If we think about the gospel reading we just heard in light of All Saint’s Day, we might think of the blessings in store for God’s people. We are hearing Jesus remind the people that have been called out by God that they are blessed. Though they suffer, though they mourn, though they long for God, though they often may feel discouraged in this world, though they may suffer for the sake of the kingdom, the blessing of God is theirs and it ends with this promise of being restored to the Lord in heaven.
All Saints Day was celebrated as early as the fourth century, but it did not become an official part of the calendar until the early seventh century. It begins as a feast of the holy martyrs and is eventually extended to all the saints of the church. The Celtic churches, Orthodox church, and Reformation churches tended to view saints as Christians who had been baptized. In these communities, All Saints Day becomes a day to remember the people of God who have died from within the local community as well beyond the local community. St. Symeon the New Theologian writes,
“The saints in each generation, joined to those who have gone before and filled like them with light, become a golden chain, in which each saint is a separate link, united to the next by faith and works and love. So in One God they form a chain which cannot be quickly broken.”
We understand the scripture to say all those who believe in Christ are the saints of God and so we read the text that way. It seems clear to us as we read the text, even in the passage from Ephesians this morning. The people of God who have entrusted, who have been caught up in God’s call, who have entrusted their lives to the Jesus Christ, are the saints of God. In the Celtic churches, when someone died they would be called the saints of that church. If you look in the, in their eucharistic liturgy, they call upon a lot of saints, but the saints they’re calling upon are most likely people that died from within that particular community. They’re remembering them every time they worship.
If you could think, every time the people of God come together, they’re remembering all those who have died, that are part of that community. The idea is we’re present, physically, but we know there are those that we have been bound to by Christ, that we personally have known, parents, grandparents, friends that have been faithful in Christ that are no longer on this earth, and yet, in the mystery of worshiping God, in the mystery of partaking of the bread and the wine, somehow we are present together. We don’t have ability to see or communicate with them but we know that we are made present in Christ.
I’m just going to talk a little bit about the saints, talk about the idea of what is the Holy Catholic church. What do we mean by catholic? And so we might speak of the catholic saints. Then we might speak of meeting the saints. What does it mean to meet saints, both from the past, and I don’t mean a mystical meeting, but meeting them in their stories, or in the present, those who are still walking this earth. Then how do we celebrate the saints?
First off, we think about Catholic. Now, the creeds, when the church wrote the creeds, they were writing them in Latin. When they wanted to talk about the one church, the word that would have come to mind, the Latin word would be universalis. But for some reason they used another word, catholicos. It’s a Greek word. Why did they not use the word universalis?
Walter Ong, the Jesuit scholar says that the word universalis, which is the word obviously we mean by universal, does have a sense of comprehensiveness but the word actually has to do with the movement on a compass. This is as best as I can tell the origin of that word, so it actually has to do, maybe, with the idea of the diameter of the circle, which in one sense is comprehensive for everything inside the circle. But anything outside of the circle, it’s not part of that word universal. So universal has this sense of a circle, a perimeter.
The church was uncomfortable with this notion that somehow we create this circle. They chose the word katholikos, which means the whole. All those who have been redeemed by God. Often the mystery of all those who have been redeemed, we don’t know the names of all those who have been redeemed. So we still say one holy catholic church, and by that we don’t mean the Roman Catholic church, although that would include the Roman Catholic church. It would include the Eastern Orthodox church, but it would include all the people of God. The whole, throughout the whole is what the word catholic means: throughout the whole.
We celebrate all the saints of God. Many of whom we’ll never meet. Many of whom we’ve never even heard of. Now, there’s another word that the church does not use but the Russians use, that is actually my favorite word when it comes to the grand communion of saints. It’s sobornost. Sobornost. In fact that word sort of shaped me meditating on this, this morning, the word sobornost. It’s a Russian word and it doesn’t really translate to any English corresponding word, but it has to do with, one it has to do with communion. It’s a communion of people.
