Sermon: All Saints Sunday Year A

All Saints Sunday Year A

Revelation 7:9-17

Psalm 34:1-10, 22

1 John 3:1-3

Matthew 5:1-12

The Collect

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.

———

Today is All Saints Sunday. What does All Saints Sunday mean? I will never pass up an opportunity to talk about the church calendar. All Saints Day is the one feast, the one Holy Day or holiday in the church calendar where the Book of Common Prayer gives explicit permission to celebrate not only on the actual date, November 1st, but additionally on the Sunday following. The prayer book really wants us to acknowledge this day. The other principle feasts of the church have to do with the principle events in Jesus’s life and the identity of God. But All Saints is different. It’s not a dominical feast, that is, a feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ, like the Transfiguration or Holy Cross Day. But All Saints is not just a normal Holy Day. All the other major holy days have rules about being transferred to Monday when the date happens to land on a Sunday. But for All Saints, we celebrate on November 1st, and then we get to celebrate *again* on the following Sunday. What makes the saints so important that All Saints get this special calendrical attention?

The basic definition of a saint is a holy person. The word saint comes from the Latin word for holy. Sanctification is the process of becoming holy. Of becoming saintly. In The Episcopal Church, there are no hard and fast rules about who counts as a saint. In the calendar of saints at the front of the prayer book, only people who are mentioned in the New Testament are labeled saint, and even then, not all the New Testament people are called saint! Mostly people are just known by their name and maybe the place they were from.

Sometimes people like to make a distinction between the people the prayer book labels “saint” and all the others listed on various dates. They call the ones in bold “saint” and everyone else can be called “blessed”. This is why the gospel for today is the list of beatitudes, or blessings. 

Except that the list of people who Jesus names as blessed do not sound very blessed. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are you when people revile and persecute you. That sounds more like a curse than a blessing. When people say that they are blessed, they mean like they are blessed with children, or with stable housing, or even that they are blessed with another sunrise, another day of life. Surely the mourning, the persecution, the suffering is not the blessing?

Over the past several weeks, I have examined the lives of several saints with a group here. One thing that kept coming up over and over was the suffering experienced by the people we call saints. The first Christians to be called saints were the martyrs, those who were persecuted and killed for their faith. And it seemed like successive generations of saints were trying to emulate that suffering by living extremely austere and penitential lives. Does it take suffering to be a saint? Is that what Jesus means when he said that you’re blessed when you’re persecuted? Are people sanctified through suffering?

They aren’t saints *because* they suffered. The suffering isn’t what made them saints. But they are blessed by God because they suffered. They were blessed by God specifically when they needed it most. When the world was against them. When everything seemed cursed. That is exactly when God calls them blessed. You are blessed specifically when the world would call you cursed. God’s blessing is there for you specifically when you need it most.

The saints are blessed by God because they need it. We are blessed by God because we need it. When we are suffering, because we are suffering, is exactly when God blesses us. We usually think of blessings as gifts of good things. The things listed in the second half of each beatitude maybe. The kingdom of heaven, comfort, a heavenly reward. And I do believe we will receive these blessings from God. But the word blessed is not just a reward for what we have suffered and accomplished on earth.

The word bless is almost synonymous with the word sanctify. They both mean to make something holy. What happens when we are blessed? What happens when we are sanctified? This is exactly what we do in the celebration of the eucharist.

The collect for today says

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son, Christ our Lord.

That’s what we are about to enact together in the eucharistic prayer. It’s not me up here turning bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus like I’m a wizard, as much as I’m wearing fancy robes. The magic is not in the physical reality of wafer and wine, or at least, not at the surface level. The magic, or perhaps, the holiness or the sanctification, is that by the power of God, we are knit together in one communion. We somehow, though many people, mystically, become the body of Christ ourselves.

I received communion at an Episcopal church for the first time when I was 10 years old. I was baptized the summer that I turned 10. My baptism is a whole story too, but not this story. In any case, I was 10 years old, sitting in the pew with my grandma at St. Columba’s. During the Peace she told me, “since you’re baptized now, you can come up to receive communion.” I knelt when she did. I read along in the BCP with everyone. I followed my grandma to the altar rail and held my hands out for the wafer like she did. I again followed my grandma’s example and drank from the chalice like everyone else. That first taste of consecrated wine was overwhelming. I was speechless with wonder.

I had forgotten this story. I mean, I knew it in my head, but I had forgotten what that first communion was like. How powerful it was. How I really did feel connected to the communion of saints, even though I couldn’t put that into words at 10 years old. I just knew it was something indescribably holy. 

Halfway through seminary, the pandemic began. I went from receiving the eucharist almost daily to isolation from every other human being. Where was the communion of saints then? It was two full years later before I drank from a chalice again. 

It was right here in St. James Cathedral. And just like that very first time, it was an unexpected and overwhelming grace. In that moment the memory of my first eucharist came flooding back and I was 10 years old again. In that moment, the communion of saints throughout time and space was fully present with me. I experienced a moment of eternity. Every celebration of the eucharist throughout time and space was happening right then. The communion of saints was knit together into the mystical body of Christ. 

Through the sharing of bread and wine, the sharing of the body and blood of our Lord, we become Christ’s body. Somehow, I don’t know the metaphysics of it, the entire communion of saints, past present and future, are knit together in the body of Christ when we celebrate eucharist. 

Everyone. All the greats of the New Testament. Mary, Peter, our St. James, Stephen the first martyr. The martyrs of the early church. The desert fathers and mothers. The great theologians and teachers of the church. Mystics and monks. All those we call “saint” and those known to God alone. They are all present when we celebrate the eucharist. When we share in the one body of Christ, it’s not a separate body from the one that all the past saints shared. People in the future are not going to make new bodies of Christ. There is one body. Everyone who ever has or ever will share in a celebration of the eucharist is present whenever the eucharist is celebrated. Everyone who ever received communion. All the saints. 

There’s a moment in the eucharistic prayer where all of this becomes very real. I will be the one speaking aloud, but it is a prayer all of us are praying together, as one. “Gracious God, unite us to your Son in his sacrifice, that we may be acceptable through him, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” …Unite us to your Son, to Christ. Everyone, all united. One body. In a few moments when we say that we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church, this is what we are saying. We believe that all members of the church are united in the mystical body of Christ. And in this union we are sanctified by the Holy Spirit. We are made holy. We are blessed. We are united with all God’s saints at all times and places in the one body of Christ. In a few moments when we say that we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church, this is what we are saying. We believe that all members of the church are united in the mystical body of Christ. Amen.

Leave a Reply