“Called To Hope”
Ephesians 1: 11-23
Daniel 7: 1-3, 15-18
Luke 6: 20-21
Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.
—Daily Office Book Year One, Proper 26
We celebrate life on each others’ birthdays. For most of us, the story of our lives is punctuated with birthday cake, candles, and loved ones gathered round. Many families still remember deceased loved ones on their birthdays. Perhaps you put flowers on the grave, and say a special prayer of thanksgiving and memory each year when a beloved one’s birthday rolls around.
The Early Church chose to celebrate the life of a deceased person not on the day of their birth, but instead on the day of their death. The earliest Christian fathers and mothers determined that the day a person found earthly death and eternal resurrection was the day to honor, remember, and uplift that person. Still to this day, we cannot forget the exact day a loved one dies—the exact day of the week, date, month, and year someone we love dies is etched forever in our consciousness. Unlike our Christian forebears, we tend to look at the day of death in grief, not in celebration. That is completely understandable, and appropriate. Still, it behooves us to remember that in the past, the day of a Christian’s death was a sacred date, a day set aside for memory, honor, and yes, celebration.
Christians cherish life. We believe that all life is sacred; we believe that every human being is a child of God, created in God’s love. As a people lifting up the sanctity of life, we do all we can to sustain and nourish life. We love human life becomes life comes from God; our hearts, our bodies, our very beings are molded in God’s creative hands. As we hold life so dear, Christians also have a respect, a reverence, even an awe, for death.
To say that we Christians hold death in respect, reverence, and awe does not mean that we wish to promote death, or hasten it. We do not. Our faith teaches us to take care of each other, and to take care of ourselves. We want to help each other be healthy and whole, in body, in spirit, and in mind. Because Jesus Christ the Son came to humanity as a human, we believe this humanity has been redeemed; we believe this human race is worthy of life and worthy of respect. We also embrace the full narrative of Christ’s story, of Christ’s saving work. That narrative, that work, includes death. We believe that when a Christian dies, they, like Jesus, journey from the pain and fear; from the tears and blood of earthly suffering and human death, into the peace and beauty of resurrection.
Therefore, death–while never to be promoted or hastened by our own selfish acts—is holy, and like every moment of life, an experience of grace, a walk with Christ.
For the Early Church, a saint’s day of death became a day of thanksgiving and celebration— thanksgiving and celebration for that person’s life, for their dedication to Christ, for the resurrection into new life which that departed soul receives now by Christ’s self giving love. When the roll of the saints became too long; when too many Christians had been murdered by a treacherous state or violent neighbors, the Church simply created one day, All Saints, to give thanks, to celebrate lives given for Christ, souls saved by Christ.
All Saints began as a day to remember the literal saints—Christians murdered because of their faith and service to Jesus. Today it has evolved into being a day to remember all the saints of the church who have died, folks who maybe the world doesn’t know or recognize, but sacred lives who had a positive, godly impact on us.
Every death encapsulates sadness, and tragedy. Is anyone ever really ready to die? Is anyone ever really ready for someone they love to suddenly not be here today and tomorrow? Often we think that when someone young dies, when someone very few in years dies, it’s a real tragedy…but when the person who journeys into death has some miles, has some age on them, well then, it’s less tragic, not as sad. I admit I felt that way for a long time until an elderly man in a church I served told me, “Jeff, someday when you are in your eighties and nineties, you’ll see that even then is too young to die.” I’ll never forget that.
With our vibrant faith in resurrection: life forgiven, life eternal, we Christians dare not ever try to diminish the human sadness and very real tragedy that is human death. One thing we pastors are taught along the way is to never try to “talk someone out” of the grief and the sadness that they feel upon the death of a loved one. Don’t try to rationalize it or God-speak it—you know, “Now, she’s with Jesus,” kind of talk. No. We learn to just be there with the person within their grief, embodying the hope of resurrection immediately, but waiting for the words of that hope to naturally sprout up and blossom when their time is right.
As Paul teaches us in Ephesians, not just our death, not just our life even, but the sum total of our all—past, present, and future—can be expressed in one word: hope. Hope. The Christian hope is a hope founded in calling. We are all called to believe in, to love, to follow, and to serve Jesus, as Jesus reveals to us the full reality of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The hope, and the calling exists in three realms of reality. I hope as I describe this, you hear some echoes of what we believe about Communion, too. Life, death; ending, resurrection; All Saints, the Sacraments—they are all connected, all bound together with love, and hope.
First, our hope, or to use Paul’s specific language, “the hope to which [God] has called you,” is wrapped up, safe and secure within the threads of the past. GK Chesterson said, “If you want to know the size of the church, you have to count the tombstones.” The hope of our calling exists in the past. It exists within our memories of those lives of our saints, those folks who loved Christ and gave that love to us as ministry, as legacy. Along with our memories of beloved ones now gone, we also know, deep in our hearts that Christ has been with us. If Jesus hadn’t been with us yesterday, we wouldn’t have survived yesterday. The hope of our calling being rooted in the past goes even deeper than that. As the Psalmist writes in Psalm 139, verse thirteen:
You formed me in my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise you, so wonderfully you made me…My very self you knew; my bones were not hidden from you…
Just as our hope, our calling, exists in the past, so too its heartbeat goes on today. That twelfth verse of Ephesians chapter one says that we Christians are to “live for the praise of his glory.” The very purpose of our lives is to live for Christ. Beyond following Jesus, a huge part of “the hope to which God has called us” is to be together as the Church. Again, Paul reminds us that the Church is Jesus’ body, and the Church is the fullness, or the completion, of Jesus “who fills all in all.” We cannot follow and love Jesus fully unless we are faithful, active members of His body, the Church. A huge part, a major part of how we experience Christ, Christ’s hope and Christ’s love right here, right now, is by being alive together in a living church—a church whose life comes from Christ and the Holy Spirit; a church whose life comes from the sum total of all of our loves being lovingly, gently lived together.
Finally, we will experience the hope of our calling in the future. The Holy Spirit will compel you to do something for Christ’s kingdom tomorrow. God still has work for you to do tomorrow, and for every tomorrow. God still has work for us, the church, Bethesda to do, tomorrow, and for every tomorrow. In a larger sense, the hope of our calling existing in the future is far bigger than even the work God still has left for us to do. It extends…into…forever.
In a time of fear, in a time when a hateful power, an abusive power ruled over Israel, Daniel prophesied about a time when abuse would end. Daniels saw a day when hate would cease and love would reign:
But the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and posses the kingdom forever—forever and ever.
Jesus echoes the words of the prophet—The kingdom really belongs to the poor, and God will give it to them. The hungry will be fed and God will feed them. The ones who weep need to know joy and laugh again, and they will. As Sam Cooke sang so long ago, as a black man facing the racism of pre- Civil Rights America: “A change is going to come.”
It’s All Saints Sunday. All Saints reminds us that we as Christians embrace hope, and we embrace more deeply, a specific kind of hope: a hope of selfless love, the love of a cross becoming Easter resurrection; the hope of a calling—that those who receive such love are called to believe, to love, and to serve. This hope, this calling, exists past, present, and especially, future. Let us pray:
Almighty God, you have knit together your family in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so as to follow your blessed saints in virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
—Daily Office Book Year One, Proper 26