It has to do with the deep, it has an emotional element to it, so it’s not simply the sense that everybody’s connected somehow, but there’s this deep emotional love that’s inherent in the word. Then it has to do with the idea that those who are caught up in this communion are still particular. They haven’t lost who they are as particular persons, but they are caught up in something bigger than themselves. In that sense, for the Easter Orthodox, the word sobornost, particularly the Russians and the Romanians and that part of Orthodoxy.
The word sobornost communicates all of creation caught up in Christ. It goes beyond just humanity. All things made new in Christ. It’s a rich, beautiful word. As we think of all saints, all saints, we’re speaking of God’s redemptive action in history that has transformed the past and is transforming the future before it even comes to be.
Now, with that in mind, we begin to think about meeting the saints of God. As I thought about this, the easiest way to think of meeting the saints is sort of like a child growing up in a family. When a child is born into a family, the first people the child knows, the first person is just the mom, normally. Then gradually the child begins to have an awareness of the rest of the family, and so sometimes the child will begin to say Dad first, but normally it just, the visual focus of a child and the mother holding it, from what I understand, they see about 18 inches initially, so they see their mom holding them.
As their vision expands, so does their capacity to, other people to be part off his circle. They begin to meet members of their family. But then you go to eat at grandma’s house and you meet more members of the family. Some of the people at grandma’s house are, they’re very different than the members of your own family. When we would go to my dad’s family, we had an uncle who was actually pretty funny but he also liked to kind of instigate things. My dad was very Republican and he’d be like, “Now Dougie I know you’re dad’s a Republican but I’m a Democrat.” He would always want to engage on politics.
He always wanted to get things stirred up, which was kind of funny. I actually thought he was funny so I always enjoyed him, but sometimes he wanted to get my dad into an argument with him about politics. Then on the other side of the family, there was an uncle who always wanted to get in a debate with my dad about theology. Eventually, my dad said, all right I don’t want to talk anything about Christianity when we get together, because he didn’t want to get into an argument. But that is part of us getting to know our family.
There are odd, all kinds of odd people and some people, we may not even want to call family because they’re so odd to us. We begin to meet more and more family. Then we, the child goes out to school and they meet people that become friends or don’t become friends but they meet a wider world. Now if we think about this in relation to the church, there’s a tendency, in fact the way people tend to worship is they self-select the group of people they want to hang around.
There’s a tendency for Christians just to relate to other saints or other traditions that just reaffirm what they think. There’s a tendency for Christians to limit what they mean by the word catholic, which of course they wouldn’t, many Christians wouldn’t even use the word, but what they mean by the church. They just mean people within their own little sect. The people who think like me.
But, once again as we mature in Christ and grow, we begin to meet people that are very different than us, that may not always agree with everything we think. Yet, they have been caught up in Christ and they have a faith in Christ. In fact, this is part of the early church coming to agree upon the creed, the Nicene Creed. It is part of the church saying we’re all very different. We speak different languages. There are some things we do differently, but we all agree on this. We agree on the creed. They came to an agreement on the Nicene Creed, and of course the church agreed on the Apostle’s Creed, and there were other creeds, which we won’t go into this morning.
The church comes together and says these are the things that we hold as true, but we’re all very different, which allowed, has allowed through the centuries, Christians to often be, worship in slightly different ways or act in slightly different ways, have different cultural traditions, and still be one body that believes the same inherent thing about God, about the redemption in Christ.
Now this is part of the challenge, as we meet saints that are outside of our sect, so to speak. When I was in the late 80s, there was a preacher, national preacher who decided he was going to go on a rampage against Christian contemporary music, which I thoroughly enjoyed. He said when Christian singers got up and performed on the stage he saw demons coming out of their instruments. I was like, oh my goodness. I don’t want anything to do with that guy. He’s totally off his rocker.
Somebody subscribed my name to his mailing list. I started getting his newsletters, which my natural response was first, I don’t want to hear this guy. I want to just throw it in the trash. But I read one and gradually I read another and I thought, I still don’t agree with him about the music thing, but I think he’s, he’s truly a brother in Christ and so I came to respect him and it was fascinating. Over time, he eventually kind of backed off his harsh spirit toward the music and suggested, which was actually a pretty good idea, people take a fast from music and then just listen to what they feel God call them to, which was a much healthier way to think about music.
