Sermon #205 St. James the Less #112 11/1/20
After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen."
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. "For this reason they are before the throne of God,and worship him day and night within his temple,and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;the sun will not strike them,nor any scorching heat;for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."
Today is All Saints’ Sunday which is a major feast on the church calendar. It is the day that we remember the holy women and men who have gone before and set an example of the Christian faith for us.
This is one of the days that our Prayer Book recommends for baptisms to take place, and if there are no baptisms, it encourages us to recite the Baptismal Covenant anyways so that we can remember our own baptism and our union with the communion of saints and family of God.
Today is also a lot of other things.
It is the start of our Stewardship campaign. This year we are bookending our conversation about the time, talent, and treasure we offer to God through the church in a liturgical way, by starting it on the Feast of All Saints’ and ending it in a few weeks on Christ the King Sunday.
This will hopefully give us a theological framework to really dig into God’s call for us to be faithful stewards of all that he has given us.
And so today we are juggling All Saints’ and remembering our baptism. We are also introducing Stewardship, and oh, by the way, this coming week may be written about for years to come in American history books.
A lot is going on in our country and our own lives, and I invite for just a few minutes to set those things aside. God willing, when you walked into this sanctuary you were able to take a deep breath, relax, and find some sense of peace, but if you weren’t, here’s your chance.
I think if we can take a few minutes to consider what the Feast of All Saints is supposed to teach each of us as believers, we may walk out of this place with a sensible outlook of everything else that is going on.
So, All Saints’…
Even in the first few generations of the Christian movement, the early believers felt a unique connection, even kindred spirit, with the apostles and martyrs who had died for the sake of the Gospel, just a few generations removed.
The veneration of the saints (or holy ones) grew as Christian communities around the Mediterranean, and venturing further out into the world, began to tell of the remarkable lives of Jesus’ followers. They told of the individuals who had been called by God and lived out that calling to the fullest, many times dying for their faith.
The early Christians saw that on the day of Pentecost one of the roles of the Holy Spirit was to be the great unifier. Jesus who had ascended into heaven was gone, but now God’s Holy Spirit would live in the heart of each believer.
Because of the power of the Holy Spirit, believers were now grafted and assimilated into the spiritual Body of Christ. Remember Paul likens each believer to a particular part of the body and Jesus is the head of that body. Christians were now one because they all had the Spirit of the One True God dwelling in them.
So to take it one step further, when a Christian was baptized they were then united to Christ but also united in some way to all baptized believers because they were now a part of that same mystical Body.
Within that Body included the community or communion of saints—that great fellowship of apostles and martyrs, and seemingly ordinary men and women who did extraordinary things in the name of Christ.
John Henry Newman, an Anglican priest in the 19th century who later became a Catholic Cardinal (and is now a saint in the Catholic Church), preached one of his most famous sermons on the unifying role of the Holy Spirit and the communion of saints.
I have never heard another preacher talk about the visible and invisible Church before I read Newman’s sermon.
Now the visible church is what we see on earth. You can read many newspaper articles and Gallup polls that show that the church is decreasing, some even use the word dying. And COVID has made this decline in church attendance and membership even more rapid. More and more churches are closing their doors for good, out of members and out of money. It’s a pretty grim reality.
But John Henry Newman would scoff at those pessimistic articles, he would tear up the Gallup polls because the church is not simply made up of the brick and mortar sanctuaries that are on every street corner. We’re Christians after all, and we claim that there is more to life than what you and I can see with our eyes.
You and I are members of the visible church, but there is the invisible church—the invisible Body of Christ as well.
The invisible Body is made up of all the faithful who have gone before us. It began with St. Stephen, the first martyr of the church, who joined Abraham and the great prophets of old in God’s presence, and it has never stopped growing.
Where our church is made up of only a few, the invisible church is as numerous as the sand on the shore.
I think about the memorable story of the prophet Elisha in 2nd Kings where the King of Aram surrounded the city that the prophet was staying. Elisha’s servant woke up early in the morning and looked out of his window and saw a vast enemy army around the city, ready to take Elisha to the King of Aram. The young man was terrified, and yet Elisha, the man they were after, was quite calm.
Elisha asked God to let the boy see what he saw, and the boy’s eyes were opened, and saw the heavenly host—horses and chariots of fire surrounding the enemy army. The prophet looked at the boy and said, “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And I think he said it with a big smirk on his face.
The same holds true with God’s one Body, one church separated by life and death. The invisible church is the true church, it is not made up of sinners, but rather those who have been perfected by the presence of God.
“The invisible church never changes and yet is ever increasing. What it keeps it never loses, and though the visible is fleeting and transitory it continues to pass off into the invisible. The visible church is ever dying for the increase of the invisible” (162).
Cardinal Newman said that “though the visible Churches of the saints in this world seem rare, and scattered to and fro, like islands in the sea, they are in truth but the tops of the everlasting hills, high and vast and deeply rooted,” (164).
We are connected to this vast, invisible Church because we share in the one Spirit, we take nutrients from the same Vine that the invisible church does.
And so we are intimately connected with the saints who, while on earth, devoted their lives to the work of the Gospel—why should we assume that they are not still fighting for the sake of the Gospel now, cheering us onward to take up the calling God has given us?
St. Paul who tirelessly preached and proclaimed the Good News of Jesus Christ is now more alive than he ever was when he walked this earth. Even now from his apostolic throne he preaches and implores the visible church to take seriously the work that we have been given by God.
St. James the Less is looking down at us and encouraging us to live into our baptism where we were made one with the saints, sharing in the same Spirit.
This is what it means to take seriously the communion of saints and all those who have departed this world. We have not been left here alone to fend for ourselves. We have the whole host of heaven surrounding the hills around us.
Like looking at the night sky and being overwhelmed at the sheer size and beauty of the universe—All Saints’ Sunday gives us the proper perspective we need in our life and Christian vocation. We are not alone, the saints are cheering us onward.
Though we are small and only mere mortals, tossed to and fro by the ways of this world—we are rooted in the church that is unseen and too numerous to count.
I’ll end with this: at our baptism we were made members of this one church/one Body of Christ. Another word for “member” is “citizen.” We are a citizen of the Kingdom of God.
While on this earth we are called to be law-abiding citizens of the kingdoms of this world that we happen to inhabit, but we were never to forget what Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
No matter what happens this coming week, that fact does not change. We are called to put our full hope and trust not in a person nor a political party, but in the One who is unseen and who is surrounded by angels, Archangels, apostles, prophets, and martyrs. To say otherwise is idolatry.
As our reading from Revelation said,
“After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
"Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,
"Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen."