One of the greatest preachers I ever had the privilege of hearing once compared going to church with visiting the ophthalmologist. I hope this doesn’t conjure up unpleasant memories in your minds. I know there are sometimes long waits at my eye doctor’s offices.
But what the preacher meant to say is that worship is a corrective lens, through which we see our world and our lives in it as we are meant to. For six days our eyes are accustomed to seeing turmoil: political division, family fragmentation, poverty, homelessness, wars, and natural disasters. All these suggest to us that the world and our lives in it are ruled by the powers of this world and blind chance. For eyes that see through the lens that the world provides, this is how it often seems.
In our epistle lesson for today, on which we observe All Saints Day, the apostle invites us to trade this lens for the corrective lens that that gifted preacher had in mind.
To be more precise, the apostle prays that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened, so that we may see as we are supposed to see as God’s people, as children whom the Father dearly loves.
Parenthetically, this prayer ought to be familiar to you, because we pray a variation of it each Sunday before the reading of our Scripture lessons. We are referring of course to our Prayer for Illumination. Indeed, if we consult the Latin Vulgate, the standard Latin translation of the Bible, the link between this verse in our lesson and our prayer is obvious. For we there we read that the apostle prays that the eyes of our hearts may be illuminated.
And when they are, we discover that it’s not the powers of this world and blind chance that control the world and our lives in it. Rather, it is God.
God’s power is beyond measure, far greater than any rival power. God exerts some of this measureless power everywhere around us, but our eyes are not very good at noticing it.
But if we want to know how great this power really is, we need to direct our gaze towards Christ. Now through the lens the world provides, the figure of Christ appears absurd. Where can one find a better example of a life crushed by the powers of this world and blind chance? Rejected by his own people and condemned by the imperial authorities, he went to his death like a common criminal, even though innocent. And he died a real death.
Can we name a power greater in our world than death? Nothing or no one can conquer death. Consider the greatest, wealthiest, and smartest people in the world, both now and in the past. In the face of death, they are no better than the least of us.
But God’s power is stronger than death, which he demonstrated by raising Christ from the dead. And that is not all. God used his power to give him power, power greater than anyone or anything has, in this age and in the age to come.
Since we are in Christ, since we belong to Christ, we can find comfort in this power. Even when it appears that we are at the mercy of the powers of this world, even when it appears that we are the playthings of blind chance, or the victims of circumstances or the children of misfortune, we are not. Christ is sovereign over all, and he exercises his power for the benefit of his own, who make up the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
In the Gospel of John, when Jesus wanted to reassure his followers of his power to keep them, he compared himself with a shepherd and his followers with sheep. There are few animals more helpless than a sheep. And yet Jesus vowed that no one can snatch them out of his hand. And if there be any doubt, he added: My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them out of his hand (John 10:28-29).
The knowledge of God’s power, at work in us and on our behalf, frees us from anxiety about the future. It is in God’s hands; it is enfolded into God’s will; it is included in God’s purposes. There is no safer place for our future to be, because there is no power greater than God’s power. Who can snatch us out of his hand? Who can contradict his will? Who can frustrate his purposes?
The apostle wants us to be confident in God’s future for us. To this end, he tells us that God has sealed us with the promised Holy Spirit. In this context, he calls the Holy Spirit a “pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people.”
The Holy Spirit as a pledge is an interesting image worth considering. To help us understand it, we can go to a story in the Old Testament. It is found in Genesis 38, where we find the story of Judah and Tamar.
Judah is the fourth son of Jacob. He is traveling to a town named Timnah, where the men he hired are shearing his sheep. While he is there he meets Tamar, who has disguised herself. Thinking her to be a woman of ill repute, he goes to her to ask her how much for her services.
He does not have yet the amount that she is asking, so she asks for his signet ring and his staff as a pledge.
What is she hoping to accomplish here? She reasons that, because these are valuable to Judah, he will come back and get them. As long as his valuable belongings are with her, she can be reasonably assured that she will see him again. When he comes back with the payment, she will return to him the pledge.
The woman turns out to be Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, to whom Judah owes another one of his sons after the first two died, according to Jewish law.
We will not continue with the story here. We will have to save it for another time. We are concerned about this story today only insofar as it provides us the illustration. The Holy Spirit is a pledge that God gives to his people. Just as Tamar had the signet ring and staff of Judah, we have the Holy Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit is a form of guarantee that God will come back for us, his children. He will not leave us as orphans. And when he does come back, he will give to us the inheritance that he’s promised to us.
