First Reading Isaiah 25:6-9
Second Reading Revelation 21:1-6a
Gospel Reading: John 11:32-44
Sermon “Saints of the Past, Present and Future”
It is common for us to affirm our faith using the words of the Apostles creed. The final paragraph of that creed begins like this:
“I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints…”
It is that last part – the communion of saints that we are particularly emphasizing this morning. Today we are celebrating All Saints day. A feast day of the church dating back to the 800’s on which we give thanks to God for those who have gone before us in the faith and are now with God in glory. Actually, we celebrate it each and every time we gather around the Lord’s table as we are doing this morning. It is a participation in holy things with the knowledge that we do so in the company of all of the host of heaven. For us here this morning, we celebrate the sacrament with each other – the church gathered in this place, but also in a mystical, but very real sense the whole company of God’s people which includes the saints from all times and places – past…present…and future! All of time stands the same before the Lord of creation, we may be stuck in the present moment, but God is certainly not.
So before we go very far, we need to talk about just what is a saint. Often when we think of that term, we think of an official list of those judged by the church to be worthy of the title saint. Those who’s lives have been so exemplary that they are role models for believers today and are most certainly in heaven with their Heavenly Father. Indeed we are indebted to many of those folks. Their thoughts, words, deeds and writings come down to us and inspire us yet today. Their interpretations of scripture form the theological basis of our teaching and study. The courage of the martyrs of the past encourage those who face persecution today. We do well to remember those outstanding Christians of the ages past and to remember the traditions and creeds and catechisms passed down to us.
Each of us has our own list of saints as well. Those who have helped to form our faith and shape us. Sunday school teachers, parents, grandparents, church friends, youth group leaders, camp counsellors, maybe even a preacher or two. The list goes on and on. Take a moment and reflect on who those people have been in your life and in the life of this fellowship of believers. Write them down on the edge of you bulletin – we will remember them with thanksgiving to God a bit later in the service. Often we see the insights of faith because we were first shown them while sitting beside or in the lap of one of those saints. Their thoughts and traditions guide and inform us still today. But there is much more to this concept of the communion of the saints than just dwelling on the past. It is sweet and good to remember and to give thanks to God for them, but it is a mistake to get stuck there. Doing things just because we’ve always done it that way is dangerous because it ignores the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
That moves us to the thought of the meaning of the communion of saints here and now. A good operational definition of a living saint by the way is those being made holy by the Holy Spirit. It is a life long process. Paul in his writings would often address his letters to the saints of a particular place. Certainly not meaning that he was only writing to the perfect ones as his sometimes very pointed letters themselves certainly attest. In this sense, we who believe and are committed to following Christ and listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit are saints – right here in this room. Look around you, you are in the company of the saints of God this very moment! How we live together, care for each other, pray with and for each other, and reach out to share the gifts that God has so richly given us is what this communion of saints means for us right now in this current moment. This is the sense carried by the old Heidelberg Catechism Question #55. What do you understand by “the communion of saints”?
Answer: First, that all and every one, who believes, being members of Christ, are in common, partakers of him, and of all his riches and gifts; secondly, that every one must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members.
Scripture offers us many stories of people living out their lives this way. The life of Jesus especially demonstrates the power and grace made possible by employing those gifts. By the power of God nothing is impossible. Our Gospel reading this morning tells the second half of the story of the raising of Lazarus. The reading begins with the deep grief of Mary, Martha and their friends. Lazarus has died. Even Jesus himself was deeply moved and wept with them. The very son of God, God in human flesh was not above the grief of his friends. Martha is one of my favorite New Testament followers of Jesus – Ever busy and very practical – she would have made a great engineer I think. When Jesus asked for the Tomb to be opened by removing the stone that covered the doorway, practical Martha cautioned him that Lazarus had been dead for four days and there would be a terrible stench.
The message was clear – Lazarus was dead, it was too late – if he wanted to pay his respects, he should have come earlier. Lazarus was frankly decomposing and it was impossible to do anything about it. I wonder how many times I have been in the same place as Martha. Well this situation is terrible – completely hopeless and past saving. God forgive me, but I have even thought that about living people that have come across my path from time to time. This situation stinks! The only thing to do is to keep it buried and walk away. What does Jesus do? The same as we modern saints should do – he prays to his Father-in-Heaven and the impossible was given life. The dead man that was beyond saving came out and stood there for all to see. I think everyone was stunned and just stood there for a long time, because Jesus had to tell them to go undo the wrappings that held him. This was no Halloween ghost story – this was the power of God.
The example of Jesus caring and serving those around him is critical to the communion of saints. We pray with and for each other because of the example of Christ. We serve and care for each other because Christ serves and cares for us. Grace shared and forgiveness given, evokes gratitude and praise. This is the very substance of what binds us together as a church under the headship of Jesus Christ. It is what it means to be part of the communion of saints.
The story of Lazarus should be a marvelous invitation to us to bring our needs and our deepest hurts to Jesus – he understands, and he is able. No situation is beyond caring, no person beyond Gods love and forgiveness, and no hurt and loss is too deep to be shared. Jesus is not some distant, aloof deity, he lived with us as one of us and gave himself for us so that we can be with him forever. That brings us to the third and final understanding of the Communion of Saints that was so beautifully expressed in our first two readings this morning. There are no better descriptions of heaven than is found here in Isaiah and Revelation. Look again at the reading from Isaiah with me – the prophet speaks of a time when God will restore things here on earth – listen again to the word of God: Isaiah 25:6-8 NIV  On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.  On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations;  he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken.
This is a message of triumph and also of transformation – the Shroud that enfolds all people – the very threat of death and decay that we heard so vividly in the story of Lazaurus is removed and destroyed – It wont be needed again ever – death, the enemy of all people has been swallowed up by God. Now that is an interesting image. Death has been swallowed by God and the whole cosmos is fundamentally altered. Death is no more, tears are wiped away, grief and sadness are no more and the feast has begun. In the presence of God, only joy and gratitude remain. A better description of the eternal communion of the saints is impossible – than to rejoice with each other in the presence of God.
The passage from The Revelation evokes a similar picture: God dwelling with his people – everything remade new and perfect. Notice the absolute certainty of it all: Revelation 21:5-6  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” You see time is also the creation of God. It is his as much as the rest of the cosmos. All of the ages past and all to come are present to him. He is the beginning and the end. When God tells us how things end we can trust in Him because the future is just as clear as yesterday and just as certain. Until that time of unity and restoration, we are strengthened by the Holy Spirit and the present community of faith to be about the work of God, but also by all those who have gone before us in faith and now rest from their labors in the presence of God.
As we come to the Lord’s Table this morning, we do so in the presence of those witnesses and of the Holy Spirit who calls us to fellowship with the presence of the living God who loved us from the beginning, has redeemed us and saved us to himself who will dwell with us for time without end.
Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen