Hailstorm and Hernia Protection
There is something magical about the Feast of All Saints. It’s mystical and serene and joyful and reflective.
But unfortunately I’m going to have to cut through the clouds of mental incense here for a minute and talk about…wait for it…doctrine.
Doctrine is frankly the last thing I want to talk about at the worst of times, much less on such a beautiful, mysterious day as All Saints Day.
But mystery is the key here. We want to have informed mystery. We want to have mystery because that is the nature of an ineffable God and an afterlife beyond our imaginings.
We do not want to have mystery simply because we are ignorant and have not done our homework.
If we’re going to celebrate All Saints Day, we need to talk about what saints are and why they get their own day all at once.
Now. We all started out as Catholics way back in ancient times, and before that, we all started out as Christians, and before that, we all started out as Jews who had heard some interesting things about this guy named Jesus.
Eventually Luther and Calvin and their associates came along and many of us became Protestants.
There are many, many years of doctrine and beliefs to sort through on saints and sainthood. The great thing about being an Anglican is that you don’t have to toe the party line.
You are allowed and in fact expected to explore these questions of faith and decide along with God where you are on these topics, and to welcome and cherish your brothers and sisters even when they are not on the same page with you on any given doctrine.
But as much as we Episcopalians hate to be pinned down on doctrinal issues, there is an actual party line for you to disregard.
So let’s start with the basics. “Saint” starts being used as a term and a category in the letters of Paul in the New Testament. As Jews and Gentiles started to come together to worship Jesus, there needed to be a term to refer to this community. The Greek word for saints really means “holy ones.” Hagios is the Greek root meaning holy. Writings of or by saints are called hagiography. Have you ever heard of the famous basilica Hagia Sophia? That means Holy Wisdom in Greek.
So the early Christians started calling each other “holy ones,” or people sanctified by baptism, forgiven of sin and raised to new life. That is where we get our earliest understanding of saints—all Christian people are saints or holy ones.
As time went on, certain of the saints really distinguished themselves by their courage in holding on to their faith in the face of torture, persecution and death at the hands of the Roman Empire. The “holy ones” wanted to identify themselves by the most important person in the conversation, Jesus Christ, so run-of-the-mill Jesus followers began to be known as Christians, and the really heroic ones who died for the faith were called “martyrs,” the Greek word for “witness.”
When Christianity became the Roman state religion in the year 313, there were no more martyrs because people weren’t getting persecuted and killed for their faith anymore. But there were still heroes of the faith, people who were inspiring because of their devotion and commitment to holiness. These heroes became the new “holy ones,” or “saints.”
This is when we get into the golden age of Catholic saints. Every town and region had someone inspiring to be beatified, or made a saint by the Vatican, and eventually there were over 10,000 people remembered as saints.
A tradition developed in the church in which people did not pray directly to God, but prayed to a saint who specialized in their area of need and asked that saint to intercede on their behalf before the throne of the Father.
These people became known as patron saints, and the specialization is spectacular.
St. Eligius is the patron saint of gas station workers, St. Bernadine of Siena is the patron saint of public relations, and St. Dominic is the patron saint of juvenile delinquents. St. Magnus will protect you from hailstorms, St. John Nepomucene will protect you from slander, and St. Cathal will protect you from getting a hernia.
When the more democratic impulses of the Reformation came along, Christians in the Reformed Churches began to be taught that they didn’t need a saint to intercede for them before God, but that they could pray to God directly.
This is the beginning of the movement that is expressed in one way today as having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
The Anglican Church took a middle way between the Catholic and the Reformed movements.
We affirm that we can pray to God and to Jesus directly and individually without needing any saints as intermediaries.
But we also have not chucked the saints completely like some of the Protestant traditions. We still find it valuable to study and learn from the people who have been devoted to the faith with special giftedness and courage.
You can see this most obviously in the fact that many Episcopal churches are named after saints—St. Paul’s, St. Margaret’s, and of course, St. Luke’s and St. Thomas.
As you know, Episcopalians often have a sort of cheerful haziness about doctrine, which is great. But like I said, there are some specific doctrines that we theoretically adhere to, and they’re in your Book of Common Prayer.
In 1563 the Church of England came out with Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, a first attempt by Anglicans at sorting things out after breaking away from Rome. Article 22 on page 872 of the prayerbook reads as follows:
“The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”
Oh! Dissed and dismissed!
Luckily since 1563 we’ve mellowed out a little bit, and the part about the saints in the Outline of Faith, otherwise known as the Catechism, is actually quite beautiful and gets at the heart of our relationship to saints today.
On page 862 of the prayerbook, we read:
Q. What is the communion of saints?
A. The communion of saints is the whole family of God,
the living and the dead, those whom we love and those
whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament,
prayer, and praise.
Q. Why do we pray for the dead?
A. We pray for them, because we still hold them in our
love, and because we trust that in God’s presence those
who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until
they see him as he is.
Every week we pray for the dead in our Prayers of the People, and here is the doctrine that backs it up, that I hope feels as good and true to you as it does to me.
We pray for the dead because we love them, and we want to talk to God about how much we love and them and how much we hope God is continuing to help them grow and thrive in the life after death, eternal life with Christ Jesus our Savior.
And today, instead of the one short moment in the Prayers of the People that we normally have, we take an entire day to pay attention to the fact that we are in the communion of the saints and we are in communion with the saints.
We set aside time today not just for the famous heroes of the faith that everyone knows, but the everyday heroes of the faith that only we know: our parents, our grandparents, our children, our spouses, our ancestors and descendants who have inspired us to greater love and devotion.
We have come full circle to recognize that all those who seek after holiness are saints, and we are one communion and one Body of Christ.
Our letter to the Ephesians today talks of our inheritance from the saints.
We are all sitting here in this church today because for thousands of years back, people kept the flame of faith alive to pass down to us, kept it alive through war and famine and disaster, shielding the flickering fire from the storms of destruction and evil.
We have a magnificent inheritance from the saints gone by, especially the saints who have built this church and this community and this legacy of ministry.
We have a lot to live up to as we look back at the heroes of our faith.
But the communion of saints goes forward in time as well as backward.
To some people way in the future, centuries from now, we will be the ancestors of faith.
We will be the ones they look back on and celebrate for our brave carrying forward of the gospel of Jesus Christ against all odds.
What is the legacy that we will leave them?
Will the Christians of the future look back at the early twentieth century members of St. Luke’s and St. Thomas and think, ho-hum, well, at least they kept the doors open?
I profoundly hope not.
I hope that the members of St. Luke’s and St. Thomas look back at 2013 from the vantage point of 2050 and the year 3000 and see a golden age of experimentation and risk-taking and creativity that began a new era of joy and expansion of ministry in these places.
How will we be worthy of our inheritance from the saints of ages past?
By creating an inheritance for the saints of the future that calls them to a lofty standard of kingdom building.
With God as our strength and guide, we pray that our labors on behalf of the kingdom will one day inspire the saints of the future to say about us, the saints of today, the same words that Paul once used about the Ephesians: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.”
Today we pray in awe and thanksgiving for the faith and devotion of the saints of yesterday.
Let us live today so that our days may one day inspire the saints of tomorrow.