All Saints’ Homily
This is my final sermon from the Fall semester of 2020. It was delivered on the week of All Saints’ Day and the morning after the election of the President of the United States. This is still in manuscript form, but hopefully, the message reaches you without the medium of my own voice. In this tumultuous age, we need the lives and stories of the saints to remind us of the great treasure we have in Christ and the hope of resurrection in his return.
I put the finishing touches on this sermon on election night of 2020. I drove to the library listening to the radio and all the possible outcomes of the election during the pandemic and what these outcomes may mean. When I sat down at my computer to finish typing my manuscript, I was at a loss. Amidst the turmoil of our nation, full of a great many unknowns, I asked the Lord, what might he have me say? Unlike my previous passage, I chose an epistle out of this Sunday’s readings for the Church Year, which happened to be All Saints’ Day. Frankly, I sat with my hands on my keyboard dumbfounded and just a bit regretful. What do the historical saints have for us in this most divisive of years? Perhaps the question you’re asking is, “Why would I listen to the saints when I just have the Bible in front of me?” Our reading today comes from Ephesians 1:15–23. Here, Paul is quick to honor the Ephesian’s “love toward all the saints,” and affirms them as they look toward the example of the saints. Paul casts a vision for us, the People of God, to receive life from all those who are being and have been sanctified. As we receive from the Scriptures this morning, ask the Lord to open your heart to what he might say through his Word and His Bride.
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
A reading from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians:
For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
If this passage accomplishes just one thing, it invites us to the celebration of the reign of the Lord in the only proper way, with his Church. As we draw near to the lives of the saints, we are drawn further up and into the life of God which they also share in. Calvin writes, “If our love must have a view to God, the nearer any man approaches to God the stronger unquestionably must be his claims to our love.” Your Bible likely has a footnote in verse fifteen that says something like, “Early manuscripts omit your love.” With this in mind, do we interpret the passage differently? It is difficult to do so. Our faith in the Lord is synonymous with our love for him, and this is the truth that Calvin so powerfully exegetes from the passage. It is especially fitting to this Holy Feast Day (as it may be at all times) that we examine the lives of the saints to guide us through our study of our reading this morning. In his letter, Paul is concerned with three things as he moves toward the reign of Christ: knowledge of the inheritance, hope for the inheritance, and finally, the inheritance itself.
First, knowledge of the inheritance. Paul writes his prayer for us “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in knowledge of him.” I found it interesting that the Gospel reading for All Saints’ is the Beatitudes. Why not a passage like the Good Shepherd, or the comfortable words of Jesus, “I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you with me”? Would not these or others be more fitting reminders of the Head of the Church whom all saints bow their knee to? The reading, however, follows Paul’s lead. In Ephesians, knowledge flows out of the triune life of God, Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, and the Spirit of wisdom. The Beatitudes invite us into the Triune life of God as the Son, with the prophetic voice from the Father, casts a vision for the life of the Spirit that overturns the temporal world. Saint Augustine invites into this Triune knowledge in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, “Yet it is one God who, through His holy prophets and servants, according to a thoroughly arranged distribution of times, gave the lesser precepts to a people who as yet required to be bound by fear; and who, through His Son, gave the greater ones to a people whom it had now become suitable to set free by love.” Enlightenment to the love of God begets the hope that we have within him, for we only achieve our inheritance in Christ through our sonship.
After we lay hold to the knowledge of him who saves us, we enter into the “hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints…” Only by our knowledge do we hope, but how may we discern our hope as genuine? Josef Pieper, in examining the virtue of hope, also identifies two anti-virtues that we ought to be wary of. The first is despair. Despair is obviously antithetical to hope in that it is the expectation of nonfulfillment where hope promises fulfillment. For example, hope would tell me that I will have enough money to buy dinner this evening where despair would tell me that I will more likely have an unforeseen bill, a car accident, or be robbed before I have the opportunity to buy dinner. The despair antithetical to the hope Paul describes might say, “That inheritance was for them, but you are too broken to receive it,” or “You should just enjoy this life and your flesh now, you can’t be sure of what is to come.” Despair is diabolical, it separates that which ought to be together and pulls together that which must be kept apart. Paul identifies our inheritance by calling our attention to the saints, they are the forerunners in the reception of the inheritance. Hope in our inheritance unites us to the saints who are united with us to Christ. By recalling the lives of the saints, we may more easily remember the benefits of our inheritance. When I was younger, I loved to read anything I could get my hands on. At some point, our family acquired a book by DC Talk called Jesus Freaks. Admittedly, the title is a bit cheesy, but this book on historical and contemporary martyrs emboldened my hope in the inheritance that I had a claim to as a co-heir with Christ. Martyrs uniquely embody the hope of our resurrection as they, like Christ, accept death because they so deeply trust they will be raised to life. One saint-martyr that stands out, in particular, is St. Cecilia. After living a righteous life of devotion to God and preaching the Gospel for others in the early third century, she was sentenced to death in Roman baths. As they stoked the fires to boil her alive, she began to sing hymns of praise. Tradition holds that Cecilia’s song did not end until she died, even when the baths did not kill her and the Romans tried and failed to behead her causing her to suffer for three days before her death. Saints like Cecelia lead us into lives that fully trust in the resurrection, the core of our inheritance, as we look to their lives and see what they so graciously received.
Knowledge of the inheritance begets the hope of the inheritance, but where do we go after that? Paul enters into the power of the inheritance itself.
“…and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
What is the power of the inheritance now? It is Christ’s authority over all things, and how we need this word today! One saint neatly tells us of Christ’s authority over all things, it is what he pursued himself. Not much is known of St. Christopher, but tradition holds that he was a giant of a man, sort of a brute born in the third century. Christopher decided that he wanted to go out and serve the greatest king in the known world, and once he found him attended to his courts and executed his justice. One day, upon the mention of the Devil, the king crossed himself in fear. Christopher thought to himself, “What am I doing if I am not serving the most powerful king? This Devil must have greater authority if even my king quakes at his name.” So, Christopher packed up his bags and set out to find the Devil to pledge his allegiance to him. Along the way, Christopher ran into a band of robbers, the leader of which claimed to be the Devil himself. Christopher pledged his allegiance to him and proceeded to wreak havoc on wear travels and villages. One day, as they planned to enter a village, “the Devil’’ found out that it was full of Christians and, out of fear, decided to avoid this village and go elsewhere. Again, Christopher thought to himself, “What am I doing if I am not serving the most powerful king? This Jesus must have greater authority if even my Devil quakes at his name.” So, Christopher again gathered his things and moved on to find the more powerful king, Jesus. Along the way, he runs into an old monk on a pilgrimage at a river crossing. Seeing the cross hanging around his neck, Christopher asked him, “Where may I go to find Jesus?” The monk answered him, “Well, Christ said that we would find him in the least of these. Stay here and use your strength to help pilgrims and travelers across the river here.” Christopher set up camp at the river, and day in and day out helped hundreds of travelers cross. One day, on an empty road, a child came to Christopher asking for help crossing the river. As he carried the child across, the river grew higher and faster, and the child felt so heavy that Christopher felt he would sink under his weight. When they reached the other side, he told the child that he had never been at such great risk to lose his life. The child said to him, “You carried not only the whole world on your shoulders, but also he who made it and he whom your service is pleasing to.” The child vanished, but Christopher began to preach the gospel of Christ because of his encounter with him and because of it was later executed for his Christian faith. Saint Christopher, on his search for a power he could attain, found it in the servant vision of the Beatitudes.
If you are still uncertain or uncomfortable with the idea of saints, rest in the final two verses of Paul’s prayer of thanksgiving. “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” We can be assured in setting our eyes upon the saints because it is Christ who fills them and Christ who speaks through them. We are given a great gift of education in the modern world, not only formal education but also the ability to learn whenever we would like to know. Much of what I have learned of the saints started with Wikipedia and later through other sources in our library at Moody. You, students of theology and the Bible, have a special responsibility to know the inheritance given to us. After we come to the enlightenment to know the inheritance through the God who gives it to us, let us look to the saints to remind us how great a treasure it is. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.