|"Last Judgment Mosaic: Saints in heaven." Torcello Cathedral (Venice)|
No matter how many times I hear it, I'm always a bit surprised when I’m reminded that before the earliest Christians were gathering to worship and reflect upon certain life events of Jesus they were commemorating the lives—and deaths!—of the holy men and women they knew. From what we can tell, the church in its earliest days did not celebrate things like Easter or Maundy Thursday or the visit of the magi and certainly not Christmas. Those commemorations turned up, in various forms, later on. In its earliest days, however, we do know that the church was marking on the calendar the dates when certain noteworthy and distinguished men and women died.
|Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. Martyred in A.D. 155|
There are several reasons why the church was doing this right at the start. One reason is because everyone thought Jesus was going to return within their lifetime. There was no reason to draw major attention to things like the date of his birth or the date of his crucifixion on a yearly basis because much of that was fresh on people’s minds (although maybe not in as much detail as we have now) and also because they were in this state of anticipation, focused more on Jesus’ future than on his past.
Another reason why the early Christians were remembering these ordinary women and men of faith was because they saw in their lives significant, tangible hope—hope that their faith had not been lived in vain, hope that the things they did and the message they preached mattered to God and God’s kingdom. There was a little anxiety about the fact these people had died before Christ’s return. Would they be lost from God’s plan? And yet, the gospel of Jesus had taught them that their lives—and, just as powerfully, their deaths—were not meaningless in the ultimate scheme of the universe. The lives of these people had offered living laboratories of God’s grace for them, stained glass windows, if you will, through which the light of Christ could shine, and when they died—or, as was more common the case early on, were killed—the church wanted to remember them.
|Perpetua and Felicity. Martyred March, 203|
The calendar pretty quickly got filled up with these commemorations: Stephen, Polycarp, and Perpetua, just to name three. Once the Twelve apostles died, of course, they were placed on the calendar, too, and as each of those days rolled around each year, the faithful gave thanks for those people’s lives and the way they demonstrated God’s love. They’d say, “Let’s look today at the life of so-and-so. He wasn’t perfect, but he knew God loved him anyway, and we saw signs of God’s coming kingdom in the way he lived his life.”
It didn’t take long for the calendar to get filled up. Every day people were celebrating the lives of multiple people. By the sixth century, and maybe even earlier, the church finally chose a date and called it all saints day. It was one day to reflect on the lives of all those men and women who had gone before us, especially those we had lost most recently.
I think that the closest thing to a calendar of saints we have now in our culture is the Google Doodles. Those of you who use Google’s search engine or visit the Google homepage on a regular basis know what I’m talking about. On many days when you access their main site, you’ll notice they’ve taken their logo and created some cool form of interactive artwork that seeks to recognize the work of some person who was born on that day years ago. Typically it’s someone I’ve never heard of. Maybe some nineteenth century Frenchman who revolutionized hat-making or something like that.
Now, I have nothing against Google or their clever doodles, but it’s interesting to note that a multi-billion Internet giant who gathers and sells information about all of us now has such a strong hand in determining who in our culture is worth commemorating. If only the church could come up with doodles! When I see a doodle, it’s a reminder to me that the people of God still need to be diligent about remembering its faithful departed. It’s a reminder that these people are still a part of us, that we are a communion of saints. Like the theologian G.K. Chesterton once quipped, if someone asks you how large your church is, be sure to count the tombstones, too. At Epiphany we could add the columbarium niches. The church needs to take the time to realized how we’ve been blessed by our heritage of holy men and women—all of them, the dead as well as the living—because their lives have something to teach about the hope of God’s kingdom. Their lives have something to say about the great reversal that God is bringing about.
It is precisely that great reversal, that turnaround of the world’s way of doing things, that Jesus begins talking and teaching about at the beginning of his gospels. Nowhere are the elements of this turnaround more starkly laid out than in the gospel of Luke. As it turns out the things that the world typically values and lifts up as blessings are not what will be blessed and valued in God’s coming kingdom. At one point, Jesus looks up at his disciples and says, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for your is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and exclude you...for that is what your ancestors did to the prophets.’
