This is one of my favorite days of the church year. Today the hymns are wonderful. We just baptized a boatload of youngsters into the family of the church. We are pausing to remember those we love who have died in the past year. And we are honoring the unbroken stream of saints in the church’s long life, people who by the way they lived let the light of Christ shine through them: Francis and Julian of Norwich; Hildegard and Patrick; Martin Luther King and Jawani Luwum, the Anglican Archbishop who was murdered for standing up for the victims of dictator Idi Amin.
It would be easy to think that this day is all about spiritual heroes, the religious superstars who were able to do things most of us can only admire from afar. But that would miss the heart of this day. For one thing, the word “saint” in the New Testament refers to anyone who has been baptized and is part of the church. Paul addresses a letter “To the saints in Ephesus” or “To the saints in Corinth.” That means that we who have been baptized are already saints. We are already part of Christ’s family; we are his disciples, called to let his light shine through us. So this morning when you greet each other at the peace or after the service, I want you to say to your friend, “Peace be with you, Saint Fred,” or on your way to a cup of coffee, “Good morning, Saint Gertrude.”
But that’s only part the story of All Saints Day. Today is not only about all these individual saints. We’re also celebrating what the church calls “the communion of saints.” Did you listen to the prayer we offered just after the opening hymn? “Almighty God, you have knit together your people in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son, Christ our Lord.” You and I are part of one communion and fellowship—all those living and dead across the centuries who are held together as one in Christ’s love.
The New Testament is full of images of this communion of saints. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages his struggling hearers when he says, “Because we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” We have a cheering section in those who have gone before us and are now alive in God. The last book in the Bible, the Book of Revelation, with its dazzling vision of the end of everything, sees “a great multitude which no one can number, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, gathered around a heavenly throne and crying out together, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!’” Our destiny as human beings is meant to be something like that, John of Patmos is saying—everyone gathered around the One who created and redeemed us, offering thanks and praise. But bear in mind we’re not talking about heroes here but all of the known and unknown, the extraordinary and the ordinary, participating together in God’s life and love.
Now granted, this notion of one great union of the living and the dead must seem pretty strange for us. We Americans are proud of our individualism. We pride ourselves on making it on our own, or so we think. American movies and television have idolized lone-ranger cowboys and ornery, independent cops and spies. I recently saw the documentary “Inside Job” about the recent financial collapse, and it shows our corporations still showering hundreds of millions of dollars of compensation on lone-ranger CEO’s who can pull off big quarterly profits. In a me-first, make-it-on-your-own culture, communion seems naïve and competition appears to be the only real game in town.
But, in a strange way, this ancient celebration of saints is telling us what we are hearing more and more from physicists and economists as well as mystics and spiritual guides. Physicists tell us there are no such things as independent entities. Every subatomic particle is being continually affected by other particles around it, just as the earth is constantly being influenced by the gravitational pull of the sun. And the interconnectedness of everything is so profound that the slightest event, as it ripples through the physical world, can set off entirely unanticipated consequences. These physicists talk about the “butterfly effect,” the fact that it is entirely possible that something as slight as butterfly wing’s flutter in Japan could trigger enough other infinitely small events across the world that it could create a storm in the North Atlantic.
Or think of the way one strange hiccup in a single computer on Wall Street a year or two ago created a worldwide stock sell-off, sending the stock market down briefly by nearly a thousand points. Or think of the riots that broke out in the Middle East as a result of the foolish threats of a Florida pastor to hold a Quran-burning event, or the melting Arctic glaciers as our cars and plants spew carbon into the air thousands of miles away.
The world is an organic whole, the English physicist David Bohm declares, and the mistake human beings continue to make is to see it instead as a conglomeration of independent, fragmented, disconnected pieces.
Most of us, I imagine, are still trying to recover from the mean-spiritedness of the election season that ended last Tuesday. It seemed to be a nonstop series of ugly accusations, twisted truths, negative ads, and predictions of doom—from both sides of the political divide. Of course the campaign season was driven by fear and anger. But it is striking how in times such as these the human impulse is to attack, to blame, to impugn the character of others, to scare voters: in short, to drive everyone down into their private fears.
