Today we remember all the saints who have preceded us into the kingdom of heaven. This feast is ancient – growing out of festivals to honor martyrs – and somewhere in the 4th Century, both in the Eastern and the Western Christian traditions, the festival grew to include all the saints who’ve died, not just martyrs. Today’s feast is a time to consider what it means to be a saint and what it means to live as a people who know that death is not the end.
Our lessons for today, from the Book of Wisdom, the Book of Revelation, and from the Gospel of John, all emphasize that death is not the end of our story.
The Wisdom of Solomon, the source of our first reading, is an Apocryphal Text – which means that it’s not part of the Old Testament or the New Testament, but one of those books that not all the churches believed ought to be a part of the canon of the Bible. The Anglican and the Episcopal Church, along with others, does include The Wisdom of Solomon in our Bible. If the name of the book doesn’t sound familiar, that’s why – it’s an apocryphal text, full of wise sayings, but it doesn’t come up often in our cycle of readings.
His words are beautiful and comforting. ‘The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.’ Isn’t that what we want for all the people we have loved and lost? Isn’t that what we want for ourselves? Death breaks our hearts, but death is not the end of the story.
John’s words in Revelation are comforting as well, ‘and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ What a wonderful vision of our future.
In our reading from John’s gospel, Jesus does not say anything when Mary confronts him ‘If you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ Before Jesus meets Mary, he had a conversation with her sister Martha, recorded in the verses before the section we read today. To Martha, Jesus says, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’
As Jesus moves closer to the tomb of Lazarus, meets Mary and the other mourners, he weeps at the loss of his friend. When confronted with death, even Jesus weeps and mourns. We have permission to mourn, just as Jesus mourned. Death breaks our hearts, but death is not the end of the story. This death certainly was not the end of the story for Lazarus.
We need the words of Solomon, the vision of John, the reassurance of Jesus when we lose people that we love. We need to know that they are okay, that whatever pain they suffered, whatever struggle they experienced, they’re now at peace. Our texts remind us that death is not the end of the story.
Today is All Saints, the day we celebrate those we have lost. One definition of the word ‘saint’ comes from the Catholic tradition of one who was responsible for miracles, during their life or after their death. That’s a much stricter understanding of the word than what we know from the New Testament. The Apostle Paul tells us that all Christians are called to be saints and he often addressed his letters ‘to the saints at … ‘ Rome or Corinth or Philippi. To Paul’s way of thinking, each Christian is a saint; each Christian leads others to faith by the example of their life.
Human beings are relational creatures. We are born into families, we learn who we are through our interactions with our families and our relationships with other people. Other people help form us, help make us who we are, for better or for worse. We wouldn’t know love without other people. We wouldn’t know God’s love without other people.
We have direct a relationship with God, but we wouldn’t know God without other people. The people who have loved us, who have shown us God’s love, introduced us to faith, challenged and taught and led us into deeper faith – these folks are our saints. Because of them, we learned faith. Because of them, we believe.
You and I are also saints. In the web of human relationship, others know love because we love them. Others know God’s love through us. Others’ faith is deepened, challenged, made stronger through the faith that we exhibit. Our faith matters. Our example matters. What we do, what we say, how we live – it matters. Someone else is depending on us to show them the way. We are called to be saints.
How we live matters. Many people fear death. Now, some fear of death is inevitable – we don’t know what death is like, we don’t know what the passage from this life to the next is really like. But too often, death becomes the enemy – something to be avoided at all costs. The notion of a ‘good death’ seems like an oxymoron – how can anything about death be good?
As Christians, believing as we do that death is not the end of the story, we do not have to see death as an enemy. Death is simply the doorway from this world to the next. Death is the pathway into the presence of God. Often death means the end of pain and suffering for the one who dies. They die and as the Wisdom of Solomon says, ‘they are at peace.’
How would our lives change if we could live as if we believed that death is not the end of the story, if we believed that death is just a part of our lives, the doorway from this world to the next. How much fear could you and I let go of, how much more energy would we have to really live if we were not afraid to die? Jesus came to bring abundant life to us and we tiptoe around trying to avoid death. We do not need to be afraid. Death might break our hearts, but death is not the end of our story.
May God give us the courage to live deeply unafraid of the future. May we live boldly, as vibrant examples of faith for those to whom we are saints. Amen.