The Cheering Crowd of Saints

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.  Hebrews 12:1-2

Once each year, Christians around the world observe the Feast of All Saints, an opportunity for us to stop and think about what it is that we believe when we recite our faith in “the communion of saints” in the Creed.

All Saints, or in the older English, All Hallows, which comes each year on the first of November, is a Christian celebration going back to the late 300s, when Christians would remember the great heroes of the faith, the God-given examples of men and women who were not afraid to stand up for what they believe in, who were not ashamed to serve the weak and the poor, and who were not afraid to be rejected by those who are powerful in the eyes of the world.

The Church, from an early age, celebrated these heroes as inspiration for our own Christian pilgrimage – ordinary, imperfect men and women from all walks of life, who followed in the footsteps of our Lord, and in whose footsteps we ourselves now walk along that narrow path of discipleship.

For centuries, All Saints, or All Hallows, was a major high-point in the year.  In fact, the celebration lasted over three days, and even now, if you visit France, Spain, Portugal, or pretty much anywhere in South America, you’d encounter a public holiday with parades and special family meals. 

For many Christians around the world, there are two parts to this celebration: first, we remember those heroes who are examples that we can follow as we also strive to imitate Christ; then, as we did last night, we remember before God those who have died, praying for the repose of our loved ones, as we entrust them to the mercy of God in the hope of the resurrection. 

Sadly, in this country, that deeply meaningful custom is largely forgotten. 

For centuries, in England, Portugal, and parts of Northern Europe, on the eve of All Saints or All Hallows – that is, Hallow’s Eve or Halloween – children would go door to door, singing hymns or even praying litanies, knocking on doors to pray for the departed relatives and loved ones of each family, and in exchange, receive little sweet treats, “soul cakes” they were called.  In some places in England, groups would even dress in costume and perform a short play about death and resurrection, where those representing the saints of God would defeat an actor playing the Devil, reminding the audience of Christ’s triumph over death and the grave.

That, of course, was the root of Halloween, which has lost it’s Christian mooring altogether – if a child knocked on your door asking to pray for your family and your departed loved ones, I doubt many of us would even know how to respond!

On this day, as we remember and celebrate the Saints of God, I think there are two questions for us to answer.  First, who are the saints?  And secondly, why does it matter?

Simply put, the saints are those who are “set apart” for Christ.

The saints are the holy people of God, and the whole idea of “sacredness” means someone or something that is dedicated and set apart for the work and service of God.

Of course, there are those saints known to all Christians around the world – Peter, Andrew, James, Thomas, Paul and the other apostles, those first messengers who founded and were the first bishops of first churches in Rome, Greece, Jerusalem, India, and the cities around the Mediterranean.  The evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Those biblical examples of faith: St. Mary, St. John the Baptist, Sts. Mary and Martha of Bethany.

But it’s also important not to limit the definition of “saint” too much – after all, the great news of the Gospel is not that God calls perfect people, but that God calls and equips everyday people, the only requirement being that they’re willing to follow: if Peter, who sank in the sea and publicly denied Christ not once, but three times could be a Saint; if Paul, who persecuted the Church and held the coats of those who stoned Stephen the Deacon for his faith in Jesus could become a Saint, then there’s hope for all of us if we’re willing to follow.

God raises up saints in every age – not that any of them are perfect in their own right, but that they are examples of what it means to live a life that is sacred, that is “set apart” to the service of God.

In each generation, the Church looks to those who have gone before, who have finished their race, and sees that God has given us examples of what it means to be a disciple in our own age, of what it looks like to love your neighbour as yourself, to offer yourself in the service of others, to repent of sin, and to take up your cross and follow Christ.

The saints are not perfect – only God is perfect.  But the saints are important examples to encourage us to persevere in following Christ.

Holiness is contageous

There’s another important idea, from the Old Testament, about who the saints are.  Going back to the book of Genesis, there is the idea that sacredness is spread by coming into contact with something that’s holy.  The People of the Old Covenant built altars – sacred sites – on the mountains where God revealed himself. 

