All Saints Day 2019
Rev. Doug Floyd
Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1:15–23, Luke 6:20–36
Paul writes a letter of encouragement to a group of disciples meeting in Ephesus. In the larger culture of the city, this little group that gathers for prayer and fellowship in a home seems rather insignificant. Acts 19 tells the story of how some of these new believers made a dramatic break with their past practices. In fact, Paul’s preaching in the city led to a riot among the followers of Artemis. The city of Ephesus was the center for worship of Artemis or Dinah, and a great Temple sat in the middle of the city. This Temple played a role in both the commerce and social life of the city. To abandon the worship of Artemis and follow Christ resulted in being cut off from the vital life of the city.
Paul writes a group of disciples in Ephesus who meet together in homes and who have been marginalized from the culture around them. To make this picture even clearer, we need to remember that Paul is writing from prison. Paul, a prisoner, writes a small and powerless group of disciples in Ephesus, and he tells them, that the Lord of all Creation has chosen them as a part of his plan to unite all things in Christ and to play a rule in reigning the universe with Christ. They are saints of God: blessed by God, chosen by God to be holy, blameless, and living witnesses of His glory and grace. In a similar way, Paul tells the Philippians that they are to shine out as God’s lights in this world.
Today we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ as revealed in his glorious saints, his holy ones, his called-out people. To help us think about this celebration of All Saints Day. I want to provide a brief historical perspective on the celebration of saints, an overview of some biblical themes related to saints, and finally to consider how this celebration of saints plays a role in our own lives. I apologize in advance for the simplification of this long developing theme. Hopefully in the end this will still provide some edification in our faith journey.
The earliest saint stories are stories of Christians who were killed for their witness of Jesus Christ. These stories are one way of retelling the story of Christ. The Gospels recount the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Specifically, in His crucifixion, we see Jesus revealing the same love that he revealed in word and deed throughout his life. In Luke’s account, Jesus intercedes for the very people who have killed him, praying “Father forgive them for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). When the criminal beside him asks Jesus to remember him, Jesus says, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
If we jump ahead to Acts 6 and 7, we see what may be considered the first saint story. Stephen is proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and he is seized and brought before the high priest and the council. He begins defending his faith. Acts 6:15 says, “And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” The glory of God was resting on him in a visible way. Yet, the council is offended and condemns him. Stephen is stoned to death. But as he is stoned he beholds Jesus, the Resurrected One, standing before the throne of God.
Acts 7:55-60 reads,
55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
In his death, Stephen reaffirms the resurrection of Jesus Christ even as he prays for forgiveness to those who attack him. When the church was threatened, despised, tortured, and killed, stories of martyrs brought hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the grace of God at work in these saints. In his great work on early Christian history, Jaroslav Pelikan argues that in the early centuries of the church, martyrdom was a powerful means of evangelism. These dying saints became living testimonies of Jesus Christ. Instead of deterring faith, martyrdom encouraged faith. In fact, there are many saint stories of the soldiers who lead the saints to their death also converting and dying alongside them.
These stories of love and devotion to Christ in the face of death inspired many early generations of Christians. Many of the church fathers would preach sermons on these saints who poured out their lives as an act of love to God. In her introduction to the sermons of John Chrysostom, historian Wendy Mayer offers a history of the early church and saints. She explains that Romans and Jews also celebrated martyrs, but Christians focused on the love expressed for God in those who died.
Romans and Jews considered dead bodies unclean and burials were kept outside the city. Christians changed that trend. Families of Christians that had been martyred began gathering at the grave of the loved one each year to recount their testimony for Jesus Christ. When Christianity became the official religion of Rome, dead Christians were buried in and around churches. To this day, it is common to have a graveyard beside the church. This reminds the pastor and the people of their short life span while also bearing witness to the coming resurrection in Christ.
Once Rome was Christianized, martyrdom decreased within the empire. Missionaries were sometimes martyred, and monks were considered a form of a living martyrs because they had abandoned the ways of this life. At this point, the church also began to celebrate the lives of Christians who exemplified the righteousness of God. Christians in the East and in the Celtic lands, typically celebrated beloved members of the community who had died in Christ.
