Sermon preached on All Saints' Day at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Wisdom 3:1-9, Revelation 21:1-6a
Talk of saints and the communion of saints is a very dangerous thing. It’s no wonder that many of our Protestant brothers and sisters gave up on it. What’s dangerous about it is that when we speak of saints we can seem to be speaking of people who have earned that status by their good deeds.
The trick is that many of those who have gone before us and whom we call saints, were good deed doers. We wouldn’t remember them if they weren’t. But it’s important to get the order right. They did good deeds because they were saints not in order to become saints.
God makes people saints. He does this by bringing them in relationship with him. The definition of a saint is someone who is in relationship with God. The primary way that happens in the church is through Baptism. Baptism forges a relationship with God that the Prayer Book says is “indissoluble” (p. 298). If you are in a relationship with God that is indissoluble, then you are a saint. Hopefully you will live out that relationship by, in the words of the Baptismal Covenant, proclaiming “by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” (BCP, p. 305). Then you will be acting like a saint, although not earning your way to be one.
We get into the same trouble with the word “righteous.” The Wisdom of Solomon reading this morning begins
The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.
Again, it is God who makes people righteous. They don’t earn it. We are made righteous by grace, which is defined as “unmerited favor.” “The righteous” is always shorthand for “those made righteous by grace.”
Thinking wrongly about “saints” and “the righteous” can then completely mess up our understanding of the communion of saints. If the saints have earned their status, then the communion of saints is kind of an exclusive club. And the Church becomes the doorkeeper, deciding who gets in and who stays out, whether it be by voting to add individuals to a calendar or through an elaborate beatification process. Someone has to decide whether a potential saint is worthy enough to merit inclusion.
But the doctrine of the communion of saints is meant to be quite the opposite. It is meant to be inclusive by nature not exclusive, using the New Testament sense of the word “saint:” all those in relationship with God. You and I are members of the communion of saints. That is one of the great things we celebrate today.
The Book of Common Prayer defines the communion of saints this way
The communion of saints is 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. (p. 862).
The communion of saints is about belonging. Belonging is a fundamental, powerful human need. We all need to belong. We suffer when we are made to feel like we don’t belong. All of us have stories of belonging and not belonging that define who we are as persons.
A significant part of the Good News we have to tell is about belonging. At the heart of what people of faith have discovered is that we belong to God and that belonging is both unconditional and eternal. It is this discovery that we enact Sunday by Sunday in the Eucharist at this Altar that we call “the Welcome Table.”
The vision from the Book of Revelation that we heard a few minutes ago is a vision of that belonging. Revelation was written for a people under extreme stress, the kind of stress that was no doubt testing their trust in God. It appeared to them that the strength of the Roman Empire was stronger than that “indissoluble bond” of God.
Revelation plays out this conflict, this test of trust. At several points it looks like the Empire might win, but in the end there is this vision: new heavens and a new earth, the holy city, the new Jerusalem come down from heaven. And the declaration of God that he will live among his people, and that he, not the Empire, is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. In the end the relationship of the peoples belonging to God has been sown to be indissoluble.
We celebrate this vision today. We celebrate our belonging, which is unconditional and eternal. What incredible good news! You belong! We belong! And it is all gift.