“The Communion of Saints” (November 1, 2015: The Solemnity of All Saints–The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

“Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”—John 11.40[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

It was my mother’s mother—my Granny—who first taught me how to pray. Years ago, as far back as I can remember, every Saturday morning, Granny prepared a full breakfast—bacon, eggs, sausage, waffles, poached eggs, and apple sauce—of which she insisted that she, myself, and my mother all sit down and eat together as a family. After breakfast was prepared and the table set, we all took our seats at the dining room table, held hands, and Granny would make me lead the family in prayer:

“God is great. God is good.

Let us thank Him for our food.

By His Hands, we are fed.

Thank you Lord for our daily bread. Amen.

When I was really young, I hated that Granny made me do this, because 1) I was not, in the least bit, remotely interested in religious matters and 2) I just wanted to eat the food. But as I got older and began living my life for Christ, I began to see that there was a method to Granny’s madness. Her making me pray was instilling in me the importance of what Saint Paul once said: “Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”[2] Many of the Christian values I today espouse are because of Granny, seeing them in the same way by which Saint Paul encouraged Saint Timothy: “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”[3]

Several more years passed and with them came Granny’s inability to fix those Saturday morning breakfasts that I loved eating. She had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, was suffering from dementia, and became bedridden. Granny had become a completely different person during her declining years. Then, on October 14, 2013, I received a phone call from my mother: “Brandt…I’m calling to let you know that your grandmother has passed.”  At 81 years old, my Granny peacefully passed away in her sleep and entered into her final rest in the living Christ.

On February 11, 2014—the day that would have been Granny’s 82nd birthday—grief came full throttle. On that day and during the two days following, I was not in a good place. It was the rawest I had felt in quite a long time and the farthest away I felt that God was from me. While sleeping during the early evening of February 13, 2014, I dreamt that I was sitting in the downstairs living room of my Tuscaloosa townhouse reading, when, all of a sudden, at the top of the stairs leading down into the living room, appeared Granny! I could not believe my eyes. She looked the way I remembered from the time of my first conscious memory of her face. She was wearing one of her trademark pantsuits that I oftentimes saw her wear when I was growing up. She walked down the stairs, her limbs moving with fullness of vigor, having a spring-like quality. She walked right up to me and said, in a pristine and clear tone, “How are you, baby?” The dementia was gone! She knew exactly who I was. For the first time in a long time, I did not have to reintroduce myself to her. Amazed and filled with joy, I replied, “I am OK, Granny. How are you?” “I’m doing just fine,” she said, saying it with the biggest smile that I ever saw her have. After she smiled at me, the dream ended and I woke up. I kept saying, “Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!” No longer was I feeling raw. No longer did I feel God far away from me. From just one short dream, all was made well.

Today is the Solemnity of All Saints, the annual Christian liturgical feast that celebrates all the saints of God, known and unknown. In today’s Gospel—a truncation of the larger story of the bringing back to life of Lazarus of Bethany—Jesus asks this question, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” It is a question that gets to the root of what it is that we today celebrate— those who, by the grace of God, have been led by the Spirit to seek after God and follow Jesus, His only begotten Son. It is these saints—holy ones of God—that have been made “very members incorporate in the mystical body of [God’s] Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs, through hope, of [God’s] everlasting kingdom.”[4] Through the dead then resuscitated Lazarus, we see the answer to Jesus’ question made applicable to all of God’s saints, not just those deceased, but also those living.

In the portion of John 11 that precedes today’s Gospel, Jesus, having heard of His friend’s illness, intentionally waited two days before departing for Bethany, knowing that Lazarus would die. “This illness is not unto death,” Jesus says. “It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.”[5] Jesus was going to use His friend’s death to intentionally bring him back to life so that all who saw would see the glory of God manifested. In His consolation of Martha, Jesus speaks one of the great pearls of faith: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” “Do you believe this?” Jesus asks. “Yes, Lord, I believe,” says Martha.

In the portion of John 11 that we heard today, after consoling Mary, the second grieving sister, Jesus asks of the whereabouts of Lazarus’s grave. Jesus is brought to it, the stone being rolled away. With the stench of death bursting from the grave, Jesus prays to the Father, thanking Him for those who will come to believe. “Lazarus, come out,” Jesus shouts. And with that that was once dead now again alive, appearing in clear sight to all around, Jesus illustrated His power over man’s most irresistible enemy—death. By bringing Lazarus back to life, Jesus foreshadowed His own death and Resurrection: “By His death He has destroyed death, and by His rising to life again He has won for us everlasting life.”[6] It is through Christ’s Resurrection in which all those who have lived and died and who do live and will die in faith have been and will be raised in glory, to the joy of everlasting life.