Well I don’t know about you, but I think for many of us, throughout our lives, God will keep bringing Christians like that into our lives that are a little bit different than us, that may aggravate us initially. They may be the ones that have something for us. They may have a truth that we need to hear, so we need to be patient with them. They may not be perfect, but neither are we. They’re often broken people just like we’re a broken people.
I was thinking of the Hebrews 11, which is one passage we love to quote. This great passage about the saints of God across the ages. There’s much more than we could talk about in that passage this morning, but in Hebrews 11:32 it says, he’s been naming different saints and telling their stories, Old Testament figures that are great examples of faith in God. Then he gets to this verse. He says, “What more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barack, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets.” He lists a bunch of names, which most of these names we’re familiar with.
But just, as a quick reminder, of course Gideon does this incredible act of obedience when God calls him to fight the enemy and he gathers these men and he keeps reducing the army down to about I think 300 men, and it’s a miraculous victory. Gideon goes home as a judge and says they’re going to worship Yahweh, and he asks everybody to bring so much gold to him. He melts it down and he makes and ephod, ephod, which is essentially, becomes an idol. Gideon’s life ends in idolatry. His sons are corrupt. One son kills the other sons in a mass slaughter. You think, is Gideon really someone we want to champion? He’s an idolater. He ends his life as an idolater.
Yet, Hebrews lifts him up as an image of faith. Or what about Barack, or Barack. Deborah comes to him and says, “God’s called you to this great work.” He says well I’m not going to do it unless you go with me. So he’s really unwilling until Deborah goes, and then he becomes this great warrior. We know the story of Samson. He’s easily seduced. He ends up betraying the secrets of God. He ends up violating his Nazarite vows, yet he’s in this hall of faith. Jephthah is a great victorious judge. He’s also the man who says, “God I vow to you whatever comes out of the door when I come home,” and of course he gives his daughter up.
Are these the people we want to celebrate? They don’t seem quite sparkling and they’re not the kind of people I necessarily want to emulate my life after. Of course, we love David because he’s the man after God’s own heart. Yet, he does so many different things that causes judgment to come upon Israel, even to the point, particularly we tend to remember that he sends one man to his death so he could have the man’s wife. But later on, when he takes the census, he will causes thousands and thousands and thousands of his people to die under the judgment of God because of his sin.
But we celebrate him as a man of faith. Why? When I meditate on those just briefly, it’s because history is full of Christians who are not perfect. And yet God was redeeming them and in Christ they are fully redeemed. We meet people, Christians that offend us, irritate us, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t doing a great, awesome work in and through their lives. The challenge in meeting the saints is often both loving those who have been bound to me in friendship and family, but also finding a way to appreciate those who are very different from me, or those who I seem to think have great flaws.
If I did much into the story of the saints across history, many of the people that we celebrate also had some really, really blind areas. One of my favorite saints of history, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, taught me more about the love of God than almost any writer I ever read. He was also the great champion of going to war. He got many young men to sacrifice themselves for the Crusades. You say, is this the guy who his whole life is dedicated to love but he’s also dedicated to war?
So, the challenge for us in meeting the saints is learning to honor those people who God has called to himself and celebrate the redemptive action of God. Which brings me just to the last reflection, is learning how to celebrate the saints of God. Some of my favorite writers spent most of their lives writing about other people that they celebrated. Donald Alchin, who has shaped me deeply, he was a British priest, scholar. He was the doctoral overseer for Rowan Williams. He could have written a great theology. He was a brilliant man, but almost all of his writing is dedicated to celebrating unknown people.
He’s always in search of someone else that most people haven’t seen, and he wants to shine a spotlight on the work of God in them. He introduced me to the Welsh poet Anne Griffiths, who could not speak or write in English, and yet her poetry was translated into English and eventually she was studied in the seminaries for her great theological insight, though she had never read a page of theology.
He writes about people like N.F.S. Grundtvig, which most of us have never heard of, who’s a great Dutch hymnist and theologian, that sort of vanished in time. But he resurfaces and celebrates what God was doing in his life. He introduced the west to Dumitru Staniloae, who is a Romanian theologian who has actually affected me as deeply as well. He celebrated his life in writing and found a way, he was always working to bring together Christians from different parts of the church, and say how do we find a common unity.
