A Cloud of Witnesses: A Homily for All Saints’ Sunday, 2017

Today is All Saints’ Sunday. It’s a Sunday that is jam-packed liturgically as we will baptize an infant and an adult and commemorate those from our parish and our loved ones who have died, especially in the past year. We will also recognize new members today and we’ve set this day as our ingathering of pledges for our annual stewardship campaign. This evening we will gather again for Choral Evensong.

It might seem odd to celebrate the sacrament of baptism, the sacrament of new life in Christ, on the same day that we observe the commemoration of all the saints and remember the faithful departed. But the Book of Common Prayer specifies that All Saints’ Sunday is one of the feast days on which baptism is especially appropriate and I’ve come to recognize the wisdom in that. All Saints’ draws our attention to the fact that the church, the communion of saints, is restricted not only to the living, but as the author of Hebrew writes, “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.”

In our congregation, we’ve been reflecting in October on the legacy of the Protestant Reformation in this 500th anniversary year and for me that has not only meant revisiting a period of history that for many years was the focus of my attention and professional life. It has also meant reflecting on all the ways that our history, as a congregation, a denomination, as Christians continues to shape our lives, as individuals and as communities.

One of the ways that happens is through the saints. Now when we hear that term we often think of the famous ones, Jesus’ disciples who have been revered by Christians for nearly 2000 years, or the great martyrs of the early church. We may also think of other saints in history who made a mark on the church and shaped the way we have thought about faith and expressed our faith, like St. Francis of Assisi or Teresa of Avila. And indeed, saints in that sense serve as models of faith.

But that’s not the only way to think about saints—that may not even be the best way to think about saints. In the New Testament, the term saint is used in a much more expansive way, to refer to all the faithful, all of those who have committed themselves to follow Christ and belong to the body of Christ. So Paul addresses his letters “to all the saints.”

So to think about that is to imagine that the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us is not only made up of those who have gone before us, but` includes those who are here with us in this gathering, right now. It may be hard to imagine that we are right now, surrounded by saints, although there are those among us who serve as models of faith and faithfulness. That’s not the most uncomfortable bit. What makes us squirm is that, if we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, here, in this gathering, that means that we are among that cloud of witnesses for others, for those sitting next to us. That means you and I are, or should be models of faith and mentors as well. And I would wager a bet that to think of ourselves that way makes us very uncomfortable. But perhaps we could think about this slightly differently and our reading from the Book of Revelation opens up to us that possibility.

It’s a powerful image of worship at the heavenly throne, a worship that draws together people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. There’s a lot here that deserves our attention, but I want to focus on just a couple of things. The elder asks the question of John the Revelatory, “who are these robed in white” to which John responds, “Sir, you are the one that knows,”

And the answer is revealing. “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal.” Obviously, persecution is meant, as the book of Revelation is dominated by the image of an evil Roman Empire at war with God and the Lamb (or Christ), and predicts the suffering of the faithful. What complicates matters is that while Revelation provides a coded and careful description of the Roman history and even the current political situation in late first-century Rome, we can detect no such widespread persecution of Christians in this period.

But the elder goes on and says, “They have washed their robes and made them white,” suggesting their careful preparation for this moment. We would do well to allow this imagery to work on our imagination, to think of the sounds, sights, the smells of it all.

It’s a scene that works powerfully on the imagination, and has worked powerfully on Christians, writers, poets, musicians, and artists over the centuries. We sang one such reimagining in our gospel hymn (286) a few minutes ago, and I encourage you to return to that page in the hymnal to think about it more.

The first two verses of the hymn are a description of the saints arrayed before God’s throne and asks the question: who are they? Verse three begins to answer the question. So verse four is an answer to the question of who are the saints?

These are they whose hearts were riven,
sore with woe and anguish tried,
who in prayer full oft have striven
with the God they glorified;
now, their painful conflict o’er,
God has bid them weep no more.

What’s wonderful about verse four is that it describes people who do not simply submit to God’s will:

“who in prayer full oft have striven with the God they glorified.”

In other words, their prayer has often been an intense struggle with God. It’s a powerful description of one aspect of a devout Christian life. The saints, in the hymn writer’s view are models of faith precisely because they have struggled with God, to understand God’s will for them, to carry out God’s will, to follow Jesus as his disciples.

In our baptismal liturgy, I ask this question of the congregation, “Will you do all in your power to help these persons in their life in Christ?” We are baptizing two people today, one’s a baby, the other is a young adult. They are at very different stages of life, different stages of their spiritual journeys. But both of them need our help as they step out on this journey of faith. I hope that we will be the cloud of witnesses that surrounds them on their journey, even as they will become part of the cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. Thanks be to God!

 

 

 

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