Reflection – All Saints’ Sunday

    On this All Saints’ Sunday, we pause to give thanks to God for all the saints, past and present, whose lives are a testament to their faith. And so we pray…

For all the saints
   Who went before us
   Who have spoken to our hearts
   And touched us with your fire,
   We give you thanks, O God.
For all the saints
   Who live beside us
   Whose weaknesses and strengths
   Are woven with our own.
   We give you thanks, O God.
For all the saints
   Who live beyond us
   Who challenge us
   To change the world with them,
   We give you thanks, O God.
(Prayer by Janet Morley, Christian Aid, adapted)

     The word “saints” as it appears in Christian Scriptures refers to members of the Christian community, ordinary and extraordinary alike. This word is always used in the plural because it is the relational aspect of the community of followers of Jesus that is paramount. No one is more important than another and all are members of the body of Christ.
     The apostle, Paul, uses the word saints when speaking of members of the Christian community. In his letter to the early Church in Ephesus he explains that the spiritual gifts given to members of the Christian community have enabled some to be “apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, [in order] to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ.” (Ephesians 4: 11-12, my emphasis.)
The phrase the “communion of saints” is not a term that is recorded in Christian Scriptures. It is, however, a term that has been widely used throughout the centuries to describe the tangible presence and communion that Christians feel toward others in their community and beyond. In her book, Friends of God and Prophets, theologian, Elizabeth Johnson describes the communion of saints in this way:

     Though ‘the communion of saints’ as such is not a biblical expression, the reality of this community is present throughout the Scriptures. From the early Christian people’s sense of themselves as a holy people sharing equally in the holy things of God through Christ Jesus, and from their dozens of uses of the term ‘saints’, we learn that the whole community of the living is considered to be saints. Participants share with each other in the waters of baptism and the bread and cup of salvation, they share in the very life of God through the grace of the Spirit. …This realization releases a powerful experience of new relationships in which the …structure of social, political, familial, and religious organization is challenged…Equality of the saints before God has social implications.
(Friends of God and Prophets, page 69, Novalis, 1998)

     The concept of the communion of saints not only includes those who are currently living but also those who have lived in the past. The connection through faith and belief that spans time and space forms a continuity of memory that is a unifying element in Christian tradition. We can read or listen to stories of people of faith in the recent or ancient past and know that we are following the same wisdom and example as modelled in Christ’s life and ministry. Some of the wisdom that Jesus and his first followers gleaned and put into action came from the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures such as the story that Anne read a few minutes ago from the book of Ruth.
     The story of Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, is a wonderful story of women supporting each other physically, emotionally and spiritually through the pain of loss, the harsh realities of being destitute and struggling to survive. Hard decisions and choices were made and the strength of faith and a deep and abiding love for one another provided the courage and determination to journey together and forge a new life in an extremely inhospitable environment. What is not easily apparent from the perspective of a twenty-first century reader is just how radical and prophetic this story really is.
The commentary, Feasting on the Word, offers some insights into the deeper meaning of the story of Ruth when it states that:

   The theological ground of today’s reading from Ruth is a God of fierce inclusivity…The book of Ruth probably arose as a potent critique of the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah in the period of restoration of Jerusalem. These two leaders tried to purify Israel and cement its ethnic identity by casting out foreign wives and their children from the land. (pg. 242) …The fact that this book holds canonical status at all is itself scandalous. The heroine in this story is not a Hebrew, but a Moabite widow who was once married to a Hebrew. …Ruth speaks to us of… great possibilities…that can emerge when we live beyond the walls that would define and confine us. (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, pg. 243, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009)

     If we were to read the rest of the story of Ruth we would find out that Ruth and Naomi travel to Bethlehem. There, while gleaning fields of wheat and barley, Ruth meets Boaz the owner of the land. Eventually they marry and in time Ruth becomes the great-grandmother of King David. In the geneology of Jesus, described in the Gospel of Matthew, Ruth is mentioned as a foremother of Jesus. (Matthew 1:5) In a spectacular reversal of fortunes, Ruth, the woman who is both widow and foreigner in a strange land is recognized and welcomed as a beloved one of God.
     Today, just as in the past, we are strengthened and encouraged by the communion of saints from all times and places. Their example of faithfulness and courage inspires us to live more fully, more faithfully, more compassionately as people of faith in our own community and in the global context. We are also inspired and encouraged by those we’ve known personally who quietly lived their faith in the actions of their lives. We all know people we’ve admired whose memories are kept alive within the collective memory of our community of faith. These are people who embody the values that we hold dear and members of the body of Christ.
I offer now, in closing, some more thoughts from Elizabeth Johnson:

   On this [All Saints’ Sunday] we also remember those whom our hearts have personally known and loved, those who nourished and created us as human beings and those who helped us in rough times. This is our immediate… [communion of saints], beloved faces held in memory. …their goodness…is intertwined with the fabric of our lives, leaving a deep imprint on the way we now vie for life in all its wholeness. …A community that remembers in this way underscores the dignity and importance of every one of its members.” (Friends of God and Prophets, pgs. 251-252)

     Our Christian community is one that spans time and space. We have a rich tradition of story, faith and community. We are, in fact, a community of memory, a people who remember where we have come from in order to know who we are and how we will live in the present. This, and the empowerment and persistent love of God, like Ruth’s love for Naomi, is a blessing that compels us to respond to our individual and collective call to ministry in the present and into the future.

Thanks be to God for the life and ministry of Jesus,
the communion of saints, past and present,
and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit
that guides and sustains us on our journey of faith.

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