The Communion of Saints

November 1, 2015

Bible Text: John 11:32-44 |

“Lazarus come out!” And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go” (John 11:43-44).

Unbind him and let him go.

There you have it. In that one little moment, we glimpse the entire gospel. For it is the mission and joy of Christ to set us free from death. And on this feast of All Saints, we gather to remember and celebrate all those who have been freed from death’s tyranny and called into life and union with God.

And the great mystery of the gospel is that we have all been so called – both the living and the dead. We are the beloved of God, the holy ones, the Saints. And Christ’s call to Lazarus is just as much his call to us: Take off the grave clothes – take off your shame and your anxiety, your regrets and your fears. Then live, you holy ones of God.

This is, of course, the gospel we preach and celebrate every day. For this is the message and the hope of the Church. But there is a special focus on this day of those saints who have preceded us in death and have already entered into the nearer presence of God – whose grave clothes have been completely removed.

For some of us, though, this day holds a certain discomfort or ambivalence because we don’t necessarily think of our loved ones as “saints.” It seems a bit of an overstatement for those whose lives were – perhaps – a little less than saintly. Our psalm this morning asks,

Who can ascend the hill of the Lord and…stand in his holy place?

and the reply is,

those who have clean hands and a pure heart (Psalm 24:3,4).

Can we say that of all our beloved? Clean and pure? For some, yes. But for others, not so much.

But again – this is the whole point of our faith: it is Christ who makes us clean and pure. The life of faith is simply a response of hope that God has both initiated and accomplished our redemption and proclaimed us clean.

A friend tells the story of her daughter’s relapse into drug addiction. For those of you who have lived through this with your children, you know how painful and hopeless it can feel. And you also know the nagging voice that constantly harasses you, “It’s your fault. It’s your fault.” And for my friend, this voice was a very familiar one; it was the voice of her mother. Although she’d died years before, her voice still echoed with penetrating force. She’d been an exacting and judgmental woman and my friend was never able to satisfy her standards. So when her daughter relapsed into drug abuse, it was her mother’s voice she heard, “If you had been a better parent, this would never have happened to her.”

But then, by the grace of God, something extraordinary happened. Above and around and through that accusation, came another voice, a truer voice – the voice of the Spirit speaking in her and as her, “I am free. My mother is free. And we are free together in the communion of saints.”

And for ten years now it is this message that my friend has continued to hear; its words have begun their deep healing in a soul deeply scarred.

And it is this that we celebrate today. Our beloved who have gone before us have been made pure. All that was false in them – all that was malformed or distorted – has been left in the tomb as so many tattered grave clothes. The abuse. The alcohol. The judgment. “Unbind them and let them go,” commands our Christ. And they are free indeed.

And we are free from whatever burdens their brokenness has fostered in us. We are free together, for together we are the communion of saints. Our truest selves are bound together in the God of all creation, in whom nothing false can live and nothing true will die.

I told you recently the story of my own mother’s death and the wind that blew that night – the wind which became my prayer, “Blow it all away, God – every false thing that was my mother and every false thing she bred in me. I’m wearied of it all. Blow it away, and receive my true mother unto yourself. And receive me, too.”

I had a dream recently. I can’t claim where it came from, only what it did for me. In this dream I got a phone call from my mother in heaven. And she was just so happy – happy with everything she was discovering, happy and free and eager to tell me all about it. And I remember thinking to myself in the dream, “Huh? Who knew you got a phone call from heaven when your mom died?” It was all very silly, and yet, also very wonderful. She was free, and telling me about the wonders of God.

Like with my friend, it was the marker of a new reality in Christ. I am not separate from my mother. In fact, day by day my faith is teaching my spirit that I am more one with her now than we’d ever been before. We are the communion of saints in whom there is no death, no barrier, no stain for past wrongs.

“See, I am making all things new,” says the Lord (Rev. 21: 5).

God himself will be with us; he will wipe every tear from our eyes. 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).

This is our hope. This is the work of the Spirit in our lives – the eternal truth of God penetrating our scars and callouses – transforming us in this life to be the saints God has made us to be, and joining us together as the eternal body of Christ.

And because we have been made one, what is true in our sisters and brothers becomes true for us. The faith of St. Francis and his deep kinship with all creation becomes our faith and our kinship. The wisdom of Catherine of Sienna becomes our wisdom. The bravery of Oscar Romero, standing against the oligarchy and defending the rights of the poor becomes our bravery. The mercy of Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta becomes our mercy.

We are the communion of saints. All that is true in Christ and Christ’s beloved is true in us, for we are made one.

And the gift of faith invites us to live into that oneness now – in this life. Lift up your heads and hold them with pride – for the faith of the centuries has been poured into you. So stride through this life with the energy and purpose of the saints of God.

Live life largely, not by the little virtues but by the great ones.

[It is not the little virtue of thriftiness that defines a saint, but rather, the great virtue of generosity and an indifference to the power and anxiety of money.

It is not the little virtue of caution that makes a saint, but the great virtue of courage and a contempt for danger;]

not shrewdness but frankness and a love of truth;

not tact but love for one’s neighbor and self-self-denial;

not a desire for success but a desire to be and to know.”[1]

It is the great virtues that defined the saints; and it is these same virtues that beckon to us who are hiding in the shadows of anxiety and fear. Step into the light, you saints of God. For all that is true, and ever has been, is yours today, and tomorrow and forever.

You have been baptized into Christ. And through these waters you are alive.

 

[1] Natalia Ginzburg, The Little Virtues, 1962

 

Sermon Topics: ,