The Communion of Saints

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

All Saints Sunday is an important day in the life of many congregations because on it we name and remember all those we have loved and lost during the past year. Actually, perhaps we should say “those we have loved and released,” as we confess that they are not lost but have moved into the nearer presence of God and so are safe in God’s keeping. It is important to invite these hallowed moments in which we may both grieve for the loss we feel, but also give thanks both for the lives our loved ones led and for the promise of resurrection life they now enjoy.

In addition to spending important time in the liturgy remembering and giving thanks for those saints who now live in the “church triumphant,” I would urge that we also devote some time in the sermon to those of us still striving to perceive and do God’s will in the “church militant” — the church, that is, still struggling to witness to and embody the kingdom of God in our daily lives in the world.

Toward this end, we couldn’t ask for a better passage than the reading from John describing the raising of Lazarus. While this is an incredibly rich text, filled with multiple possible entry points for a terrific sermon, I want to focus for a moment on the very end of the story. Here, at the climactic point of the story and one of the pivotal points in John’s larger Gospel, two critical things happen. First, Jesus commands Lazarus to come out. Second, he also commands the community to unbind him.

And here’s what I find so striking about this scene: Jesus performs what is perhaps his most significant miracle — so much so that not only are many in the crowd moved to faith but his opponents are moved to conspire toward his death — but he also instructs and expects the crowds to participate in and actually complete his miracle. And both of these things matter. It is Jesus who has the power to heal, to feed, to restore, to bring to life, to redeem. At the same time, he seeks to involve us in these actions and, indeed, perhaps expects us to complete them.

Which sets me to wondering: what other miraculous things does God intend to do in our communities in us, with us, and through us. Perhaps these things are huge — directing our efforts to ending hunger in our community (yes, in most communities this is possible!) or providing shelter for homeless children and adults. Or maybe these things are smaller — providing a listening ear to a colleague or friend who is struggling and feels alone. Either way, God wants, I believe, to continue to do miraculous things and continues to want to do them in, with, and through us. (And I also believe that with just a little thought you could think of examples of these kinds of miracles that have already occurred in your community and others waiting for your people to complete them.)

All of this, in turn, brings me back to why this is a powerful message for All Saints Sunday. Saints, as I know you already know, aren’t just those who have died. Rather, saints are those who have been declared holy. And at this point, let’s be clear: this “declaring holy” is God’s work, not ours. That is, we are holy not because of some inherent quality or because of what we have done, but rather simply because God calls us holy. (If you have any doubts, keep in mind that St. Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians — those who were bickering, fighting, discriminating based on income, and engaging in all kinds of immoral behaviors — by calling them holy! And if them, I’d say, then also all of us!)

Which raises the question of what it means to be holy. Most basically, the Bible names holy those things that have been set apart for God’s work. And here’s the thing: any work we do in faith can be called holy. Changing the diapers of our kids, or the diapers of someone else’s kids in a preschool, for instance. Or volunteering with the Girl Scouts. Or creating a home where laughter resounds. Or deliberating about which candidate to vote for and then getting to the polls to cast that vote. Or being faithful in our duties at home or work. Or visiting a neighbor who has a hard time getting out. Or befriending a kid at school that other kids pick on. Or… Well, you get the idea. There is precious little in our life that can’t be a place where God is at work to heal, comfort, and restore, if we look at it in this way.

And the thing is, very few of our people know this. In fact, in a variety of conversations and interviews I’ve participated in, I’ve become convinced that very few of our people believe that what they do with most of their time is a calling. Most of what they do, that is, they believe is not worthy of the church’s or God’s attention. We reserve words like “holy” and “sacred” and “saints” for church-stuff when it applies equally if not even more to the mundane elements of everyday life that have the capacity at any moment to be transformed into arenas where we perceive and participate in God’s gracious intent to care for the world God loves so much.

Your people are saints, dear Working Preacher. Indeed, they comprise an important part of the “communion of saints” we confess in the Apostles’ Creed. And as saints, they are called and commissioned to participate in God’s ongoing and miraculous work to heal, comfort, and restore this world. So tell them, please, that God is still doing amazing things and that God wants us to be part of those things, even calling us to complete them.

And while you’re at it, keep in mind that you, too, are a saint of God, set apart in a variety of settings and spaces to give witness to your faith in the God who raises the dead. And I thank God for your faithfulness.

Yours in Christ,