So what, or who, exactly is it that we celebrate on this solemn feast? Who are the saints of God? When one thinks about All Saints’ Day, they typically think of Christianity’s great heroes and heroines, those most known, but no longer living. Such heroes and heroines of faith include Blessed Mary, Mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, Paul the Apostle, Patrick of Ireland, Augustine of Hippo, John Henry Newman, and many others. In these holy women and men the Christian faithful more visibly see the precepts of faith made manifest through a love for Jesus Christ lived out through a life of service. For their faithfulness to the living Christ here on Earth, in death, they have been raised to eternal life with Him in Heaven, attaining the Beatific Vision of God Almighty—the final destiny of God’s redeemed:

“For all the saints, who from their labors rest,

Who thee by faith before the world confessed,

Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.

Alleluia, alleluia!”[7]

Yet Christian sainthood is not solely limited to those that are better known. We know this to be true, for Saint Paul, throughout his epistles, makes clear that all people who abide in Christ Jesus are God’s saints. That includes those in ages past who lived faithful lives, but are not well known. That includes my Granny, your mother, your father, your grandparents, and all of our friends who we love, but see no longer. As Lazarus’s raising foretold, for God’s saints who are now at rest, they have been raised up with Christ and now sit with Him in the heavenly places.[8] “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” Through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, they have won the victory![9]

Yet Christian sainthood, as well, is not solely limited to those known and unknown no longer living. Again, Saint Paul declares that all people who abide in Christ Jesus are God’s saints. If “all” truly means all, that must mean that God’s saints not only are those known and unknown no longer living, but also those known and unknown currently living. Within our own time and throughout our own local context walk living heroes and heroines of faith: doctors, lawyers, bankers, educators, oil and gas workers, public service employees, even clergy, whose light for Christ shines bright and burns strong.

“They lived not only in ages past,

There are hundreds and thousands still.

The world is bright with the joyous saints

Who love to do Jesus’ 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.”[10]

What a minute? Me? Brandt, are you actually telling me that I am a saint? Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. You are a saint, as well as I. How are we saints? When we were baptized, God adopted us as His children and made us members of His Son’s body—the Church—and inheritors of His kingdom.[11] In other words, when we were baptized, we became saints of God, members of His holy community, consecrated unto Him. Like Lazarus, by our baptism, we were raised from spiritual death to everlasting life. “Do you not know,” Saint Paul asks, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”[12] And it is into this sacred body of God’s faithful people that Horatio Mather Johnston and Amelia Marie Adams will, from this day and forever, be incorporated, themselves becoming, like us and all others before them, saints of God. With us, they will grow stronger in the riches of Christ’s grace. We pray that they, as we do for ourselves, will “strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”[13] As we seek to do, may they live their sainthood in Christ with boldness. We pray that they will, with us, “confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim His Resurrection, and share with us in His eternal priesthood.”[14]

So on this day, the Solemnity of All Saints, we give thanks for those who have heeded the call to holiness, given in to the Lord’s will, and lived their lives for Christ. That includes the great heroes and heroines of faith, known and unknown, no longer visible to us; our family members and friends who we love and who love us, but no longer see; and us, who still live, seeking to do the Lord’s will in all we do. This is the day we celebrate the Church as Christ’s ransomed, healed, restored, and resurrected Body—inclusive of all those baptized into His death and Resurrection throughout all ages—marked as His own forever. For me, I look forward to reunions—with my Granny and all others who, throughout my journey of faith, guided me in my life for Christ. But I also look forward to introductions—to my Christian heroes, such as Thomas Aquinas, John Wesley, John Henry Newman, Charles Chapman Grafton, Michael Ramsey, and several others. Although these reunions and introductions will be events filled with blessed joy, they also intimidate me because of my sin. “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man,”[15] says my soul. But the grace of God eases my intimidation, soothes my sorrow, and drives away my fear. “Come to me,” Jesus says, “all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you…you will find rest for your souls.”[16] The example of the heavenly company encourages me to strive for holiness, to live the way of Christ. “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” our Lord asks. I hear Christ’s call from deep within and feel the saints of God in Heaven cheering me on.

The Lord is glorious in His saints: O come, let us adore Him. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version Bible, Catholic Edition, copyright © 1965, 1966 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] I Thessalonians 5.16-18

[3] II Timothy 1.13-14 (New Revised Standard Version)

[4] From the Post-Communion Prayer of “The Holy Eucharist: Rite I,” The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of The Episcopal Church (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 339.

[5] John 11.4

[6] From the Proper Preface for Easter in “The Holy Eucharist: Rite II,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 379.

[7] “For All the Saints,” words by William Walsham How (1823-1897), music by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

[8] Ephesians 2.6

[9] I Corinthians 15.55, 57

[10] “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God,” words by Lesbia Scott (1898-1986), music by John Henry Hopkins (1861-1945).

[11] “An Outline of the Faith Commonly Called the Catechism,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 858.

[12] Romans 6.3-4

[13] Hebrews 12.14

[14] “Holy Baptism,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 308.

[15] Luke 5.8

[16] Matthew 11.28-29

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