These are lofty truths, not easy to grasp. That’s why the apostle feels the need to pray that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened, as we’ve already mentioned. To see as we are supposed to see, we certainly need clear vision. But the clear vision we need is also wide vision.
When we go to the eye doctor, we have our peripheral vision tested—how far we can see to either side. Peripheral vision is important for daily tasks, such as driving our cars. With the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we have a wide perspective, with which to see the very wide stage on which our lives play out. This stage is so wide that it is cosmic in extent.
Friends who are concerned about us because of the difficulties we are facing will sometimes counsel us: “why don’t you take a step back? You need perspective.”
The apostle is inviting us to do the same. He realizes that we become so busy that we spend most of our time and energy looking at the problems directly in front us instead of at the risen and exalted Christ and the vast realm over which he reigns.
There is a story of a man who went to visit his friend who lived on the seashore. His friend called him over to see his new telescope. “Well, take a look.” The man had been scanning the horizon with a pair of small binoculars. With them he saw a couple of ships, and a few small fishing vessels. Nothing much else.
But when he put his eye to his friend’s telescope, he couldn’t believe what he saw. The ships he had seen—suddenly they were so close that he could see the names on their sides, and people walking back and forth on the decks. But that was only the beginning. Out beyond them where his binoculars registered nothing at all were several more ships: large and small, commercial and military, including a cruise liner. The telescope seemed to have the uncanny power of making things appear out of nowhere.
How many of us are trying to live this life with a pair of small binoculars when we have a telescope available to us in the Word of God?
This is an apt image for us. We are very few in number in this congregation. And this congregation in turn is part of a Protestant mainline denomination that’s in rapid decline. We see only a couple of ships, and a few small fishing vessels. Nothing much else. It can be very discouraging.
But All Saints Day calls us to exercise the vision that our worship grants to us, in answer to the prayer that the apostle prays for us. We see not only the few people here gathered together with us, but we see the church universal, the church through the ages.
Tradition does not divide the church into Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic, or Lutheran. These are mere human divisions, which in fact Scripture does not accept. There is only one essential distinction in the church. On one hand, there is the church militant (ecclesia millitans), the church that still struggles in the world in its continuing pilgrimage towards the heavenly city. And on the other hand, there is the church triumphant (ecclesia triumphans). For the struggle is over. The victory is won. They are now at rest. In the days remaining to each one of us in this life, we are comforted, because we can look forward to the rest they already enjoy.
Indeed, this is how the author of the Letter to the Hebrews comforted his readers in the heat of the struggle. After giving them a hall of fame of the Old Testament saints who lived and died in faith, he writes: “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with endurance the race that is marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith” (Heb. 12:1).
The image here is of a stadium. In ancient Greece, the word “clouds” was used to describe the highest seats in the bleachers of a stadium. The seats at the very top of the stadium were called the clouds because they were so high up in the air. If you had gone to a sports event with a ticket for one of these seats, your usher might have said, “Your seat is in the clouds today.” This meant you’d be seated in the highest row available in the bleachers.
We’re not alone in the race we are running here. The grandstands of heaven are filled with the departed saints all the way up to the highest bleacher seats. They endured the hardships and struggle that attend the life of faith, they crossed the finish line, and they wait for us to join them.
This vision of the future in store for God’s people informs Jesus’ teaching in our gospel lesson. There we have Luke’s account of the beatitudes or blessing sayings. Note how Jesus characterizes his followers. They are poor, hungry and sorrowful. They are ridiculed and rejected. In this world one can say that hardships and struggles are their lot. Who could blame them if they despaired of their future? After all, there is nothing in their present to lead them to expect anything good. But Jesus does not see it this way. He tells them of a great reward that is waiting for them in heaven.
All Saints Day provides us an occasion to honor those to whom Jesus promised blessing. Of course, there are the outstanding saints, examples of the faith, people who have walked with God throughout the ages, at great personal cost even to the point of sacrificing their very lives. We do well to learn about them in biographies if we like to read.
But to restrict the term “saint” exclusively to them is to define the term too narrowly. There are saints among us. The ordinary people who have lived out their faith, inspired by a vision for the future we have been exploring with the help of our lessons today—they are also included in the great number of the saints that we honor on All Saints Day. Here we ought to remember that to God they are not ordinary.
Today we have the occasion to honor those saints among us, who have made the transition from the church militant to the church triumphant, and are now enjoying their rest.