Good morning Christians, seekers, and friends!
Since the beginning of our liturgical year A 2020, we have spent our time walking fairly methodically, one chapter after the next, through the gospel of Matthew starting in January … This October, for example, we have spent the majority of our time hanging out in chapter 22 which we read to its conclusion last week. But today we get to go back to the beginning of Matthew – all the way back to chapter 5 for the feast day of All Saints’. Please note that we put the apostrophe at the end of the word ‘saints’ here– because today isn’t a celebration of any one saint but rather ALL the saints. And that includes A LOT of saints you didn’t know about or you don’t recognize as such– including yourself.
Now I know folks out there are probably wiggling a little in their seats, because if there is one thing we are pretty sure about in this strange time we are living in – it is that we don’t know many saints… Although, if we’re completely honest with ourselves, we would have probably said the same thing last year pre-pandemic and the years before that too. This is because in our culture what we typically associate with sainthood comes to us through the lens of the Roman Catholic Church. And to become a saint in the Roman Catholic church is a rather protracted process which one can only begin after death—and normally not until five years after death. So even though as Episcopalians we believe in the biblical understanding of sainthood as used in Acts and Paul’s letters to the churches, which refer to “saints” as the body of Christ, as Christians, and as the church, we still feel a little skeptical about who should be included in the category of ‘saints.’ Sure, we want to warmly welcome all the folks that God sends to Epiphany – but are we really prepared to welcome them as saints? Certainly, it would take better lighting and, perhaps, interpreters, because we can’t seem to shake the idea that saints should come from places like India or Africa or Tibet or other places far-far away where we don’t actually know anyone.
I feel fortunate that, thanks to my mother, a life-long Episcopalian, I genuinely believe in the real humanity of saints…. Not necessarily because of my mother’s own saint-like qualities but rather because when she would get very exasperated with me, she sometimes said, “You are enough to make a saint cuss!” So, I guess I have always thought that if saints can cuss, chances are I might actually know a few….
In the Book of Common Prayer, the communion of saints as we understand it, is defined as “the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt – bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.” So, consistent with my mom’s view, that means all of us here—even those who cuss.
Now I began this sermon talking about the fact that for this All Saints’ Feast Day we go back to Chapter 5 in Matthew’s gospel. And the question might be, couldn’t we just as easily have preached something about saints from chapter 23? After all, Chapter 23 is all about what NOT to do if you want to be saint—the “woe to yous” if you will. Chapter 5, on the other hand, deals with the Beatitudes, or what Wyatt calls “The Blessed bes.” So, depending on the circumstances, one would think that either could work for saints-in-training. And this is true. In the Ten Commandments, for example, the children of Israel are told clearly what not to do. Do not worship other Gods. Do not hate. Do not steal. Do not covet…. These commandments taught the Israelites how to love and worship God and how to treat others in their community by showing them what right relationship with God and neighbors is not. And, Jesus himself clearly states that he did not come to do away with the law but rather to fulfill it. So, the via negativa clearly works. However, Jesus came to do even more – to build upon the Mosaic law. In Matthew 4:17, Jesus begins his ministry with the words, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” Jesus’ life and ministry served as the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth because Jesus in bringing his divinity to earth, is able to perfectly fulfill all of God’s commandments and laws. Just as, through his death and resurrection, he brings humanity to heaven and sending the Holy Spirit to earth inaugurates God’s kingdom – the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. With the coming of the Holy Spirit, Christ’s church—the communion of saints—is made holy “because the Holy Spirit dwells in it, consecrates its members, and guides them to do God’s will” (BCP, p. 854). And that is what we are celebrating today – that we are all saints, and we are all called to be saints! To paraphrase Paul in his first letter to the Corinth we are “the church of God…those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy…” The words “sanctified” and “holy” coming from the same Greek word hagios that we translate as saint.
Jesus’ life and ministry, then, is about what is possible for all those who follow Jesus and do his will. Coming on the heels of Jesus’ calling of the first disciples and his healings of the sick, the infirm, and the possessed, when Jesus invites folks to repent (metanoia in Greek), Jesus is not only asking them to “turn around” and to refrain from sinning, but also gives them the opportunity for total transformation. Jesus is casting his vision for those who wish to follow him and take part in his new movement. Placed in this context at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the Beatitudes [then] can be best understood as Jesus’ public declaration of the Kingdom of Heaven and its communion of saints.”[i] The Beatitudes reveal just how much the Kingdom of Heaven differs from earthly kingdoms or powers like Judah, Israel, or the Roman Empire. The new community that Jesus has begun values righteousness as exemplified by love of God and love of neighbor and addresses itself to all – even those who are currently experiencing prejudice, injustice, and oppression promising them blessings in God’s community. But the blessings Jesus promises are not ‘pie in the sky’ promises made to folks about what will only happen in heaven. The Greek word makarios, translated in the Beatitudes as ‘blessed’ occurs in several parts of the Hebrew scriptures namely the Psalms and wisdom literature. In each of these contexts, the blessings indicate God actively working for and advocating on behalf of folks now as well as promising a better and brighter future. Likewise, far from asking God’s people to simply endure, the Jesus that casts his vision of the Kingdom of God has been healing every disease, sickness, or illness among the people he encountered (Matthew 4:23-25) and has, therefore, gained credibility for his promises and his blessings. The Beatitudes coming after Jesus’ ministry of healing reveal how the afflicted and the oppressed will be blessed just as others in similar situations have been blessed thus far. While the promise of deliverance and reversal of fortunes spelled out in the Beatitudes point to the future, they are built too on what Jesus has already accomplished.
This All Saints’ Day as we welcome another saint into Christ’s body the Church, we are celebrating this blessed event with all the saints here present as well as those who have come before. I know 2020 has been a difficult year. I know there is a lot going on right now that makes us anxious and uncertain. But we are not alone. I think this is an important reminder for all of us as we renew our baptismal vows today. As followers of Christ, friends, we are meant to be transformed by love. We are meant to be saints. And as folks who will be making promises to raise up Margot to her full stature in Christ, we need to remember and model for her just how magnificent a human being who grows into her full stature in Christ can be. In times like these when our society and our human world seems to be spiraling out of control, it is easy for us to feel small and think about all the things we can’t change and can’t do rather than concentrate on what we can do and then get to the doing of it – whatever our particular thing might be. But Jesus promises us that where two or three are gathered he is with us and the blessings that Jesus promises us have come to pass. Through the power of the Holy Spirit we have been transformed and are properly called the children of God – the heirs of the Kingdom of God – saints. This means that we become saints now in the Kingdom of heaven. We don’t need to wait until the circumstances which surround us are perfect, or the lighting is exactly right, or even until we are feeling up to it. This means that we are called to be saints today and take our rightful place in the communion of saints—right in the midst of our lives starting right now. This has always been Jesus’ plan for us. A plan he laid out to his followers from the very beginning of his ministry. And, over two thousand years later, we are still learning about and living into the blessings that God bestows on us and wishes to grant us in the future. But know this: we are blessed, and we are saints. And if you ever start to feel overwhelmed just remember that you’ve got a whole communion of saints walking with you in the world today and each and every day of 2020 and beyond….and rejoice because today is All Saints’ Day with the apostrophe after the ‘s’ because we’re celebrating them all including you!
[i] Raj Nadella Samuel A. Cartledge Associate Professor of New Testament; Director of MA(TS) Program
Columbia Theological Seminary; Working Preacher.org