John 3: 1-3
Good morning. All Saints Sunday, a principal feast of the Church Year and always an amazing Sunday at St. Andrew’s. “They lived not only in ages past, there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.” (Apologies!)
Or as St. John has it in our Epistle this morning, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”
There is of course a sense in which this All Saints observance calls us to remembrance. The heroes of the faith: apostles and evangelists, past generations of spiritually gifted men and women in prayer and vision and holiness of life. And the secondary feast, which we’ll be observing with the service tomorrow evening, All Souls—in our Episcopal Church Calendar of Lesser Feasts called the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed.
Not so much the folks in the history books, but those Christian people who have lived perhaps quieter lives of faithful discipleship, who have been our role models, whom we have known and loved, who have brought us to faith and modelled not only with their lips but in their lives the deepest truths of Christ Jesus. Centered in him. Perhaps a parent or grandparent, a teacher, a pastor, a friend, a neighbor, a husband or a wife or a child. Thinking about many of those we will be remembering in our prayers this morning, and of course those names that are known to God alone.
And to say, not only those who have departed this life, but those who are with us now. And even a way of thinking about ourselves. The point of this All Saints-All Souls observance not to be about sitting on the sidewalk and watching a parade of other people, as spectators. This is John’s message in the Epistle and the intent that hymn, composed as a song for children yet speaking into each of our lives. A Song of the Saints of God. The Holy Spirit working in us, in us, as we look in the mirror in the morning, every morning, a life-long process of transformation, renewal, cleansing, preparation. The Greek word metanoia. Usually translated “repentance.” But literally meaning “another frame of mind.” A new consciousness. What Jesus means in St. John’s Gospel when he talks to Nicodemus about being “born again.”
Benedictine monks and nuns take three related vows, obedentia, obedience, to the abbot and to the Rule of Life of the monastery; stabilitas, stability, the promise to remain in this one place and with this one community for better or for worse, even when there might be some more attractive option that comes along; and finally a commitment that’s a little hard to translate, “conversatio morum”—which basically means, I’m going to focus on how the monastery can change me rather than on how I can change the monastery. Which can be translated out into every situation of Christian life. About faithfulness. Not to remake Jesus in my image, but to be open to this process of my becoming more like him.
So All Saints is a day of celebration about what God is doing in us now to change us. Which isn’t an easy process often, and can be painful. Sometimes hammers and chisels involved. Some of those frightening renaissance paintings of the deaths of the martyrs. Words we all struggle with, like practice, discipline. How so often it is that new birth needs to be preceded by letting go, seeing what parts of ourselves first need to die. A whole picture of what he is making of our lives.
The theological term is “sanctification.” Something that God does in us, but something also that requires our cooperation. The process that begins in conversion, sacramentally given power in baptism, and daily in the practice and disciplines of discipleship, not because of coercion, but flowing with eagerness from the depths of our heart. That as we fall ever more deeply in love with him, so we seek more and more to please him and obey him and to resemble him. About sanctification, literally, the process of being made a saint: God’s love working in us.
The book that our reading is taken from this morning, First John, is relatively brief, 5 chapters. An affectionate pastoral letter. Written by the author of the Gospel of John and of the Second and Third Letters of John. So one of the major voices in the whole of the New Testament. Most likely addressed to the new Christians of Ephesus, in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey.
The context and setting a little too complex to go into this morning, though I will say it’s really a fascinating study. Ephesus I sometimes think of as maybe the San Francisco of this region in the First Century. Cosmopolitan, diverse, cutting edge in all kinds of cultural and social and political ways. A little crazy around the edges. We know from Acts and from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians that this was a place of incredible religious diversity—not just the traditional religions of the region but also of what we might call the First Century version of what in the 20th century we called “New Age” movements. Astrologers and fortune-tellers and aura-readers on every street corner, and lots of synthesists, taking a little bit of this tradition and a little bit of that one. Folks who like to say they “dabble” in spirituality. And swirling around it all, the philosophical and spiritual movement sometimes called “gnosticism,” which wasn’t so much an organized philosophical or religious system itself but a set of philosophical and theological and anthropological ideas that got applied in lots of different contexts and made itself felt in many different traditions.
This letter from John from beginning to end has both a sense of deep tenderness and also a sense of urgent concern. A challenging environment for new Christians to be finding their way. Lots of dangerous influences, we might say. It’s interesting to hear the very last thing John says in the letter. Not “sincerely yours, John the Elder,” but one last word, chapter 5 verse 21. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”
Or I guess as I have quoted the saying so many times, and this would be my best summary of the message of First John and I think perfect as a word for All Saints Sunday: “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Eyes on Christ. Following in his footsteps, listening to his word. Christ at the center. Not trying to remake his gospel into our image, not to “dabble” in Christ, choosing the bits we like and leaving the rest--but allowing him to fill the whole screen, allowing ourselves to be changed day by day into his likeness.
Keeping our eyes on him. Allowing his word and his love to grow in us, to guide us, to reshape us day by day. “What we will be has not yet been revealed,” but “what we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him.”
A day for All Saints: orchestras and choirs, heroes and martyrs. Teachers, friends, parents, husbands and wives, children-- those we have loved but see no longer. To celebrate what he has done in them and what is doing in us now, what he is making of us. They loved their Lord so dear, so dear, and his love made them strong; and they followed the right, for Jesus’ sake, the whole of their good lives long. And one was a soldier and one was a priest and one was slain by a fierce wild beast: and there’s not any reason—no, not the least why I shouldn’t be one too.”