A Sermon preached on All Saints’ Sunday, November 4, at St. Augustine’s Church, Wiesbaden
I had a vision this week. Before you start getting worried about me or wondering what I’ve been smoking, this wasn’t a dream or a mystical appearance … and it was in Frankfurt. I was there for a joint meeting of the boards of the German and Finnish Council of Churches and we visited the Greek Orthodox Church of the prophet Elijah for a tour and a reception. The whole church had been recently and beautifully painted with icons. Where we were standing, Christ, surrounded by the prophets and the evangelists, watched over us from the dome. The open doors – or in this case curtains – to the altar area allowed a glimpse of the richly decorated table that symbolizes the heavenly banquet. And all around the walls of the church, almost at our level, icons of saints surrounded us.
This was a physical vision of the meeting of heaven and earth that we heard about in the reading from Revelation this morning, and of the great cloud of witnesses who we think of on this feast day of All Saints and All Souls. I was reminded of the Dancing Saints icon in the Episcopal Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco, there was a picture of part this monumental painting in my weekly email. Completed in 2009, it wraps around the entire church rotunda, showing ninety larger-than life saints, proclaiming a sweeping, universal vision of God shining through human life.
And even here in St. Augustine’s we are surrounded by our own six saints in the stained-glass windows: St. Augustine, St. Gregory, St. George, St. Martin, St. Boniface, and St. Michael: each one standing for some aspect of our history and identity. St. Gregory is the pope who sent our patron saint, Augustine, to bring Christianity back to England. St. George the patron saint of England, St. Boniface the missionary from England who brought Christianity to Germany, St. Martin an example of Christian service and sacrifice, and St. Michael the patron saint of the military. Saints are not always better people, but they are examples of people through whom God acted in some special way and on All Saints, we are called to “follow (the) blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living.”
But All Saints is also about the second half of that prayer, about us coming “to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you.” It is a feast day that lends itself to visions of what that future – for us – and present reality – for the saints who have gone before – might be and feel like.
We heard two visions this morning. In the reading from the Wisdom of Solomon, written we think in the first century BC so not actually by King Solomon, we have the first explicit mention in the Old Testament of the hope of immortality, of a life beyond life. The author is convinced that “God created us for incorruption and made us in the image of his own eternity.” (2:23) “The souls of the righteous,” those who love and seek God, and live accordingly, are therefore “in the hand of God.” (3:1) Any suffering that they experienced in their previous lives is to be seen more like an education or purification and will be far outweighed by their lives with God. At the core of his dream is the presence of God: “The faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones, and he watches over his elect.” (3:9)
The core of the vision of John of Patmos as described in the Book of Revelation, is similar. In his image, not only are the people made new, but also heaven and earth. Not only are they renewed, they are no longer separate. In Jesus, in the Incarnation heaven and earth, God and humanity were joined together. In this vision of the future, all of creation is one, and “the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” All that is good about God’s creation will be kept, and all that is bad – death and evil, the forces of chaos for which the sea stands – will be gone “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:3-4)
In the Wisdom of Solomon, in the verses just preceding the passage we heard this morning, the ungodly are reported has having “reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, ‘Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end, and no one has been known to return from Hades.” (Wisdom 2:1) The events recorded in John’s Gospel almost sound like a rejoinder. Lazarus is brought back from the dead, he does return from Hades. Jesus brings his friend back to life for two reasons I think.
One was his love and compassion, for Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. We are told twice that Jesus was “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33) and that he “began to weep.” (11:35)
The other reason was to act as an example. Jesus’ very public prayer before he calls to Lazarus to come out tells us what this sign stands for: “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:42) Believing that God sent Jesus means believing in his power and promises, including and especially in the promises of new and abundant and eternal life – starting now – and to see the glory of God. Trying to imagine what that new life will be like, and what the glory of God looks like, is what the other readings we heard this morning both try to visualize in their visions.
I started this morning by talking about the vision I had or saw in the Greek Orthodox Church in Frankfurt. And churches should be visions of the meeting of heaven and earth, and places where we feel surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Churches offer glimpses of the new Jerusalem through their architecture, painting, and windows. In our worship we connect heaven and earth, God and humanity, and God is really present, especially at this table. But most of all a vision of God’s new creation needs to shine forth in our own transformed and re-created lives, in our witness, our deeds, our service, and our community, just as it shined forth in the lives of those we call saints and who we celebrate today,