“Little Christs”

We’re celebrating the Feast of All Saints’ today. All Saints’ Day is one of the few holy days which can be celebrated on a Sunday, using the Lessons for the feast day instead of the regular ones for this Sunday in the church year. We began with the wonderful Reading from the Wisdom of Solomon, a book in the Apocrypha which we sometimes read at funerals because it is so comforting:

 “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died…but they are at peace…the faithful will abide with (God) in love because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones, and he watches over his elect.” (Wisdom 3)

 Psalm 24 picks up on the same theme: “Who can ascend the hill of the Lord and who can stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and a pure heart…They shall receive a blessing from the Lord and a just reward from the God of their salvation.”  

 And then the marvelous vision of the kingdom given by St. John the Divine in his book of “Revelation” really sums it all up: “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21)

 So, why do we need all these images? Why do we need all this comforting? Because – in the final analysis – death is what we fear most! Dying…ceasing to exist…ceasing to “be”…is humankind’s greatest fear, our great enemy. And all religions, as well as many other philosophical systems, try to deal with it. Many secular people fill their lives with ceaseless activity and the accumulation of “things” and “stuff” because they don’t want to think about dying, to think about that day when life, as we know it now, will end.

 Sometimes the Church is accused of having a rather “Pollyanna” attitude about death and dying — an “otherworldly” approach to it all. You know, “Pie in the sky by and by.” Be good on this earth and God will reward you will a perfect existence one day! Don’t worry about suffering now…some day things will get better in heaven!

 Well, I don’t think you can read the Bible and accuse its writers of having a “Pollyanna” view of death…or of denying its reality or its pain. Genesis virtually begins with the murder of one brother by another. The children of Israel slaughter others, and are slaughtered themselves, throughout much of the next five books of the Bible! Job and the other Wisdom writers wrestle with suffering, death and dying philosophically even as they struggle to understand God’s seeming absence in their own lives. And the prophets warn of impending death and destruction on every page of their books!

 Our Gospel Reading this morning is the very poignant story of Mary and Martha and their grieving at the death of their brother, Lazarus. They go through the five stages of grief, of death and dying, that Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described decades ago, and Mary is pretty obviously stuck at the Anger stage as our Gospel begins, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

 She’s mad at Jesus! She knows he has the power of life and death. Lazarus was his friend! Why did he let him die? You and I often get angry at God or at life itself when we lose loved ones, and the Bible is telling us it’s OK to feel that anger, even to “ventilate” that anger. God can handle it! 

 This Gospel story doesn’t even shy away from the gruesome realities of death. They resist opening the tomb at Jesus’ instruction because the decomposition of Lazarus’ body will have already begun in that desert heat…and no one wants to see (or smell!) that! And yet Jesus asks them to look squarely into that tomb, to confront the painful reality of death and decay and not to run away from it. Why?

 Because, he says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (John 11) In other words, if you trust in God (which is what “believe” really means), if you trust in God you can look straight into the jaws of death itself and see – instead of your worst nightmare – God’s glory!

  Later that same Jesus himself would face his own fear of death (“if it is possible, let this cup pass from me”). He would experience his own despair at the seeming absence of the Divine (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”) But Jesus would finally make that final act of trust just before closing his eyes for the last time (“Into your hands, I commend my spirit).    

 Well, there is a community of people down through the centuries who have taken those words and actions of Jesus at face value. A community of people who have not only believed in the existence of God, but who have put their trust in that God…indeed who have “bet their lives” on that God.  Bet their lives on the belief that the God who made us in the first place loves us enough never to let us go.

 This is the community of the baptized. This is the community which dares to call its members “little Christs” – Christians. This is the community of All the Saints! Peter and Paul and Mary Magdalene, Stephen and Phoebe, Ignatius, Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Cranmer, Evelyn Underhill,  C. S. Lewis, Florence Nightingale, Martin Luther King…

 And you, my sisters and brothers. You who have been washed in Baptism and anointed with the Holy Spirit. You who faithfully each week are nourished by Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist. You who put your trust in the love and mercy of God to one day grant you a place at the Table in the heavenly Kingdom. You…the people of St. Paul’s!

 Happy All Saints’ Day!   

 

 

 

 

 

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