When Paul was a mission developer throughout the Mediterranean, he was in competition with the ancient gods – Zeus, Aphrodite, Jupiter, Mercury, Venus and many more. There was a great struggle, competition, that is, between those fictitious gods and the God who revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth.
Emperor Constantine in the year 312 declared that the religion of Jesus would be the official religion of the empire. Worship of the legendary gods ceased and Christians did not have to worship in secret. But there had been hundreds, even thousands of people who died by the sword or wild animals which killed them as entertainment in the Coliseum and other arenas.
When being a Christian was no longer a crime, the bishop of Rome declared the Pantheon to be a Christian church and a memorial to those who died as martyrs rather than renouncing their faith in God. This day is celebrated not only as a memorial of thanksgiving for the witness of those who kept the faith, but also as an challenge for us to examine our commitment to the kingdom of God in our midst. We thank God for those shining examples of faith and devotion.
The great struggle between the religion that centered on the ancient gods of mythology, and the religion of Jesus of Nazareth was past. God won.
The bishop of Rome celebrated that victory by turning the Pantheon into a Christian church. He declared it to be a memorial to those Christians who died as martyrs because of their faith.
Now, All Saints Sunday is a celebration of our call to become saints. We are part of the great throng of believers in every age.
We celebrate the entire lineage of believers who passed the flame of Pentecost on to us, not only the giants of faith – Peter, James, John, Paul, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Jerome, Luther, the Weslyans, the Muhlenburgs and Henkels, the Passavants and the Walthers and hundreds more, but also those who brought us to baptism, those who taught us bible stories and hymns and prayers, those whose lifelong example taught us how to worship, those whose prayers kept us going on dark days and lonely nights, those whose faith showed us the way of God.
All Saints Sunday reminds me of the debt I owe to those who nurtured faith, those whose example still challenges me. Does not each one of us here have such a debt that can be paid only forward to other people?
The 78th Psalm as it is translated in the Jerusalem Bible shows how the faith is passed.
There it is written, “What we have heard and known for ourselves, and what our ancestors have told us, must not be withheld from their descendants, but be handed on by us to the next generation.”
Because of the faithful as well as martyrs in every age, the church survives.
In the book of Hebrews is a long list of martyrs who “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.”
They “suffered mocking and flogging and even chains and imprisonment.
“They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword, they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, and tormented, of whom the world was not worthy, wandering over deserts and mountains, and living in caves and holes in the ground.”
In other words, their example passed the faith on. This day of thanksgiving and memorial for those who have gone before us becomes a day of renewal and commitment for us.
This day challenges us to hear the call of God to become renewed as saints in our time. None of us will be called on to die as martyrs but we are called on to live our citizenship in the kingdom of God.
We are called to be saints in the customary, normal every day, unspectacular exercise of the Christian faith.
We celebrate the martyred saints by recognizing ourselves as saints whom God has called.
Jesus described everyday life for saints. But the passage called the beatitudes is not a prescription for sainthood.
That is, we cannot start the process of becoming saints by checking our spiritual temperature every day with the thermometer of the Beatitudes.
We cannot take this passage and say, “Today I’m going to be really poor in spirit,” or “I’ll find somebody to mourn with, or I’ll try hard as I can to be meek or merciful or pure in heart. I’ll think about God all day as a discipline of righteousness.”
Doesn’t work that way. Our sainthood does not begin with trying harder. Sainthood begins with God. God has noticed our human condition – sin sick, heart weary, rebellious against his fatherhood, resistant to his leadership – and he has borne us as on eagles’ wings so that we can escape our bondage from some Egypt.`We have become his treasured people out of all the peoples of the earth.
Through the people of Israel, through the prophets and the Messiah who lived among us and down to this generation in the church, God has called us in this age to be his people. Are we as thankful as we ought to be for his call from darkness into light? In Jesus Christ he has brought life from death, and speech from silence. “We worship you,” we pray, “for our lives and for the world you give us. We thank you, for the new world to come, and for the love that will rule all in all.”
When we consider the gifts of God, his continuing presence with us, will we think of how we should give thanks for the salvation he has promised? Will we also ask what we can do in return?
How can we be saintly today? Look at the familiar words of the creed. Every time we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints,” we’re talking about our world-wide family of fellow believers. We are the family of God. The church, all its people, all its individual members, whether members in name or in spirit, all are saints. We are the saints of today. The church family of which we are part is that great host of believers in Christ who are called apart from the world.
Even as we live in the world, we are called to live not of the world, but as witnesses to the grace and love of God in Jesus Christ. We have been called apart by our baptism to live in holiness and righteousness all our days because we are thankful to God. We are called to take our place in that great line of saints in every age who serve and sacrifice, that great line who are total Christians in word and deed.
We are called to renew our saintliness, our devotion to Christ-like living. We are called to give God first priority in our daily living. We are called to be the unsung saints, the unknown saints, the unofficial saints, the common garden variety of people who struggle through life without a single miracle to our credit; whose faces will never be illumined with the glory of the mystical vision; whose biographies will never be written nor long remembered.
We are called to be what we more probably are, ordinary people who follow as best we can an ordinary track in an ordinary life, who love God and our fellow human beings as best we can, who in the midst of trying to believe, pray that God will help us in our unbelief.
We are the ordinary saints who call God our father and who rely on his mercy when we fumble and stumble and sometimes take a miserable fall, but who get up and try to be faithful in a complex and confusing world. The saints are not just the great heroes listed in the front of our green hymnal.
We thank God for his gifts and keep on going when we’d like to give up, for so to live is to find all kinds of blessedness, to find that we have already entered the kingdom of God.
This is our day — because we are all saints.