In a way, the holiness of the presence of God is contagious – in Exodus God tells Moses that the altar in the place of worship must be set apart for no everyday use, and that anything that touches the altar becomes holy in the eyes of God.[1]  The same goes for the sacred vessels used in the worship that God directs,[2] and in Ezekiel, God directs that the priests should have special garments reserved for their ministry at the altar, which become holy by their use in the holy place.[3]

It’s this idea that St. Paul has in mind when he refers to all the baptized – to you and to me – as “saints”.  By the grace of God, we’re made members of Christ’s body; through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we’re invited to approach the throne of God boldly, as we receive the holy food and drink of Christ’s body and blood – and as we all know, you are what you eat.

Who are the saints?    The saints are those who have answered the call to follow Christ, and in doing so, are examples to us in our journey. 

Now, to be fair, there are some who are uncomfortable giving much attention to the saints; and certainly, there are entire denominations that at times have gone overboard.  But, if the way is narrow, and Christ is the one name by which we are saved, then to follow in the footsteps of those who follow Jesus is to walk in Christ’s own footsteps as well.  And it’s by the grace of God that our faith isn’t some distant memory in a far-off culture; but God gives examples and heroes of faith to every generation and every language and culture, that we may follow where he leads.

The Role of the Saints in our own Pilgrimage

So, if we know who the saints are, we might still ask, why does it matter?

Well, first, I’d say that an understanding of the communion of the saints is essential because it proves and even requires that “my faith” cannot be about ‘me and Jesus’.

Now don’t get me wrong: it’s important that each of us decides to follow Jesus, that each of us has a relationship with God.

But the Christian faith is anything but personal in the sense of being individualistic. 

There are those who believe that we have to search for Jesus, to “find him”, as though he’s been hiding.  There are those who teach that we are to read the scriptures and come to our own conclusions, as though there isn’t 2000 years of continuous, unbroken teaching and preaching that has come before us.

When we decide to follow Jesus, it’s not as though we’re walking through a food court picking what we might have for lunch.  When we follow Jesus, we join a family, as we receive the inheritance of those who have gone before us, and are entrusted with the great responsibility of handing that inheritance down to those who come after.

The whole idea is not that me and Jesus are now best buddies, but that I am joined to the whole family of those who, across space and time, have joined themselves to God’s covenant community. 

Or, think about it this way: baptism isn’t just about you being washed from your sins.

Baptism is about us, together, being led through the Red Sea, from death and slavery to the land of life and freedom, though the one offering of Christ for the life of the world.

In our baptism, we join ourselves to Christ, and as we allow ourselves to come into contact with the Holy One and to follow where he leads, that holiness is contagious, and we ourselves become holy.

The other side of it is this: as we proclaim on All Souls Day and really every time we gather, death is not the end.  Our eyes don’t close when we die. It’s the exact opposite: when we die, the veil is lifted and, for the first time, we see God as he truly is, and we are fully known.

The Book of Hebrews describes the saints as this “great cloud of witnesses” – but I don’t think that’s the best translation of the Greek.  The word translated there as “witnesses” also means a crowd of spectators in the arena, watching a sporting event.

Now think about it: as we heard last week, St. Paul in his second letter to Timothy describes the faith as a race that we run, a race where we are to keep our eyes on the prize that is Jesus, as we run with endurance the course that lies ahead. 

This “great cloud of witnesses” – the saints – are those who have finished the race ahead of us, and now, with Christ, stand at the end of the course, cheering us on.  In the book of Revelation we read that these witnesses cry out around the altar of God, saying “how long”, praying for us to finish the race.

In just a few minutes we will renew our baptismal covenant.  All Saints Day is the opportunity for us to remember our own baptismal covenant, and to recommit ourselves to live as the holy ones of God, and to reunite ourselves with the Body of Christ, that great and wonderful family that extends across all nations, across all times, in which we are all brothers and sisters, and those who go before cheer on those who follow after, just as we, running the race today, pick up those who stumble, carry the burdens of those who mourn, freely give even the shirt off our back to the one who needs it, and pass the torch to these little ones.

The Lord is glorious in his saints.  Let us live as those who are part of this family, let us live as those who are being made holy, even as we this morning are invited to recommit ourselves, to approach the altar, and to receive the body and blood of Christ.

To God be the Glory, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Exodus 29:37

[2] Exodus 30:29

[3] Ezekiel 44:19

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