All Saints Sunday – Nov. 7, 2021
All Saints Sunday 2021 “The Resurrection Song” Matt. 5:1-12
Like my favorite chapters of Scripture, my favorite hymns change more than you might think. There’re so many good ones! That hymn of the day we just sang, over this last year, has zoomed from one I barely knew and had sung maybe 5 or 6 times in my life, to top 3 all-time. And, just maybe, the story of how that happened might be instructive as we celebrate All Saints Day and ponder what it is and means for us?
There is a widespread misconception that the “Festival of All Saints” is a day to celebrate and remember the great saints of old who’ve finished their earthly course and now rest from the labors, enjoying the glories of heaven—as if the most we can get out of this day is inspirational examples to try to emulate.
But that’s not what the festival is at all! It’s not called “The Day of the Dear Departed Saints, The Heroes of Old”. No. It’s called “All Saints Day”. And all means ALL!” Luther defined the saints simply and biblically: saints are mere Christians, “holy believers, sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd.” A saint is simply someone who has been sanctified, beatified by Christ Jesus. And, mmm… how does he do that?
By grace alone, through faith alone, without works of our own, for Christ’s sake alone; as we reviewed last week! As our confessions rightly say: “The Holy Spirit works faith where and when he pleases in those who hear the Gospel.” Baptism and the Lord’s Supper seal the deal and make us always members of the Body of Christ, participants in his story.
You who hear the Gospel, and are baptized, and eat Christ’s Body and drink Christ’s Blood—You’re saints! All of you! This Day is your day! It’s not the Day of the Dear Departed Heroes of Faith. It’s your day and my day. It’s a day to remember who we are and why we are and what exactly is the hope and glory of our Story.
That’s why I love our hymn of the day. The first line is perfect: “Sing with all the saints in glory…” I’ve never loved 677, “For All The Saints”. Because it has us singing for not with the saints—making a sharp distinction between we and they. Singing “with all” the saints in glory is so much better! Sing!—as one of them, member of that grandest club, as a glorious one yourself with a wonderfully storied past, and an even brighter future. I know nothing about William Irons, the 19th century author of this hymn, but I like him. He gets it, tells the Story truly.
So, what do we sing? “Sing the resurrection song!” It’s an athletic tale that blends tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale into one epic, loosely organized, non-fiction novel that’s a real humdinger. “Death and sorrow, earth’s dark story, to the former days belong. All around the clouds are breaking; soon the storms of time shall cease; in God’s likeness we awaken, knowing everlasting peace.”
This is not the story of a single individual. It’s a collective story, like the Nicene Creed (which our hymnal does not correctly translate). It’s not “I believe” but, in the original Greek, it’s We believe”! I know collectives have a bad reputation in advanced, late capitalism—which much prefers to isolate us as individual consumers (the better to manipulate you toward advertiser’s ends!) There’s no “I” in church, but there is one in εκλεσσια—buried, at the end, with Christ. The Church is always a we, the members of Christ’s Body. A royal “we”!
And the point of the story is: through all the death and sorrow—earth’s dark story—there is redemption that triumphs at last, shining brightest in the darkness of Golgotha, from noon till three, dawning Easter Sunday, promising that all of us who hear and are baptized, at the Son’s Glorious Return—“in God’s likeness we awaken, knowing everlasting peace.”
We songs, collective songs, the songs of a people, not of an isolated heroic individual, are not hugely popular in our culture. Sometimes, a few of them break through. Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” was one, and though Rastafarians aren’t exactly orthodox, they are massively influenced by the Christian Story.
“Old pirates, yes, the rob I/ Sold I to the merchant ships… But my hand was made strong/ By the hand of the Almighty/ We forward in this generation/ Triumphantly… but, we’ve got to fulfill the book/… So, won’t you help to sing/ These songs of freedom?/ ‘Cause all I ever have/ Redemption Songs/.” Christ’s Story’s the a Redemption Song that together we fulfill—though you and I play our parts in highly unique, individual ways.
So we sing with all the saints in glory, individually/collectively—Christ’s one Body, many members…
It was last spring that I got news that my only son had landed in bad shape in the ICU, in a distant city, diagnosed with a chronic and life-threatening ailment. He was responding OK to treatment, but it was a little dicey. The disease was detected with not much time for treatment to save him. And it’s a disease that requires daily, life-long management, so you’re never exactly out of the woods with it.
One of the perks of my job is that I can walk down the hall and pray in the church. Prayers are heard anywhere, everywhere, but there’s something about praying in front of an actual altar, an actual crucifix, that I find helpful. And, after a few petitions for my son’s health, I turned, as I usually do, to psalms and hymns. Now, we’d sung 671 a week before, and it was in my head, so I plunked it out on the piano and sang the resurrection song—not just for him, by myself, but with all the saints in glory.
And it put that whole dark day and all the fear and all the anxiety into perspective, into the context of Jesus’ much larger and grander Story. “Oh, what glory, far exceeding/ All that eye has yet perceived! Holiest hearts for ages pleading/ Never that full joy conceived./ God has promised, Christ prepares it; there on high our welcome waits./ Ev’ry humble spirit shares it, Christ has passed th’eternal gates.”
With a song like that on our lips, fear flies away. There’s no promise that we won’t die early, tragically. I’ve always been fine with that, for myself, but find maintaining a loose grip on loved ones’ lives slightly more challenging. But the song reminded me: earth’s dark story’s just prologue—whether we exit early or late, Paul’s words remain true: “if I live on, it means fruitful labor; but, if I depart, I’ll be with Christ—which is far better.” Death, for all the baptized, is a magnificent defeat that crowns our story with divine Glory—the Glory of the Crucified, Risen, Jesus.
Just so, some of that everlasting peace got hold of me. Whatever happens, nothing is amiss with God. Even those who don’t think they’re part of His story, are, and reflect Christ’s love, marvelously. And when our final day dawns, well! That’s truly glorious. “Life eternal! Heav’n rejoices: Jesus lives who once was dead. Shout with joy, O deathless voices! Child of God, lift up your head! Life eternal! Oh, what wonders crowd on faith; what joy unknown, when, amid earth’s closing thunders, saints shall stand before the throne…”
Whatever brings us to stand there, then—no matter how dark or difficult it may seem—is Glorious and Grand—even the poverty, mourning, the humiliation, hunger, thirst, the persecutions, even now are glorious!, for they conform us to the image of Christ, they guarantee that just as Christ suffered, died, was buried, and rose victorious, we too shall rise.
And so we sing The Resurrection Song, our song; since Christ has passed the eternal gates, so shall we— all his saints. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.