You all know what vertigo is, right? Well, get ready.
The feast we celebrate this day is deeply subversive; it is deeply disorienting. It may not seem like it at first, but when we unpack the meaning of this observance of all the saints, we find several things going on that profoundly challenge the way we usually think about ourselves and the way we think about the world.
For example, the observance of the feast of all the saints challenges our understanding of time. We think of time in rather linear terms: beginning, middle, end. Every day, our experience reinforces our expectation that time moves in one direction: from the past through the present to the future. Sometimes it seems time is going very fast, other times it seems time is going very slow (kind of like now): but either way, once it’s gone, it’s gone, and there’s no going back.
The feast of all the saints challenges that view of time. That’s because the feast of all the saints is about the intersection of time and eternity.
I don’t just mean this is the day we remember those who have gone before: that’s closer to the feast of All Souls, not the feast of All Saints. I mean this is the day when we celebrate the unity of all the saints in all times and all places: those who have gone before, those who are present to us now, and those who exist in what is for us the future. Today we are invited to reorder our lives in light of that reality, the reality of the fellowship and the communion of all the saints. Today we are invited to see the eternal refracted in time and to see all times and all places united in eternity.
Here’s another way the feast of all the saints proves to be deeply subversive: today we are reminded we are saved together or not at all. In other words, today we are reminded how much we need each other. Spirituality, as it turns out, is not just an individual affair, something for you and you and you and me to pursue each on our own. Spirituality is in part about awakening to the essential connections we share.
Today we are reminded we are connected to one another because of what God has done in the past, what God is doing in the present, and what God will do in the future: we are reminded we are connected because of God’s creative action, and because of God’s redemptive action, and because of God’s consummative action.
When we realize we are essentially related to one another and to all the saints, then we recognize we are in fact related to the whole of the creation: from the highest form of sentient life to the most simple chemical compounds and physical elements, it’s all connected. We are reminded we are caught up in the whole sweep of God’s activity in the world, from the creation of all things to the calling of Abraham to the resurrection of the messiah to the unimaginable fulfillment of all God has in mind for his creation.
If this is right—if we are indeed connected to one another in this way—then our observance of the feast of all the saints is an act of thanksgiving for the grace we have received from others, and it’s an act of repentance for our failure to be vehicles of grace to others. But’s it’s also a chance to begin again, to renew our commitment and our belonging in the body of Christ and to the particular ministries we are called to fulfill.
Do you feel the vertigo yet? Do you see why I said this feast day has a way of disorienting us? This day we stand in one place and in all places; we are ourselves and we are connected to one another; we celebrate and we repent, all at once. That’s quite a balancing act.
Here’s another way the feast of all the saints disorients us: it reminds us what counts as a blessing in the eyes of the world and what counts as a blessing in the eyes of God may be very different things.
Blessed are you who are poor; blessed are you who are hungry; blessed are you who mourn; blessed are you when people hate you. These are generally not the kind of things we go out of our way to try and experience; in fact, more often we go out of our way to avoid these kinds of experiences.
Of course, we’ve got to be a little careful here: I don’t think Jesus is saying poverty and hunger and mourning are good in and of themselves. Being poor doesn’t automatically make you a saint any more than being wealthy automatically makes you a sinner. But experiences like poverty and hunger and mourning tend to drive us to our knees in ways wealth and plenty and happiness often do not.
That doesn’t mean God wants us to suffer, but it does mean part of being a saint involves learning how to experience poverty and hunger and mourning as opportunities for thanksgiving. Anyone can give thanks to God when things are going well and the sun is shining; saints are those who learn how to give thanks to God in the midst of the darkness and the storm.
Here’s a final way the feast of all the saints disorients us and upsets us: it calls us to radical reconciliation. This is probably the hardest part. Love your enemies, pray for those who curse you, submit to those who are violent, be generous to those who take advantage of you. That’s very difficult stuff.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think this is the hardest part of what Jesus has to say to us today. I don’t get this part; I wish Jesus had moderated this just a little. But when I reflect on these commands—and I think they are commands—there is one thing that occurs to me that helps me make some sense of them.
Being able to love your enemy means you have so surrendered yourself to God that you no longer recognize your enemy as an enemy; you see them as a brother or a sister. Being able to be generous to those who take advantage of you means you have learned to trust in the judgment of God. You realize you are connected to everyone, everyone in a very deep and essential way. You recognize you are being saved with them or not at all, and you give thanks for that connection.
This is why the communion of saints is so important. How could we possibly live out this subversive, disorienting gospel if it weren’t for the fellowship and the support of our sisters and brothers in Christ? How could we possibly maintain our awareness of the intersection of time and eternity if we didn’t have one another to remind us of our connection to all the saints each and every moment of our lives? How else could we sustain the kind of hope that looks forward to the fulfillment of God’s work in the world?
The gift God has given to us that enables us to do all these things is the gift of one another. This is what the feast of all the saints is about: the way we are sustained by all the saints and the way we help sustain all the saints, those who have gone before, those who are present to us now, and those who will come after us.
This is part of what Paul’s getting at in our reading from his letter to the Ephesians: he writes,“you were marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit, and this mark is the promise of your redemption.” Being marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit means being baptized into the body of Christ, being joined to God in Christ by being joined to the other members of the body of Christ. On this day, we give thanks for the blessing God has given to us in Jesus Christ, and we are reminded that this blessing comes to us through the relationships we share with one another and with all the saints.
May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ give us a spirit of wisdom as we come to know him so that our hearts and our minds may be enlightened and we may know the immeasurable greatness of his power and the glory of the hope to which he has called us and all the saints. Amen.