We have lately been a country splintering into alienated groups, interests, and individuals, everyone fighting for themselves. Yet the only answer to our political problems is a vision of a common good, a willingness to respect and listen to one another, a readiness to make sacrifices for the health of the country and the well-being of the most vulnerable. And one place to begin that healing is with Christians reclaiming the vision of communion and oneness we celebrate on this All Saints Day.
St. Paul kept holding up a vision of a new interconnected humanity. “Bear one another’s burdens,” he said. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” “You are [all of you together] the body of Christ,” one living interconnected entity made up of all Christians, in whom Christ dwells continually.
We Christians believe, as one theologian put it, “that independence is an idol … that isolation is never splendid and that autonomy is a lie. Dependence is the changeless truth about our relationship to one another and to all creation.”
No one understood this better than C.S. Lewis’s novelist friend Charles Williams, who believed that we humans are meant to be what he called “God-bearers” to each other, channels of God’s love. And he said that the deepest truth of our lives is what he called the “co-inherence,” that our lives are immersed in God. There’s no separating out God in us, and us in God, and you and me in each other.
In Charles Williams’ novel Descent into Hell a woman who has been suffering with an almost pathological fear is confronted by a wise friend with a strange question: “Haven’t you asked [someone] to carry your fear?” “What do you mean?” she responds. “How can anyone carry my fear?” He tells her that she could hand that burden over to him and that he could carry it for her. “When you think you’ll be afraid, let me put myself in your place and be afraid instead of you.
“Haven’t you heard,” he says, “St. Paul’s words about bearing one another’s burdens? That’s no pious talk; it’s a fact of experience. I can carry your burden for you; it’s part of the law of the universe.” He is saying we can actually substitute for each other as we take on one another’s struggles.
C.S. Lewis himself, during the final stages of his wife’s illness with bone cancer, asked that some of her pain be given to him; and he reported that he developed in his own leg a painful condition, and for a while his wife’s pain eased. A priest and close friend of mine has told me of times when, visiting someone overcome with fear, say, on the night before surgery, he has invited them to let him carry their fears for the night. And he has said that they have reported feeling relief from the burdens they were under as he himself felt weighted down.
These accounts may simply express the power of love and empathy. But could it be that our minds and spirits can profoundly affect each other? A great mystic of the early twentieth century, Baron von Hügel, takes this seriously: “I wonder whether you realize a deep, great fact? That souls, all human souls, are interconnected … that we can not only pray for each other but suffer for each other.”
The gospel we heard today is about what it means to live in the communion of saints. “Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus says. “Blessed are you who are hungry. Blessed are you who weep.” Blessed, in short, are you who know your dependence on God and on each other. You’re on to the real thing, to the life you were made to live, to the one way of life that can bring hope in a world as divided and frightened as ours.
And Jesus goes on, “Woe to you who are full now, to you who are rich,” not because those are terrible things themselves, but because they drive you into yourself and away from the communion of God in us and us in God and us with each other that is our deepest truth.
The reality is that we don’t have to do grand heroic things to be saints. Just like the young people we baptized today, we’re already saints. The truth is that every human being is part of God’s own life. What baptism does is to show us in a way we will never forget that we are Christ’s own, so that we can grow more and more into our full place in God’s communion.
Many of you know of the wonderful Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry, who writes constantly about the interconnectedness of everything—past and present, human beings and the earth. A character in one of his stories sums it up this way:
We are members of each other. All of us. Everything. The difference isn’t in who is a member and who isn’t, but who knows and who doesn’t.
Today as we all take our baptismal vows again, make new Christians, and feel the baptismal water sprinkled on us, we will know again that we are part of God’s own life and members of each other.
That’s a truth our world desperately needs to see and hear. And we saints are the ones God is calling to show it.