November 3, 2019, Seminarian Greg Baker
Sermon preached by Greg Baker, Seminarian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of All Saints (Observed)
This morning we celebrate the feast of All Saints, a time to remember those who have gone before us in the faith, that cloud of witnesses to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We reflect on those saints who have influenced us in our own lives or with whom we might feel a special, spiritual connection. Their lives are tales of perseverance, faithfulness, and love.
I often marvel at their stories and the lengths they would go to follow Christ.
Some of them are pretty amusing figures. There is St. Simeon Stylites, who in order to find more time for prayer from the crowds that he attracted by his working of miracles, climbed and lived atop a 45 foot- pillar, where he remained in prayer for 37 years. 37 years!
Or there is my favorite, St. Ammonius, a 4th century hermit who, after being chosen to be bishop by a nearby community because of their love for him, cut off his own ear in order to try and avoid ordination.
The book of Leviticus, he said, forbade a man who was mutilated from being a priest. Sources refer to him as “Ammonius the Earless” from then on. It is said that the people were deeply shaken, and returned to their bishop who declared, “this law is only observed by the Jews. If you bring him to me, I will ordain him even if he chops off his nose too!”
But when the people returned to Blessed Ammonius and attempted to drag him off again, he said to them “I swear to you that if you do such a thing to me, I shall cut out my tongue as well!” This seemed to catch their attention, since they did not want to lose his exhortation and preaching.
There are many more serious stories too. St. Stephen, the first Martyr, was stoned to death for confessing Christ. Or St. James of Jerusalem, the Brother of Jesus, who was put up on the pinnacle of the temple and instructed to preach against Christ. When we refused, he was thrown off the roof.
In our readings for this feast we find again and again the exhortation to turn towards and follow Christ, to walk the path of those saints who have gone before us to the kingdom, who have been united with Christ in the heavenly Jerusalem. But what about those left behind on earth?
The idea of inheritance is key to understanding this question. Daniel and Jesus allude to inheritance, but Paul speaks of it directly: In Christ, he says, we have obtained an inheritance. And that inheritance, rooted in hearing the Word, understanding the truth of our salvation, and being marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit, is aimed towards our redemption to the praise of God’s glory.
When I think of inheritance, I think of wills. Inheriting to me means gaining something because someone else died, whether it be money, land, status, title, or other material goods.
As Christians, our inheritance begins with death. But it does not end with death. What we receive is life, from the God who raised Jesus from death and seated him in heaven, far above all the powers of the world that killed him.
The inheritance of the saints is a future-tense concept. It seems to be this thing that some people have received who are now elsewhere. Daniel alludes to this – “the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever.”
And Jesus too – he says, you will be filled, you will laugh.
But inheritance also begins now. And it begins in Baptism. Baptism signifies our own death, to sin and its shackles. We die and rise with Christ, and begin to walk that path of the saints towards the inheritance of the kingdom in the power of that Holy Spirit which we have been sealed with. We turn to Jesus, promising to follow and obey him.
The saints were varied in their lives, ministries, and eccentricities. But if I were to assign all of them one thing, it would be that they all wanted to follow Jesus. No matter what – mocked or tempted, persecuted or corrupted by the power of the Church, they were people whose sole purpose, goal, desire in life was to follow.
They were not naïve, and neither are we. We know the beasts that rise up in the seas, the kings of the earth who vie with God for our attention. These beasts – and beasts they are – might be monarchs, tyrants, presidents, or systems of oppression so deeply engrained in society that it seems like nothing can dislodge them. Or they might be more personal. But these beasts are not the truth. They seek love not for loves sake but for their own – not for God, but for the forces that seek to tear us away from God’s love.
The saints battled with these beasts, and we struggle with them too. This is when the inheritance becomes real – we need that future reality, because right now can get pretty tough.
Sometimes it seems like the scales are tipping in favor of the world over and against God, and it can become hard to trust in this inheritance. There are countless saints who grappled with feelings of abandonment and spiritual desolation, for great lengths of time. They might have thought, what reason do I have to trust in Jesus? Maybe I should walk another path, an easier path.
Why do we trust Jesus?
Because looked up at his disciples.
He looked up.
He didn’t look down, like a king, or the God that he is. He looked up. He who would be put above in that high place in heaven, ruler of rulers, looks up at us. That is the God we put our trust in, who stooped down from heaven to take the form of a human in order that God might become more acquainted with our lot in life.
Jesus looks up and says, blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom. Who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Who weep now, for you will laugh. This is personal stuff. You will laugh. You will be filled.
Here again is inheritance. We will inherit joy, a sense of fulfillment, even if the path of the saints involves the opposite. Jesus looks up at us and puts present woes in an eternal perspective.
He doesn’t shrug off the realities of poverty, hunger, or depression, but looks up at us and says, I hear you. I see you. It is to you that I will give my inheritance, for you have suffered for me.
The Beatitudes speak for themselves, really. If anything gives us an idea of what being a saint might look like, it’s this Gospel passage today. They are the guide for that continuous process of redemption that Paul speaks of – and by the grace of God, following them brings us closer and closer towards that inheritance of the saints. By participating in Christ’s vision for Earth, we are united with him. As we are untied with him, we are united to that risen reality which is our inheritance.
The life of the saints is one of faithfulness, even to their own detriment. Not all of us will be moved by the Holy Spirit to cut off one of our ear, I hope. Or live on a pillar. We probably won’t be cast off the roof of this building or stoned to death. The reality of this world we live in means that Christians are not often reviled, hated, or excluded. Our church is still a powerful one, for now. But if you are reviled, criticized, or even hated for showing love or doing good to an enemy, you’re on the right track. You are following in the work of the Saints, for God’s strength manifests in what appears to be weakness but is actually stronger than death (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
Walk towards the inheritance of the saints, unshaken by the beasts that rise out of the sea. Being united with Christ through faith and obedience, I too, with Paul, am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39). Take this truth as strength as you live the out the beatitudes and journey on that path of the saints, towards the kingdom of everlasting life.