When I was in seminary in Chicago, I took an intensive class with a small group of people from all different faith backgrounds. One of my classmates was finishing his studies to become a Catholic priest and a monk. He used to describe the monastery he was going to live in to us. It sounded beautiful, but the one thing that most stuck with me was his description of the communion rail around the table. They had a polished wooden railing – like a lot of sanctuaries do – that ran all the way around the chancel in a big semi-circle. All the brothers could fit around it together as they gathered for communion. Outside the sanctuary, on the other side of the chancel wall, the circle was continued in stone, and it came together to make one big ring around the table. On this side of the circle was the monastery’s cemetery. Every time they gathered for communion, this circle reminded the living brothers of the monastery that they were also gathered with the dead brothers of the monastery. And they remembered that no matter which side of the wall they were on, they were all part of the one, same community.
This is such a perfect image for the feast of All Saints Day. Every year on this Sunday, we gather to remember all the people whom we have loved and lost. We remember all those who have gone before us in the faith and we give thanks for their witness. And we are reminded that no matter which side of the wall we stand on, the circle of communion is unbroken. We are all part of the communion of saints, every one of us.
This is the feast day of all the saints. Today, we honor our dead and read the names of those who have died within the past year. And today, we also celebrate those who are sitting on this side of the wall. In just a little while, we will welcome new saints into this congregation, even as we give thanks for those who are already here and for those who have come back to the St. John’s community.
It is an odd tension that we live in. As Christians, we are called to remember the dead even while we are among the living. We celebrate life in all its various stages. And we face the reality of death, even our own death, full of faith that it will not have the last word. I think it’s easy to forget sometimes just how radically countercultural this is. We live in a society that is mortally terrified of death and dying. I mean, just think of the billions of dollars that Americans spend every year on anti-aging products — makeup and creams and supplements and all kinds of snake oils that promise to fight aging. Think of the way it’s become customary to do funerals – we preserve bodies of loved ones in a cocktail of toxic chemicals and even cover the dirt of their graves in astroturf, as though we can somehow hide the harsh reality of death.
As Christians, we know there’s no need to hide the truth. There’s no need to be afraid of death, because death has already been defeated.
Having said all this, it doesn’t mean that the reality of death isn’t painful. I imagine that just about everyone sitting in this room has known the pain of being separated from someone they love by death. And you have seen the pain of others as they grieve the loss of someone they love. Just in this past week, there have been several deaths in our community. In particular, I know that many of you have a personal connection to Karrie Healy, who was killed in a car accident just a few days ago. The grief is raw and bitter and agonizing to experience.
Not even Jesus is immune to grief. In our gospel reading for today, Jesus is called to the home of his dear friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, only to find out that Lazarus has died. Jesus is “greatly disturbed” and “deeply moved” when he sees his friends grieving. Jesus already knows what is coming – he knows that he is seconds away from calling Lazarus out of the tomb – but he weeps with Mary and Martha when he sees them weeping. Jesus realizes that they don’t yet know what he is about to do. And when Lazarus eventually dies again – as we have to assume he did – they won’t know then either when the final resurrection will come.
We live in the same tension of knowing that there is glory to come – unending life in God’s kingdom – but having no idea when it will come, only that we are not there yet. We have faith that, just as we were baptized into Christ’s death, we and our loved ones were baptized into Christ’s life, and that we will rise again. But the “meanwhile” is painful. The separation is painful, as long as we are one one side of the circle and they are on the other.
We can take some comfort knowing that Jesus weeps with us, seeing our tears, just as he did with Mary and Martha. God sees our suffering and is present with us when we are in pain. But God doesn’t just stop there. God promises us so much more.
In fact, our texts for today are overflowing with God’s promises. This is one of those Sundays where I almost want to just stand up, read the readings again, say “Amen,” and sit back down. There’s so much goodness here. Isaiah promises that God “will destroy… the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; God will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.” And the text from Revelation takes this vision from Isaiah and runs with it: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down… from God… And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s peoples… God 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.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”
This is the hope with which we live. This is the hope that makes it possible to endure the painful separations of this life.
And this is the hope that informs the way that we live now. We know that even those who have died are alive in God, and that in Christ we are all members of the one communion of saints. This is the faith that we daily profess. In just a moment, we will confess our faith as part of the rite of the affirmation of baptism. I invite you to dwell on the words we speak and to hear anew the hope that we claim:
“I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
As you speak these words of faith, and as you come forward to be fed at our Lord’s table, I invite you to think about that circle extending out past the wall of the chancel. See the faces of those who have gone before us standing on the other side of the table. Know that the promises of God are trustworthy and true. Death has indeed been defeated, and God is making all things new.