This kind of talk was earthshattering, and quite honestly didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Everyone was used to thinking that things like poverty and hunger and sorrow were occasions of God’s curses, not God’s blessings. But now Jesus is declaring that they are blessings now because in the coming kingdom those things will be exchanged for eternal abundance and happiness.
And, as if that wasn’t clear enough, Jesus adds four statements of woe. The things that we typically strive for now, things that we habitually cling to for hope—wealth, satisfaction of health and appetite, and giddy cheerfulness, fame and acclaim—these things will not last. They never do, and Jesus wants to make sure we understand that present security does not guarantee future comfort. The kingdom of God will not be based, for example, on earthly forms of wealth. Those who get too used to it now will have a great shock when it’s not there in eternity.
In fact, these three categories of things that Jesus attaches woe to are things that delude us into an evil individualism. When we have a lot of money and possessions, when we have wonderful health and a full belly, when we are just happy and satisfied all the time it is far easier to feel and become cut off from the needs of others.
Just look at the vision of discipleship that Jesus offers as he continues this sermon! There is a whole lot of sharing and interdependence and mutual love going on. If you have a possession, like a coat, and it is taken by another, you let go of it…and then toss in something extra to go with it. You pay attention to others who have needs, even giving to those who beg. You love enemies and do not be given to revenge. If these are descriptions of following Jesus now, then imagine what God’s eternal kingdom, when it arrives in full, will involve. It’s going to be an eternity which will involve a lot of dwelling together in true communion.
I read an article this week that suggested modern-day Christianity, especially in the United States, is marked by a pervasive sense of individualism, as if faith can be lived out between God and me, as if the local congregation is largely just a filling station where we tank up on spirituality for the week, and we just happen to be doing it at the same time with a bunch of other people. If contented individualism is our version of the faith, then Jesus might pronounce a “woe” on us, too. The saints remind us of our interconnectedness, that God, in the end, wants us together, and that that life may begin now. I certainly witnessed that spirit in this congregation recently as we suffered five deaths in the past four weeks. People came together consistently to help the families in their grieving and contributed resources for food. These were our saints.
A sense of togetherness and mutual support is not, however, the primary place to which that the poor and the hungry and the mourning point us. Ultimately Jesus knows these people are blessed because they are most prone to understand the blessing of the cross. Those who are down and out now, those who are painfully aware of their worldly shortcomings are far more apt to comprehend that God is their only hope. They are the ones who will run to the hope of the cross, that will see in it God’s vindication of the hungry, the beaten, the despised.
In the long run, then, the power of God’s kingdom will not be up to us and our ability to “pull it off.” The saints of God surely play a part in it, for sure. Aware of our sinfulness, you and I are transformed by God’s grace and begin to grow into that future, but, bottom line, it is not we who bring about this utter reversal of things. That is God’s doing, and even in the darkest, bleakest, most forlorn corners of this world God can bring blessing.
The Irish rock band, U2, has a lyric in one of their songs about democracy that says, “It’s a place that has to be believed to be seen.” It is a protest song, but, as it turns out, that line is a perfect description for this kingdom—this great reversal—that Jesus brings about on the cross and to which the saints point. To be seen, it must be believed, and to be believed, it must be yearned for. We yearn for a world where the poor are given good things and the rich and the greedy—even if that means us—learn to do with less. We hunger for a world where those who strive for peace are vindicated and the voices who speak honesty and truth are heard above all the others. We long for a time when every deed of hatred and hurt is returned with an even great deed of love and forgiveness. That place, that time, must be believed to be seen, and we all know people who sadly, have died, who by the grace of God, saw this place and attempted, with their lives, to communicate it to us. They knew it had arrived in Jesus…but was also yet quite here.
Come to think of it, these people of the church don’t really need Google doodles, because they’ve already managed to doodle all over our lives. They believed in that place of the great reversal and they saw it, and so they doodled all kinds of kindness and charity and love. And often those doodles became masterpieces as the Lord grabbed their hand and began to move the pen along with them. They doodled this beauty right on into eternity.
And so, from the beginning, the followership of Jesus has wanted to remember these important works scrawled across the millennia as they have waited for the full picture to appear. That’s what this day is called: all saints. All the doodlers. And that includes not just the dead, but the living.
So, then…pick up your pen! Look to your neighbor. Look to the world. And, for all you’re your worth, keep doodling. God will make it beautiful.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.