05 November 2012

Gathering with the Saints: A sermon for All Saints Sunday

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Ephesians 1:11-22 (All Saints Day, Year C [long story], RCL)

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers” (Ephesians 1:15–16). I hope the author of the Letter to the Ephesians won’t mind me borrowing these words. I share their sense of thanksgiving, though I direct them at a different church at a different time. You see, when I think of the saints and a city’s love for them, I think first of my pilgrimage to Rome.

I was there with a group of seminarians and clergy representing VTS at churches and events throughout the Eternal City, including mass at an English-speaking Jesuit parish and even a papal audience. We brought to Italy all kinds of questions on our syllabus. But perhaps most of all, we went to figure out what we might make of the saints. That was certainly the case for me.

“What do we make of the saints?” I see now that it was the wrong question, too concerned with forming a theological position. The better question for a pilgrimage is this: “What did God make of the saints?” Or, borrowing again from Ephesians, “What are the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints?” What did God give to them? What does God give us, through them? These are questions for an encounter.

Our group’s most intimate encounter took place not in Rome but on a day trip to Assisi. That medieval town captures well, through juxtaposition, the power of God’s gifts to Blessed Francis, who was born into wealth but came to embrace a path of poverty. The people who built a basilica in his honor seem to have forgotten the humility of his spiritual heritage. So we pilgrims were drawn first and foremost not to the basilica but to the modest oratory of San Damiano, where young Francis once prayed and heard Christ on the cross tell him “Francis, rebuild my church.”

Several of my companions and I spent five or ten quiet minutes in the tiny, dilapidated nave. As we shuffled in awkwardly, we gave each other some space and slowly settled in to pray. I looked up at a replica of that painted, once-talking crucifix, and the moment took on a noticable weight. No, Jesus didn’t talk to me. But I was aware that I was soaking up … something.

When we exited, my friend Caleb asked “Did anybody else feel that?” He and I had not been alone. We didn’t know what that was, exactly. But I’m pretty sure the group had, together, a gentle but profound experience of the grace and presence of our Lord. Francis’s witness to the simplicity of the spiritual life became a window through which we caught that glimpse. Saints are like that: windows for beholding grace.

We were also fortunate to take a number of “vertical tours” of other important sites, descending through the layers of time to the streets of Rome in the first few centuries of the Church. The most dramatic of these was our tour of the Vatican necropolis. Several stories below St. Peter’s Basilica, these excavations uncovered in the 1940s the site that many believe to be Peter’s final resting place. Our earnest tour guide made a compelling case for their authenticity, but the significance for me wasn’t about whether the several visible bones we saw belonged to St. Peter or not.
What was moving to me was both the tenacity and the tenderness with which these Roman Christians, like their forebearers, claimed Peter as one of their own. The same was true of other saints at the major churches around the city. “Here lies St. Agnes,” we heard later in the week on her feast day. “She was was one of us.”

So our trip painted an interesting picture of our “inheritance among the saints.” We saw them serve as windows for grace, their gifts enlightening our hearts to see the power of God and the persistence of Christ’s call. We saw them serve as links in the great chain of the Christian faith, binding us one to another across both time and place. Today we give thanks for those links as we bind ourselves in the Spirit to Michael Sebastian Freeland in the sacrament of baptism, and as we sit with the news that Fr. Andrew will be retiring as rector of St. Paul’s at the end of January.

Such is the liminal nature of the Church God has made of the saints. God has called us to pay particular attention to comings and goings because we witness to a kingdom that has come and is yet to come.

There’s a fatigue that can set in, living this way. It’s the fatigue of Francis and his homeless friars, called by Christ into the countryside to tirelessly preach the gospel. It’s the fatigue of building church on top of church in restless tribute of saints striving to saints in joy. It’s the fatigue of running a church like this one, of filling the rotas and planning the budgets and always saying hello and goodbye to people we love.

But there is more to the story of our “inheritance among the saints.” There is good news that energizes both the Eternal City and the Letter to the Ephesians. It’s one of the things that sets this letter apart from the ones we know for sure that Paul wrote. It’s the fullness of what this writer means by the word “inheritance.”

Our inheritance is that we are to be gathered up.*

Our inheritance is that we are being made a part of the great “fullness of him who fills all in all.” Listen to the verse that immediately precedes our passage from this morning: “With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

So our inheritance with the saints is not just our salvation through Christ, which is how St. Paul usually puts it. It’s not just the treasury of past and present witness to that good news, which the saints so boldly proclaimed with words and with their very lives. Our shared inheritance is that we will be made a part of a cosmic unity with the saints and with the one who has already gathered them up. The saints are for us a sign of this inheritance, like the seal with which we are marked by the Holy Spirit in baptism--but easier for us to see, because the saints are dynamic, concrete, human.

I remember the first time I saw the Roman skyline. I was on my way to the stunning Galleria Borghese, north of the central city and up the kind of hill that you’d have to have Borghese money to live on. I was overcome by the number and variety of cupolas and crosses below, every one marking a central point in the life of a real community giving and living their lives to Jesus Christ.

But the next day I discovered an even better place to take in that tableau. So if you find yourself in Rome, and if you can keep it from going to your head, head over to St. Peter’s. Don’t ascend all the way to the cupola, the great dome, or you’ll lose the effect. Head for the rooftop gift shop, but keep walking past it, back toward St. Peter’s Square. You’ll find that you’re approaching, from behind, the statues of the saints that stand on top of the basilica’s facade.

Pick your patron saint, or perhaps head for the statue of Christ himself in the center. Get as close as you can, joining the ranks of those who witnessed to our Lord in life and witness to him still. Then gaze out at the city with them, a city that has the saints in its very bones. What you might experience, by the grace of God, is something like our inheritance in Christ. Not just because it is grand or beautiful or triumphant, but because in that moment you too will be gathered up with those who have been gathered already. Sadly, for now, it will be a fleeting thing.

We went to Rome looking to see our inheritance with the saints, but Ephesians tells us we cannot find it there or anywhere else, because it is a future reality. Our inheritance is, at last and forever, to be gathered up in Christ, with the saints and with all creation. So perhaps, for now, it is enough just to be gathered, gathered around Christ, gathered here, gathered with each other, gathered to celebrate All Saints’ Sunday. May it be, to us, a foretaste of the gathering to come.

* I am indebted here to Paul L. Hammer’s article on “Inheritance” in David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 3 (New York: Doubleday, 1992): 415417.

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