By the 12th century, the pope, or Patriarch of the Roman Church, reserved the exclusive right to determine who was a saint. The Eastern church thoroughly rejected this development. This development coincided with doctrine of purgatory that gradually emerged over several centuries and was affirmed by several Western councils in the high middle ages starting in the late 13th century. The doctrine of purgatory suggested the Christians who died before becoming blameless in Christ, went through a period of purification before being united with Christ and the saints. This led to a three-tiered picture of the saints. There was the church militant – Christians on earth serving the Lord in the midst of the spiritual battles all around us. The church triumphant – Christians who died in martyrdom or reached a state of holiness before death. These Christians went directly into the presence of the Lord. Finally, the church expectant – Christians who were not sufficiently holy to enter into the presence of the Lord and must go through a period of purgation before being admitted into his holy presence. The word saint came to be primarily focused upon those Christians who had died and were already in the presence of the Lord.
This doctrine of purgatory opened the door for all sorts of difficulties such as priests and monks charging money to pray for the dead loved ones that their time in purgatory might be shortened. Eventually, the church authorized the selling of indulgences for the same purpose. The people also prayed to saints asking them to intercede on behalf of dead loved ones. In some places, prayers to saints became superstitious rituals for all sorts of difficulties or challenges in life. You can imagine the horrors those same Christians faced when approaching death or when thinking of dead loved ones. The Good News seemed less than good.
This confusion over the afterlife and the meaning of saints played a key role in the Reformation. Reformers rejected purgatory and treating saints as a substitute for Jesus Christ. Our Anglican Reformers explicitly addressed this in Article 22 for the 39 articles of religion,
“The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”
Saints and icons of saints serve to tell the story of the faith but do not impart some special grace. We trust solely in the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. This does not eliminate remembering the saints or the martyrs. Both Anglican and Continental Reformers continue to remember these stories. One well known Protestant book is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. More recently, the Reformed Baptist preacher John Piper has written a series of small books meditating upon the virtues revealed in the lives of heroic Christians.
For Anglicans, remembering the lives of those who have gone before plays several roles. One, it reinforces the gospel of Jesus Christ. We tell stories that bear witness to God’s redeeming grace in the lives of his people. Two, it encourages us in our own lives as we seek to follow in the way of Christ. As we read about the lives of those who have gone before and specifically when we read their sermons or reflections on faith, we find renewal in our faith and sometimes wisdom for addressing our particular challenges. Many Anglicans have followed in an ancient pattern of collecting anthologies of writings from great Christians heroes of the past. These writing can become rich devotional texts for personal and churchwide meditation.
Thirdly, we read saint stories in light of Hebrews 11, the chapter on the great heroes of faith. This chapter gives short snapshots of lives of Old Testament saints who followed in the way of faith. Their lives surround us with witness. Or I might say, their lives bear witness to us of God’s faithfulness and God’s call. Hebrews 11:39-40 says, “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”
In other words, their lives were incomplete without our lives of faithfulness in Christ Jesus. We are joined together as one people of God. This continues a thought expressed in Ephesians. In Ephesians 2, Paul tells us that Jews and Gentiles are raised together in Christ. He continues to explain that the racial dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles has been removed. In Christ, we are all being built up together as a dwelling place of the Spirit, as a Temple of the Lord, as the Bride of Christ.
In the end, the doctrine of the communion of saints encourages us that we have been adopted into the family of God and that it is incomplete without us. The saints that longed for the coming of God and those who have heard and believed in the Good News of Jesus Christ are all bound together as one glorious family, a royal priesthood unto the Lord.
How does this speak to each of us in our own lives today? One, it encourages that in Christ we are called out together to serve as a royal priesthood, worshipping the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and praying for the world around us. In Christ, we serve as lights in the midst of a dark and wicked world. Saint stories can also remind us that these heroes of the faith struggled as we do. Some who battled doubt and fear like William Cowper. Some who battled lifelong sickness like John Calvin. Many felt insignificant and less than heroic. Faithfulness does not usually look like being burned at the stake. Many days, it feels utterly normal and unheroic and unimportant. Yet, as we remember the work of Christ in generations past, we are encouraged that He is working and is faithful and will transform us into images of His life and glory that we might reveal His love and truth and hope in word and deed wherever we go and whatever we do.