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November 4, 2007

Topic: Biblical Verse: Ephesians 1:11–1:23

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Feast of All Saints
Ephesians 1:11-23

At the conference I attended at the beginning of this past week, one of the presenters asked if we'd planned to celebrate October 31st in the traditional manner: what better way to remember Reformation Day than going around dressed in costumes, knocking on doors as if posting the 95 Theses, and looking for indulgences? As we heard last weekend, when we remembered the Reformation in our worship services, Martin Luther and the other reformers of those early days wanted to spread the message of God's grace in Jesus Christ. Today, we celebrate the Festival of All Saints, remembering the identity and community that God gives in that grace.

And now God speaks to us through our reading from Ephesians. St. Paul's letter was likely sent as a word of encouragement to the church in Ephesus as well as other congregations in the Roman province of Asia. The saints needed to hear this message. The saints still need to hear this message.

But what or who is a saint? How does somebody get to be a saint? Or for that matter, would anyone even want to be a saint? Some people think of saints as special Christians - like the Apostles, or Augustine, or other heroes of the faith - who did great things during their earthly life, then died and went on to heaven. But the title of "saint" belongs to far more people that just these: everyone who has been brought into the faith is a saint, by the work of the Holy Spirit. This includes living Christians, in addition to all those who have died in Christ, for in your baptism, God made you a saint! The word that Paul uses here in Ephesians for "saints" literally means "the holy (ones)." The saints are a people set apart, consecrated, declared holy by God for service in His Kingdom; however, does that really describe us who struggle with sin on a daily basis? Yes! You have been "sainted," even though you might not always feel like much of a saint.

We still battle - and too often fall to - the temptation to go it alone. As Pastor Meehan preached last weekend, we might adopt a policy of "I do it myself" when trying to get right with God. But if we listen to the world around us, we might not even think about our standing before God. The world's message is a cold one: "You are alone. Alone! You had better look out for yourself and your own, because when you die, that's it. You're dead and gone." Have you felt chill of that declaration in your own life? When a loved one dies, or you lose something that you'd depended on - even if you'd taken it for granted - have you heard the world calling out, "Alone!," calling you to trust only in yourself?

Saints need to hear the message of encouragement that God gives because we are sinners, too. As Luther described our human condition, we are "simul justus et peccator," simultaneously righteous and a sinner. Even as the world calls us abandoned and hopeless, God declares otherwise. We have a guarantee that we are not alone, that God has not abandoned us. He has given us a pledge and a promise in the cross of Christ. We are already connected with our Lord's gift of eternal life, for He made that connection in our baptism. Paul's message of encouragement applies to us. We are sainted, and we can look ahead to the inheritance that the Lord Jesus has won for us: we are not alone.

God has brought us into a community that spans earth and heaven, giving us hope for the here-and-now. For even as the world would tell us how alone we are, pointing to death as our final destination, we can look to the faithful witness of St. Paul, and Augustine, and all those who have gone before us in the faith. In this community, we participate in the assembly of the saints. As many of you know, my mother died a little less than tow months ago; however, because I have the same hope of the resurrection that she did. Though the world tries with all its might to have us believe otherwise, death is not the end. This is the same hope that Paul proclaims, and we are surrounded by the cloud of witnesses who have shared that hope with us.

In a short while, the names of the members of our congregation who died in the past year will be read during our prayers. A candle will be lit at the baptismal font, reminding us of the lives that God planted among us, lives that He redeemed through water and His Word. They have been welcomed into the community of the saints - as has my mother was, as we have been - by our loving God, Who enlightens the eyes of our hearts so that we will not be blinded by the world and by our sin. We can look to the example of these saints to learn and to grow in faith. These were not perfect people. (Mom would be the first to admit that!) But we're not perfect people, either. These saints have fought the battle that we fight, and persevered. They looked to the one perfect person who has ever lived, Jesus the Messiah, and their witness to him and his faithfulness should encourage us. God gives us to each other to strengthen one another. Those who have died in the faith, though gone in body, remain in witness.

In Mexico and, to a lesser extent, in some other Latin American countries, the time around November 1st and 2nd mark el Dìa de los Muertos: the Day of the Dead. If you were to judge this holiday by the skull-shaped candies or the spooky-looking parades that take place, you might think it a pretty morbid celebration; however, it is instead a pretty festive time. Families assemble and go to the cemeteries, cleaning and decorating the gravesites of their loved ones. The holiday comes from the indigenous religions of the region, and the people believed that the dead would come and spend this time with them each year. Revelers would fill the graveyards, lighting candles and have picnics there, feasting with those they loved. In some places, visitors would spend the night, camping by the graveside through the holiday.

As Christians, those who are sainted, we get to spend time with those who have gone before us in the faith. But we don't need to go their graves, and we don't have to wait to a certain time of year to do so. For around the Lord's Table, the saints are with us - the saints here gather with the saints above. We have community in Communion. In this great Mystery that is the Lord's Supper, Christ connects us with them and with each other in Himself. As we come to the altar, we share a meal with my mother and with all those in this congregation who have come to the end of the race here on earth. We are feasting with the saints!

A little before noon on Sunday morning, at the close of our 10:30 worship service, the people of St. John's Lutheran Church will process as a congregation over to our new property, right next door to the current facilities. We will join together in celebrating this new chapter in the life of our community here in northern Virginia; not just thinking about new space but about the possibilities for how we as saints might share the Gospel, proclaiming to our neighbors that they are not all alone. We will look forward in hope to the work that our God will do in this place, among you whom He as declared saints, working through us to invite others with the truth of His Good News in Jesus.

We are sainted - made saints by God's grace - and Christ gathers us together in the church, which is his body. The words of the last stanza of the hymn, "The Church's One Foundation," remind us of this community we share: Yet she on earth has union with God, the Three in One, and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won. O blessed heav'nly chorus! Lord, save us by Your grace, that we, like saints before us, may see You face to face. We are sainted. We are not alone.