All Saint, Morton—Revelation 7:2-17
As some of you know, I grew up right here in the great state of Illinois, the “land of Lincoln.” As we know, particularly those who live in Springfield, so I’ve learned, Abraham Lincoln is more than just a license-plate slogan in Illinois. I still vividly remember my eighth-grade class field trip, where we took the train, the old Illinois Central line, from Chicago, down to Springfield and by bus up to New Salem Village, where Lincoln spent some of his boyhood years, and then to back to the capitol building, and then to the house Lincoln lived in, and then finally to his tomb. It was moving indeed to gaze at that mass of marble that contains the bones of a man of such mythic greatness as Abraham Lincoln.
But such experiences, moving as they may be, are ultimately unsatisfying. We can look at a grave, or walk through a town or a house — we can read and study about a famous person — but the sad fact is, the great ones at whose shrines we pay our respects are dead and gone! They no longer inhabit the same universe we inhabit, we can have no direct contact with them. The heroes of history are men and women who are beyond our reach, and we know it, and we think it’s too bad that it has to be that way. This is why science-fiction writers make money writing about time travel.
So when we think of “the saints,” we tend to store them on the same shelf along with Abraham Lincoln and George Washington and Geronimo and Julius Caesar and all the other great men and women of history—famous dead people. People we can only experience from a distance, only admire from afar.
The distance that separates us from the saints is not only one of time, however. It is also one of kind. Even if they were still warm and breathing, the saints, so we assume, are different from you and me. They are, after all, saints: people of exemplary moral virtue, heroic self-sacrifice, and, in many cases, courage even in the face of martyrdom. Most of us do not ascribe such qualities to ourselves, or to the people that we have contact with on a regular basis. And, of course, the main thing is still that … the saints are dead. They’re not people of the 21st century. We can respect and admire them, but that’s the limit of our relationship, there’s nothing beyond that.
And so, when we consider the idea of, and our experience of, Christian community, what have we got? What have we got? We’ve got something rather one-dimensional, haven’t we? A relatively few of us have had to chance to experience Christian community on a very large scale—national or international. Through a meeting or a conference or a rally or some other program, or just from having lived in lots of places, we have felt a bond with other members of the body of Christ in other parts of the country or in other countries of the world. A few more of us have felt such a bond at a diocesan or a regional level—maybe at a convention or synod or a workshop of some sort. For the vast majority of Christians, however, the experience of Christian community is limited to, and identified with, their experience of the parish of which they are a member. Those with whom we really feel the bond of common faith and common walk with Christ in the fellowship of the Church, are those who are, or have recently been, members of our own parish. Not only is time a very real barrier to our experience of Christian community, but space is very much a barrier as well. Could it be that this is all we mean when we profess our belief in the “communion of saints”? Does the “communion of saints” refer to nothing larger, nothing greater, nothing more transcendent than a parish potluck?
Which might lead us to ask, What actually is it that unites us as a congregation, as a parish community? Is it our taste in art or literature or music or clothing or hairstyle or cars? Obviously not! Is it our level of income or education or our political preferences? Not that either! Maybe it’s our theology or our churchmanship, but I really doubt it. What is it, then, that we have in common, that forms each of you into this community of All Saints parish? It’s right over there, [point to font] the water of baptism. Whether we had water poured over us from an eight-sided font or were plunged underneath a river, whether we were a week old or a month old or ten years old or fifty years old, whether we wore the heirloom gown that our grandparents were baptized in, or hip boots, or nothing at all—what unites us is the fundamental experience of having been buried and raised with Christ in the water of baptism. This is what forms our community, this is what creates the bond between us. And it creates a bond not only between this community at All Saints in Morton, but between you all and those who have already worshiped down in Pekin this morning at St Paul’s, or over in Bloomington at St Matthew’s, or at St John’s in Decatur, or way down in Cairo at the Church of the Redeemer.
But this water doesn’t just create a bond between members of the Diocese of Springfield, but also with the Navajos on the reservation in Fort Defiance, Arizona and the wealthy elite in midtown Manhattan at St Thomas’, Fifth Avenue. But the bond doesn’t even stop there. It also unites us with 80 million members of the Anglican communion of churches, from the tiny diocese of Tohoku in northern Japan to any number of dioceses in Africa, many of which baptize more new Christian in a month than the entire Episcopal Church does in a decade.
But the bond doesn’t even stop there, because it also unites us with 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians and 800 million Romans Catholics, as well as those in all the Protestant churches the world over. Add up those numbers and you get nearly one-third of the world’s population that you and I are connected with through this water.
But no—the bond does not even stop there. The bond established by God in baptism not only transcends space—making us one family with other Christians the world over—but it transcends time as well, joining us in one communion and fellowship, one family, with men and women and children throughout history who have borne on their foreheads the invisible sign of the cross that marks them as Christ’s own forever. We are all of us also of one family with all the saints, apostles, prophets, and martyrs, because we were born again in the same water which also gave them new birth.
I have an uncle, on my mother’s side of the family, who, in his late middle-age years, took an intense interest in family history, in digging up information about the Hayden family of Jackson County, Arkansas. He managed to lay his hands on some old photos, some of which go back nearly a century, and with his optical scanner and laser printer, reproduced them and sent them to all the members of the family, scattered throughout the country. I’m sure you can imagine how it felt for me to see, for the first time, a picture of my great-great grandparents and their children gathered for a family portrait in 1894, or of my grandmother when she was a young woman just out of high school. Through these portraits, I had a sense of deep intuitive connectedness with these people, most of whom I never met, a feeling of connectedness that was very different from staring at a marble vault containing the bones of Abraham Lincoln.
But, you know, we also have a family portrait of the communion of saints, the fellowship of those reborn in baptism. It’s a word picture, but if we use our imaginations, the optical scanners and laser printers of our minds, we can transform this word picture into a gloriously vivid mental image. We find it in the Book of Revelation:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood round the throne, and round the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to out God for ever and ever. Amen!”
What a picture! What a family portrait! But do you know what the most wonderful feature of this portrait is? We’re all in it! Did you see yourself in it? You’re there! Did you see me in it? I’m there too! Paul the Apostle and John the Evangelist are also in the picture. Our Lord’s mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and her mother, St Anne, and St Stephen and John the Baptist and James, our Lord’s brother, and his friends, Mary and Martha—they’re all in the picture. Some members of this family have already finished the race that you and I are still running, but they’re not resting on their laurels, because they’re standing in the bleachers cheering us on, providing an example for us, shouting encouragement, and, most importantly, praying for us. These are the ones we call saints. They’re not just inspiring historical memories or collections of dried bones, but are fellow members of the family of God, the household of faith, born in the same baptismal water which gave us birth, and nourished at the same heavenly table at which we receive sustenance even this morning.
Are you feeling happy or victorious this morning? Peter and Paul cheer you on! Are you sick? James and John pray for you! Are you feeling discouraged? Martha and Mary and Margaret understand! Are you confused? Augustine and Anselm and Aquinas know how you feel! Wherever we are in our journey toward heaven, our daily faith-walk with Jesus, we are united with, bonded to, a fellowship of love and prayer for which the boundaries of space and time simply do not apply.
All saints, all holy people of God, pray for us!