.

In my own life, I was inspired by a good, faithful Jewish woman. Was Mahatma Gandhi a saint? His life was undoubtedly one of inspiration to many Christians. At their core, saints are God lovers and peacemakers, which encompasses far more people than Christians alone. In his beautiful mediation for All Saints Day, our assisting Bishop Porter Taylor reminds us that saints are men and women fully alive because they are connected to the source of life, the glory of God.[5]

Thus, when we celebrate All Saints Day, what we observe is not the superhuman faith and power of a select few but God’s ability to use flawed people to do marvelous things in life.

There are individuals in our communities and our church who have lived exemplary Christian lives even when the wider world does not recognize them. Among these “great cloud of witnesses”[6] are people not in some definitive list of saints but who are Christians who have inspired other Christians in different times and places.

When you think about saints, who are they in your life? I’ve talked in the past about Saints Eleanor and Mary, and Saint Mitties. When you think of the turns your life has taken – the times when you could have gone one way or another – who helped you find your way.

Name them. I assure you that when you look at the saints in your lives, you will find people who have lived not lives of perfection but checkered and complicated lives. Martin Luther gave us the helpful phrase, “simul justus et peccator” – simultaneously saint and sinner. 

Saints and sinners. In the popular imagination, a saint is someone perfect and selfless. But in reality, a saint is almost certainly a deeply flawed person who loves God and challenges us to love God – a person who shapes us in faith and spirituality and profoundly relational ways. Today, we remember all the deeply faithful and deeply flawed saints of God’s church – those who reveal God’s glory. Being a saint is not about a life of perfection or becoming a martyr, but it is about being so connected to the love of God in Jesus Christ that Christ’s love radiates out from us in our life.

Many of those saints are remembered among us today. Why do we pray for the dead? As Bishop Taylor tells us “Because they are not dead – they are alive.”[7] And because we have lived in connection and communion with them.

None can be a saint in isolation, just as no one can be a Christian in isolation. As much as we hear about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the entire foundation of Christianity is about community.

Only once in the Bible is the word saint used in the singular form. The other 61 times, it is plural. We need each other. We need the strength and faith of our community to live us and keep us on the right path. We need a community to be the saints of God.

And if we think about it, think of how ingrained the communion or community of saints is so deeply embedded in our DNA. “I believe in the communion of saints” is part of the Anglican way of life.

In our burial office, in our service of Morning Prayer, we pray the apostle’s creed, and, in our baptism service, we pray the Apostles’ Creed.

                        “I believe in the Holy Spirit,

                        the holy catholic church,

                        the communion of saints,

                        the forgiveness of sins,

                        the resurrection of the body,

                        and the life everlasting.”[8]

We believe in the communion of saints. We don’t usually pray to the saints in our tradition, but I certainly hope you pray with the saints[9] because the saints help unbind us and let us go to be more fully alive in our relationship to Christ, and it is well for us to remember that our common calling is to be saints.

As we sing the hymn “I sing a song of the saints of God,” I remember that saints live not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still, the world is bright the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’s will. You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.

If we are honest, we know that we have more to do, but remember, there is hope. God isn’t finished with us yet. God is making all things new, even folks like us.

May we all do Jesus’ will. And let us remember that God meets us, saints and sinners, and makes good out of our lives despite our flaws and imperfections. Think of the saints in your life and strive to be a saint in someone else’s life.

[1] Book of Common Prayer, p. 862

[2] Cf. Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:2, 2 Corinthians 1:1, Ephesians 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Colossians 1:2-3, New Revised Standard Version (“NRSV”)

[3] Whitmore, The Right Rev. Keith B., “Being Saints of God.” Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta/Atlanta, GA, November 1, 2009. Accessed November 2, 2021.

[4] A Great Cloud of Witnesses. 2016. New York: Church Publishing, Incorporated, p. xiii

[5] Taylor The Right Rev. Porter Taylor, “Saints: I mean to be one too.” Episcopal Diocese of Virginia/Richmond, VA, November 1, 2021. Accessed November 2, 2021.

[6] Cf. Hebrews 12:1

[7] Taylor The Right Rev. Porter Taylor, “Saints: I mean to be one too.” Episcopal Diocese of Virginia/Richmond, VA, November 1, 2021. Accessed November 2, 2021.

[8] The Apostles’ Creed

[9] The Communion of Saints”, Church of Ireland. 2005. Retrieved November 6, 2021

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