He is someone that teaches me the model of celebrating those who often go hidden. How do I celebrate the hidden saints? And rejoice in the work of God in them? Another man I might mention is Michael Ramsay. He was the Archbishop of Canterbury. Much of his writing was focused on celebrating, once again, people from all sides of the church. He would celebrate one of the great reformers and one of the great Anglo-Catholic writers. He would celebrate writers from all different sides, saying we’re all part of the common union in Christ.
He introduced me to a man and I’m going to end just briefly mentioned him, whose name was Frederick Denison Maurice. He was a 19th century theologian, friend of George MacDonald, deeply influenced by several Scottish theologians. He is deeply impacted at a revival service by a man named Edward Irving, who was a Scottish preacher who was a prototype for the 20th century Pentecostal because speaking in tongues would break out at Edward Irving’s meetings. This is the early 1800s. That so offended the Scottish that they found something in his theology they didn’t like and they stripped him of his credentials.
F.D. Maurice never spoke in tongues, but he was deeply shaped by this revival which drove him to the Trinity. He said we need to, he tried to think about how do we live in communion. There are things about him that many people would find offensive. He was straight out socialist. Spent his life working for the working man. Some Christians are like, how could a socialist be a Christian, yet his life, he said his whole drive was to find out how Christ was leading him to take care of others.
One of the beauties of F.D. Maurice is something he said in reference to Martin Luther. He introduces a principle or a truth that speaks to me about other things. He was around a lot of Anglicans who wanted to put down Luther, because they said the church fathers are the ones we need to listen to, not the reformers. He said if you take away my reverence for Luther, how will I reverence the church fathers, because you might begin to take away my capacity for reverence all together. He said we need to find the very best in people to celebrate, and not quote them at their worst. We need to always find at the very best, knowing that they’re flawed.
Yes. they’re flawed and they’re human, but we celebrate people at their very best. What God is doing in them and what we can rejoice in and what can we find that brings us into communion. That inspires me deeply because it reminds me that we’re all flawed and yet he is connecting us with people living and people dead. He’s speaking to us through people that we love and people that sometimes offend us. But he’s taking his people that he’s called out, his communion, his church and he will bring us to perfection.
24 Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, 25 to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.
Image by Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P. (used by permission via Creative Commons). It is a part of the east window in St George’s Cathedral, Southwark and is by Harry Clarke.
 St. Symeon the New Theologian, The Time of the Spirit: Readings through the Christian Year. George Every, Richard Harries, and Kallitstos Ware, editors. SVS Press, 1984, p. 48.
 Walter Ong, Jesuit weekly America, on April 7, 1990. He writes, “Catholic” is commonly said to mean “universal,” a term from the Lain universalis. The equation is not quite exact. If “universal” is the adequate meaning of “catholic” why did the Latin church, which in its vernacular language had the word universalis, not use this word but rather borrowed from Greek the term katholikos instead? The etymological history of universalis is not in every detail clear; but it certainly involves the concepts of “one,” and vertere, “turn.” It suggests using a compass to make a circle around a central point. It is an inclusive concept in the sense that the circle includes everything within it. But by the same token it also excludes everything outside it. Universalis contains a subtle note of negativity. Katholikos does not. It is more unequivocally positive. It means simply “through-the-whole” or “throughout-the-whole”—kata or kath, or through-or throughout-holos, whole, from the same Indo-European roots as our English “whole.”
 The Romanian theologian Dumitrue Staniloae introduced me to the Russian word “Sobornost.” Like the word, catholic, it speaks of our whole communion, but it is bigger than any English word we can find. “Sobornost” speaks of an organic unity, rooted in the Triune God, that is a deeply personal and even an emotional bond, a sense of solidarity, a longing for the communion of all things in Christ, an organic communion that respects our particularity while binding us together as a family.
 See Paul Avis, Anglicanism and the Christian Church: Theological Resources in Historical Perspective (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2002), 289.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Jud 24–25.