Reflection: November 3, 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 Christian communities, ordinary and extraordinary alike. This word is always used, by the apostle Paul, in the plural because of the importance of the relational aspect of Christian community. It is in this valuing of relationships that no member is deemed more important than another. Every person has something to offer and all are equal and essential members of the community.

The excerpt from the letter to the Ephesians that we heard today explains that spiritual gifts received by individual Christians 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.) These various gifts and skills are not meant to be used for self-aggrandizement but always for the sharing of the work of ministry that all share together.

In a different letter, to Christian communities in Corinth, Paul similarly speaks about spiritual gifts and that all gifts are important and valued. Paul uses the analogy of a body with many different parts (or members) that each have a purpose for the benefit of the whole body. This theme is echoed in today’s reading from Ephesians when it says that “…the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.” (Eph. 4:16)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which we are connected to each other as members of the Body of Christ. In our community of faith, our stories are woven together with the stories of our ancestors in faith both in the distant past and the not-so-distant past. We are connected as well to members of the Body of Christ who are known to us in other parts of the country and other places in the world. We are also connected in a very tangible way to other Christians in the world whom we have never met but who are nevertheless part of the worldwide Christian community. We share a common story – a common religious heritage. Despite any differences in interpretation of scripture, worship traditions and practices, we are all followers of Jesus who is our example and guide to living God’s way of love and justice.

Last week I shared some of my story as a person of faith. You may remember me talking about the final week of integration of my formal theological studies. I showed you a box – my Survival Kit for Ministry. I also showed you a few of the items that were contained in the box. I told you that nineteen of us who had completed our theological studies gathered for one week to share things that were important for us to remember when we went home to serve in paid accountable ministry. What I didn’t mention, is that my classmates lived in various places across Canada. I was from the Pacific Coast (Vancouver Island), John was from the Atlantic Coast (Newfoundland) and there were others from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. Our small community of Christian learners, similar to those communities that the apostle Paul knew, had been forged and strengthened through adversity and struggle, learning and growing together in joy and laughter, tears and sorrow.

The other thing I didn’t mention is that one of our members was not physically present with us during that week of integration but was with us very profoundly in our minds and in the spirit of our community. Barb Easton had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was, at the time of our gathering, in Hospice care in her final weeks of life. Despite her physical absence, Barb was very much in our hearts, our prayers, our sharing of stories and in the remembering of the building up of the Body of Christ that we experienced slowly and gradually over the course of five years. To our surprise, via speakerphone from her Hospice room two weeks before her death, Barb spoke words of blessing to each of us individually. I know that each one of us has carried that blessing into the communities in which we have lived and served. We knew, and still know, that Barb’s affect on our lives would not end with her death and that the things we learned from her would influence our words and actions in subtle and not so subtle ways.

As people of faith, our growth and formation has been shaped and influenced by many people over the course of our lives. Some we have known personally, some we only know through their songs, writings, or the sharing of stories from other people. All of these are people are part of the communion of saints that travel with us on our journey of faith.

Theologian and author, Elizabeth Johnson, suggests that, On this [All Saints’ Sunday] we…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 faith, courageous action in the face of adversity, communal sharing of joys and sorrows, reaching out into the world with love and compassion. The experiences of our ancestors in faith can inspire and encourage us, we can learn from their mistakes and glean wisdom from their beliefs and their actions.

We also have a wealth of our own stories and experiences of faith that we can share with each other if we take opportunities to do so. We can be open and honest in our questioning of why we do things the way we do. We can grow and adapt to changing circumstances. We can find strength and comfort in knowing that we are not alone, that others have travelled this journey of faith before us and others will continue the journey long after we are gone.

With this in mind, I’ll close with a poem by John Howell, that is both an invitation and a blessing:

Come together, joining hands and hearts.
Let our hands be links of a chain
which hold our lives together – 
not a chain of bondage but a silver cord of strength,
a ribbon of love and faith and community,
giving us slack to sail the wind,
yet holding us in a mystical embrace,
that we may be alone, but never lonely,
that we may be together, but never lost in the crowd,
that we may be one without forfeiting uniqueness.
Come together, joining hands and hearts,
and let the spirit of God and the human spirit
flow in each one and through us all
as we gather here to share this time and space
and as we walk together on the journey.
(John W. Howell, from the book, The Godbearing Life, by Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster)

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