The tradition of celebrating All Saints Sunday is one that goes way back in the life of the greater church. At FBC Columbus it’s a tradition we’ve observed for the past few decades. Our practice on this day is to remember those church and family members who have passed away in the prior twelve months. This is done as an element of worship as members of the FBC Foundation lead in a memorial service within the morning’s worship liturgy. Even though I know it’s planned, and that we will be sharing names and photos of those we’ve mourned on the screen, each time it happens I’m still caught up short with feelings of loss and reflection as we revisit the deaths of a prior year.
On more than one occasion there have been names of my own family members on the screen, and each year multiple names and photos of persons whom it was my pleasure to serve with in congregational ministry, many who’s funeral or memorial service I officiated. It is a special day, filled with meaning for the congregation and family of those honored.
This year I will be using the occasion of All Saints to invite our reflection on that term “saints” that the Apostle Paul used so often in his New Testament epistles. In Ephesians 1:1 he writes “to all the saints”. It’s a title intentionally chosen, not because of that community’s holiness, nor in anticipation of their later veneration, having gone through a beatification process. No, Paul uses the term “saints” much as we might say “believers” or “Christians” in our day. He is describing the collective people of God, in the case of Ephesians, who reside and worship at the Church of Ephesus. In using the term, however, I can’t help but imagine that he’s calling them to an identity in Christ he truly wants them to think about.
In the Apostle’s Creed there is a phrase, “the communion of the saints”. As with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians the term is plural – saints with an “s” and not singular. This seems fitting as a communion is of course more than just one. In the case of the saints of Christ said communion represents both those who follow Jesus on this earth, and those who have gone on to live in Christ, awaiting the Day of the Lord. The saints, then, includes what the writer of Hebrews calls the “great cloud of witnesses” and the living congregants, Christ followers who occupy the churches and homes of today’s world. Together we make up a communion of like-minded, like identified people in Jesus. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, you are part of this communion, you are one of the saints. When you stop and contemplate the number of persons you’ve known who’ve gone home to glory, multiplied by the number of believers over all time who’ve died in Christ, the cloud of witnesses is “great” indeed!
Often, on All Saints Sunday, I like to imagine the sanctuary filled with those who made this their spiritual home during their lifetimes. So, in addition to the population of those in the pews, gathered for worship, I imagine the saints who’ve gone before. In my minds eye I see their familiar faces, remembering where they often sat, and before long I have a pretty full congregation gathered. This, of course only includes those saints whom I’ve known at FBC. What of the many others who’ve worshipped among this family of faith for it’s now nearly 170 years? Once you begin doing the math, you can’t begin to squeeze everyone into the worship space! Thus the cloud, I guess. Clouds of witnesses to me invite us to consider unlimited seating and participation.
One day we will each experience this gathering with Jesus, face to face. We will bend our knee at his throne and declare our worship in the courts of heaven. We will be part of that cloud of witnesses. Every day will be All Saints day and we will be in the presence of the risen Lord forever. Until then, may the purpose of our worship and our lives be to the “praise of his glory”. May we remember the promise that we are sealed with the Holy Spirit. And may the resurrection power that brought forth Jesus from the grave, empower us, the communion of the saints, to live saintly lives.