So what is this thing called "All Saints Day"?

Eastern Orthodox icon of All Saints. Christ is enthroned in heaven surrounded by the ranks of angels and saints. At the bottom is Paradise with the bosom of Abraham(left), and the Good Thief (right). (Description from Wikipedia)

For Sunday, November 6, 2011
(Readings for All Saints Day, Nov. 1, 2011)
Proper 27

This Sunday is All Saints Day.  If you are a Protestant than what this probably brings to mind is nothing but the sound of crickets.  Yet in this quiet moment why don’t we let history speak to us and see in what direction it might redirect us forward?

Dr. Dan Clendenin has a wonderful essay entitled “Celebrating the Saints: All Saints Day” in which he traces the origins of this day and suggests some ways it could bless us in the present.  He notes that in the first four hundred years of the church’s history there was a felt need to remember those who had founded the faith, especially at the price of their lives.  Just as those of us who are Americans draw strength from remembering George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, so did the early church draw strength from remembering heroes such as The Apostle Paul, Justin Martyr, and Augustine.  The author to the Hebrews provides a wonderful panoramic of the people of God’s early history in Hebrews 11 which he concludes with this: 

And what more shall I say?   I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned into strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.  Women received back their dead, raised to life again. . . Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.  They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword . . . the world was not worthy of them. (Heb. 11:32 – 38, selected).

If the church is to be what she is called to be today then this legacy must be nurtured and cherished.  Yet as Clendenin notes, in honoring this legacy mistakes have been made.  He quotes Martin Luther, whom many consider to be the founding father of Protestantism:

These vulgar distortions of the Gospel made Luther’s blood boil: “What lies there are about relics! One claims to have a feather from the wing of the angel Gabriel, and the Bishop of Mainz has a twig from Moses’ burning bush. And how does it happen that eighteen apostles are buried in Germany when Christ had only twelve?”

So how might we recover the legacy without being blinded by such abuses?  Clendenin points the way forward:

. . . Protestants shouldn’t overreact and throw out the baby with the bath water. We shouldn’t dismiss a practice just because it’s abused. Protestants could do a better job of honoring the role that the saints can play in our Christian lives, especially for us who in stressing the personal nature of salvation often slide into individualistic, privatistic, and even narcissistic patterns of discipleship. We should see ourselves in the greater, communal identity of all God’s people. There’s a social and corporate dimension to our journey with Jesus that should include the saints.

When I think about the saints, whether the especially holy like Mother Teresa or the egregiously fallen like Jimmy Swaggart, I’m reminded that I have choices to make in my Christian life, and that my choices matter (emphasis mine). These choices have consequences for my spiritual welfare.  

Here then are a few practical suggestions on how we might mark All Saints Day personally and corporately.  First, if you are part of a small group, take an evening to share about your favorite biblical heroes of the faith, and how they inspire you.  Second, consider reading a book about great heroes of the faith, such as John Woodbridge’s Great Leaders of the Christian Church.  Third, take a morning to journal about the contemporaries who have made the most significant marks on your own journey faith.  I think of people like Jan Godfrey, Bill Godfrey, Stuart Briscoe, Mike Franz, Steve Sonderman, Jeff Chudy, Sam Osterloh, Doug Clarkson, and Jerome Iverson.  Unfortunately, like the author to the Hebrews, I don’t have time to tell you more.

The important thing, however, is to remember that God in his mercy and sovereign glory uses those who have gone before to point the way ahead.  On this All Saints Day may our common path forward be blessed by the rich legacy into which we’ve been called.


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