For All the Saints, Not Just the Church Triumphant

Sermon delivered on All Saints’ Sunday, Year C, October 30, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Daniel 7.1-3, 15-18; Psalm 149.1-9; Ephesians 1.11-23; Luke 6.20-31.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It is natural for us to remember and celebrate our departed saints on All Saints’ Sunday, and we will certainly do that. But as our readings remind us today, we too are part of the communion of saints, God’s holy or called-out people, and this is what I want us to focus on briefly this morning. How can we as the Church Militant (Christ’s body, the Church, here on earth) live faithful lives and why would we want to do so in the first place?

As children of the Enlightenment we are thoroughly saturated with its values and tend to overemphasize the importance of reason and empiricism while diminishing the value of those things we cannot measure. So when we read passages like the ones from Daniel, the language sounds strange to us and we tend to dismiss it. This is unfortunate because today’s OT lesson has great encouragement for us if we have ears to hear and hearts and minds to believe. Apocalyptic (or revelatory) literature in Scripture, of which our OT lesson is a part, is designed to sustain God’s people in times of trouble and we must let it do so. Daniel is confronted with a terrifying vision of monsters and the seas, biblical images that represent chaos and the forces of evil arrayed against God and God’s people (cf. Ephesians 6.12). And we all get this because we too are subject to those same forces. Whether it’s the chaos of the world around us (pick your most troubling news) or the chaos of poor health or financial woes or loneliness or dysfunctional relationships, we understand that we live in a beautiful world that is often quite hostile to us. And like Daniel, it makes us afraid, terrified even. In the back of our minds we know that we are not immune to the possibility of disaster striking unexpectedly. This fear can lead us to think, along with a little help from the Evil One and his friends, that we are in this life all by ourselves and without resources to withstand the forces of chaos that seem to rule unchecked in this world.

But as all our lessons remind us, either directly or indirectly, we are not to be afraid because the sea and its monsters, the forces of evil and chaos, are not really in ultimate control. God is. At this point, some of us want to push back. If God’s really in charge, he’s doing a really lousy job of running his world. Look at all the awful things going on and all the awful people acting, well, so awfully. But a moment’s thought will make us realize how incredibly arrogant, proud, and naive this sentiment really is. Do we really want to claim that we know how to run this vast cosmos better than its Creator? Seriously? Most of us cannot seem to rule our own lives all that well, let alone that of an entire universe! Just ask Job about that! No, Scripture calls us to have a faith like that expressed in the prophet Habakkuk’s beautiful confession:

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights (Habakkuk 3.17-19a).

Habakkuk’s confession is even more remarkable because he wrote it during a time of terrible upheaval in Judah’s history, when its very existence was threatened by foreign enemies and internally by economic scarcity, idolatry, and catastrophic injustices of all kinds

Given all this chaos in Habakkuk’s life and ours, why would Scripture exhort us to have an unwavering faith that God really is in charge of his good world seemingly gone mad? Because God’s people, especially his people in Jesus, have always believed we have a hope and a future, a future hope that has broken into our present reality, albeit only partially, but that one day will find its completion when God’s rule comes in full on earth as in heaven at Jesus’ return. We see this hope expressed in our OT lesson. Yes, the forces of chaos threaten us, but they have been defeated. God promises to establish his kingdom and his holy ones will be the beneficiaries. Evil and chaos will be banned and God’s goodness and justice will reign forever.

Paul says essentially the same thing in our epistle lesson. The dark powers and their human minions appear to be in charge, but that is merely an illusion. And this is where human reason is quite simply inadequate. There’s more to it than meets the eye! In fact, the Lord Jesus is ruler of this vast cosmos, so we have nothing to fear. And what is the basis for this hope? Are not Paul and the NT writers asking us to whistle through the graveyard? Certainly not! There is a solid and historical basis for our hope: the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. We believe that on the cross, God rescued us from the dark powers and transferred us to the kingdom of his son (cf. Col. 1.13-14), that somehow the forces of evil and chaos were defeated, and that we are now reconciled to our loving Creator. Paul and the other NT writers could only make this bold claim because of Jesus’ resurrection. When God raised Jesus from the dead, he not only signaled the destruction of the ultimate evil of death itself, God also gave us a glimpse of what his healed new world with its absence of evil and death would look like. If God can speak into existence things that do not exist and give life to the dead (Romans 4.17), who can really doubt that he is the ruler of this world, and not the dark powers and their human minions? Nothing is too hard for God! And if after all this we still think Paul is a bit pie-in-the-sky in his claims that Jesus is the risen and ascended Lord of the cosmos, we must remember he wrote his letter to the Ephesians while languishing in prison. The beasts of the sea wanted Paul to think they were in charge of things, but Paul knew better. He had met the risen Christ and was filled with the power of the Spirit as the guarantee of God’s promised new world to come, just like we are.

This is the God of love and power we worship and it must change us. When we finally come to know (not know about, but know) this God as revealed supremely in Jesus, it enables us to live as new creation peeps because we are a resurrection people. We know that death will one day be destroyed because we have seen its preview in Jesus’ resurrection. And we know that in our baptism we have died with Jesus so that we will share in a resurrection like his (Romans 6.3-4). The Spirit, who lives in us and makes Jesus present to us as his people, testifies to this truth as do the writers of the NT. Does this mean we will sail through life trouble-fee? Hardly. What it means is that we have a power to face the forces of chaos with courage and hope because we know their day is done and our future is secure. If we could talk to our saints of God who have gone before us, they would surely tell us this is true. After all, they are experiencing God’s truth and reality in ways that we simply cannot until we too pass into the Church Triumphant (Christ’s body, the Church, in heaven).

So how do we testify and live out our faith as resurrection people? We start by expressing God’s astonishing generous love to others. We love each other and build each other up as members of his body here on earth, the Church Militant. We love our enemies and are willing to forgive them by doing for them what we want them to do for us. We learn to trust God in any and all circumstances like Habakkuk did, reminding ourselves that we are a resurrection people and claiming the power behind that proclamation. We have a real hope and future. And as our psalm reminds us, we are to speak out against evil and injustice. We dare not sit idly by and let evil overrun us or others. After all, we are redeemed to become the fully human beings God created us to be and so we must act accordingly. We must pray for peace and justice to be done. We must learn to speak the truth to worldly power, to show rulers a better way to exercise power in this world, and to warn them of the consequences when they improperly use that power. We don’t do this arrogantly because we remember we are empowered to speak on our Lord’s behalf, not our own. And so we humbly acknowledge God’s great gift of new life and healing and forgiveness so that we can share that power and gift with others. This is our task as the Church Militant, as God’s holy saints. This is what the communion of saints is all about on this side of the grave. It is also what the power of living the Good News is about, now and for all eternity. Just ask the Church Triumphant. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.