Working with the All Saints’ Day Texts

In a new work about the development of the novel, James Wood critiques different novelists about issues which also concern the preacher on All Saints’ Sunday:

Namely, characters, details and plot. Wood examines the influences of one genre called ‘lives of the saints,’ along with the ancient writer, Theophrastus, who wrote about ‘types’ of people, such as the lover and the hypocrite. Wood notes that a new kind of tendency developed in the novel beyond these emphases: “in which good and bad wars within a single character, and the self refuses to stay still.” (How Fiction Works: 151). It is this Godward struggle in humans, designated as saints, which All Saints’ Day preaching is called to address.

Because this day and its texts have such a surplus of history and meaning, it is crucial that the preacher first distinguish the backdrop of All Saints’ Day from the commemoration of All Souls’ Day. For many preachers, both days have been conflated to signify commemoration of the departed faithful. However, the Church has designated All Saints’ Day specifically for those who have triumphed in grace in exemplary ways and now, in death, reside within the life of God. How does one honor this distinction in our sermon preparation?

Before writing a sermon, the preacher needs to be clear about the biblical and historical differences and similarities in these terms: ‘saints,’ ‘martyrs,’ and ‘witnesses.’ Both the Old and New Testaments refer to saints in various ways: they are inheritors of God’s eternal covenant; they are called to be holy; they are members of the Church through incorporation into Christ in baptism.

Martyrs and witnesses are sometimes combined and in other places considered separately. Martyrs can refer to those who died violently for Christ’s sake rather than renounce Him. Witnesses can be martyrs, but they can also be considered on their own terms as preaching Christ. Witnesses may or may not die a martyr’s death. In both cases, whether one witnesses to Christ or suffers martyrdom, these acts are viewed biblically as signs of true discipleship.

Choosing which definitions one will use for this day in the sermon, in concert with proclaiming one of the assigned texts, is important to help listeners hear which direction the preacher wishes to take in terms of the varied historical meanings of this day.

The assigned texts for All Saints day are visionary, speculative and concrete in pertaining to the future, the state, and the actions of a saint. Each text offers substantial possibilities for proclamation.

Revelation 7: 9-17

This passage is familiar to listeners for two reasons; the mystical number, 144,000, of the “sealed,” and the use of verses 13 and 14 in the historical Collect for this day. The focus of an All Saints’ Day sermon can move from the praise given to God to those from all walks of the cosmos who stand before God. In the dialogue between the writer and the elder (possibly an angel) in verses 13 and 14, the elder’s question can be used as a basis for developing the sermon: “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” Defining and honoring the saints homiletically through the trajectory of this question can be achieved using themes, such as God’s presence and grace; the struggles and triumphs of the saints; or the meaning of “the blood of the Lamb” for the saints.

I John 3: 1-3

This passage links Christ’s nature to those who are called children of God. These verses have a reflective, even uncertain sense: the writer admits that who we will become  finally  is opaque: “what we will be has not yet been revealed” (3:2). Developing a sermon from this text offers several possible directions. The saints lived with ambiguity and with trust, knowing only that they would understand Christ and be like him. No details are offered! The passage also notes saints are not like the rest of the world; they are distinguished by their status as God’s children. What makes for these differences? What roles do faith and grace play for the saints who finally become pure in Christ?

Matthew 5: 1-12

These verses from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, like the other two texts, have an unfinished quality about them. They may be preached  perhaps with a specific saint in mind  as a portrayal of the struggles and fulfillment of what they create and how a saint may be defined. That Jesus himself spoke these verses reflects his own life as an enactment of what it means to be holy in God. The preacher can decide whether to choose only one or a few of the beatitudes, with a focus on a particular saint, or preach them as a set.

Preaching on All Saints’ Day needs to offer clarity about the historical intention of this commemoration. It entails steering a path between stereotyping a ‘saint,” or treating the day as simply referring to all who have died in God. The sermon for this day may proclaim the radical life and witness of those who have historically struggled and been ultimately blessed in the grace of God.