If you are a Baptist, chances are, yesterday came and went without much notice in your church. But it was All Saints’ Day. Every year, on Nov. 1, Christian churches gather to remember and give thanks for the Christian saints who have died in Christ.
Baptists don’t generally talk about saints as being a specific group of particularly holy and faithful dead people who we are sure have escaped the waiting of Purgatory and passed into the blissful presence of God. We don’t, of course, believe in Purgatory at all. Baptists point to the New Testament example, to writers like Paul, who seem to refer to all believers as saints. As Paul says in Philippians 4:21, “Greet all the saints in Christ Jesus.”
In St. Paul’s day, the church in Thessalonica had a theological crisis. The early church had a strong belief that Jesus would return in their lifetime to institute the fullness of the reign of God on earth. They believed that all followers of Christ would participate in this earthly/heavenly kingdom. This seems to be part of what Paul preached to the Thessalonians when he founded that church.It seems to me, however, that our recognition that all faithful Christians are saints should not decrease our appreciation of a day like All Saints’ Day. It should increase it. The word “saint” means “one who is holy and set apart.” Isn’t this what all followers of Jesus are all called to be? Aren’t we all called to be holy and set apart? Shouldn’t we should honor, remember, and be thankful for all those saints who have passed from labor to reward?
But then they had a problem. Some of them started to die. And they started worrying that those saints who were dead would miss out on God’s kingdom. They worried that maybe the dead would stay dead, even when the risen Messiah returned. And so Paul wrote to them words of hope for those who have died in Christ. He wrote to calm their fears about their loved ones who had died. Paul offers words of comfort to the Thessalonian church, found in I Thessalonians 4:13 – 18:
“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
In some ways, this is the perfect biblical text for All Saints’ Day. Who among us has not needed a few words of hope and encouragement when we think about a lost loved one? On the other hand, this passage is so steeped in apocalyptic imagery, so enmeshed with conceptions of the end times as popularized by books like the “Left Behind” series and “The Late, Great Planet Earth,” that we can hardly have a meaningful discussion about hope beyond the grave without first unpacking some of this talk about angels, and trumpets, and flying through the clouds.
Many people have devoted entire books to the subject of Christ’s return. I could write an article on why I think many Christians owe their beliefs about the end times, and about heaven, more to a novelist’s fanciful imagination than to the witness of Scripture.
Or I could write an article on how Paul says that any discussion of the return of Christ should be one of hope and encouragement, but most of the discussions I hear about Christ’s return are geared (and I’m speaking theologically here) at scaring the hell out of non-Christians.
Or I could write an article about how we Protestants get ourselves into trouble sometimes when we read ourselves into the words of Scripture. When Paul says, “We who are still alive and are left,” we naturally assume the “we” is us: Christians who are alive right now in 2012. But we forget that when Paul says “we” he really means himself and the Christians who were still alive when he was writing this letter.
What I want to focus on are all the saints.
I want to talk about all those who, as Paul says “have fallen asleep,” all “the dead in Christ.” There is a beautiful hymn that is often sung on this All Saints Day. It is called, “For All the Saints.” The first verse goes like this:
For all the saints who from their labors rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.
What this hymn gives testimony to is the dual nature of Christian death. While we are sad about those whom we have lost, we need “not grieve like the rest of humanity, who have no hope.” Just as Jesus has preceded us in death, so he has preceded us as the first fruits of the resurrection. We grieve, surely. But we do not grieve like those who have no hope. Even in the midst of death, like Job we can say, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” In the midst of our loss, we may only have the strength to sing, as Leonard Cohen wrote, “a cold and broken Halleluiah.” But we can sing alleluia just the same.
Most churches that have a service on All Saints’ Day include the celebration of communion. For churches that celebrate communion on the first Sunday of the month, All Saints’ Sunday is also a Communion Sunday. In this scripture passage, Paul promises the Thessalonians that the risen Christ comes to us at the end of the age. But every time we gather around the communion table (whether it be every week, once a month, once a quarter, or once a year), we do so with the promise that in the breaking of bread and the drinking of the fruit of the vine, Christ comes to us. Over and over we see that God is a god who moves. Over and over we see that God is a god who comes to us. Perhaps, then, when we talk about death, when we talk about the great mystery of the grave, it is less a matter of us going to be with God, and more about God coming to us. Jesus Christ comes to us, even in death.
You know, one of the images that we evoke with the communion table is God’s Great Banquet Feast of the age to come, laid out for all the saints. And Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Savior, sits at the head. Gathered round are the saints of all time, including the saints who will gather in churches to worship today.
When you remember Christ’s death, remember how your grandmother taught you to pray. When you celebrate Christ’s resurrection, remember how your father first explained the meaning of the Lord’s Supper to you. When you eat the bread and drink the cup, remember all those who have gone before upon whose faithful shoulders you stand. And maybe for just a few moments, the family circle will be unbroken again. Maybe for just a little while, we will see a foretaste of glory divine, as we wait for the coming of the Lord.