ALL SAINTS SUNDAY ~ “The Heavenly Now”
1 John 2:28–3:3 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United Church ~ November 3, 2019
“Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” These are oft-spoken words by many an exuberant young person frustrated from a long journey. “Is it Christmas yet?…Is it Christmas yet?” These are words that we will increasingly start hearing as clocks have been changed and November fills the airwaves with Christmas carols and retailers vie for our money. If the truth is told, young or old, we are all in a panicked rush seeking to acquire what the future brings, aren’t we? We want to arrive at our intended destination; we yearn for the arrival of a special date on our calendar; and, as we age, we increasingly fret about our journey towards the next. Are we there yet?
All Saints Sunday offers a good perspective for us to pace our spiritual living. I would like to suggest that this day offers two rich blessings. Firstly, All Saints helps us realize the heavenly realm in the now. A pastoral conversation to share with you…A person began talking with me about his concerns over assurance of his arrival in heaven. The conversation had been a long one. It began, as he told me his story, back in his teen years. Accepting Jesus in his life, his subsequent baptism, his active involvement in the church, and then as he aged, his increasing uncertainty. ‘How can I know for certain where I am going? How can I know God’s love is truly for me? How can I know that I will make it to heaven?’ His quest took him to different churches…meeting with various ministers…reading various books…and in his senior years, he found himself in my church still asking the question: ‘Will I get there? When will I get there? How do I know for certain?’ What we came to realize in our conversations was that a key player had been left out of the conversation. It was…God. No one help his existential angst. No meeting with any minister could satisfy his yearning…no sermon could assure his worry…no book could comfort his concern. Only God could help, could assure, could comfort.
This morning’s text is a beautiful letter written in the tradition of John to inspire the members of the early church in not leaving out God. These three letters, as David mentioned in introducing this reading, were viewed as a “full and deep compendium of Christianity” by John Wesley. And in this small section of John’s three letters the message of assurance is that we are God’s children. The theme is that of our ‘kinship’ with God, and it ripples all through the first letter. In fact, our kinship with God is present throughout the canon of the Bible. We see it all the way back in the faith of the Hebrew people in Deuteronomy (see chapter 32), then in prophets like Jeremiah (chapter 31), Hosea (chapter 11), and then into Paul’s letters to Rome (chapter 8), to Galatia (chapter 3), and even at the end in John’s Revelation (chapter 21). You are a child of God! God shaped you into being; God loved you into existence; God is your spiritual Father guiding you ~ God is your spiritual Mother nurturing you. Why do we leave God when we struggle? This identity is lifted up at one’s funeral; however, how often we forget that this identity is ours from the moment God shapes us into being. As I engaged in conversation with this person struggling about their future, we were reminded that not only the future belongs to God ~ the present is God’s too. You are a child of God now!
I think that there is a gentle tension found in this morning’s theme as we move between future and present considerations. All Saints causes us to, understandably, look towards the future: ‘Are we there yet? Can I get an assurance of where I am going?’ The first blessing of All Saints Sunday is the realization that God’s future in us is now! We are God’s children now and we already have the opportunity of living in the heavenly realm in the here and now. I now that this is contrary to how many of us tend to think about heaven. However, if we were to review all the references to heaven in scripture. Almost none of them relate to death. Heaven is when or where one is fully with God. One realization of heaven is that we are children of God now.
While there is a sense in which the future has not yet been revealed as it will be in the end times, there is also an opportunity for us to realize God’s promise in the here and now through our identity as God’s children. This is the tension we read about in Paul’s letter on love in 1st Corinthians 13. Too often this text is reserved exclusively for a wedding ceremony and so much wisdom is lost. Paul wrote: “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now, we see in a mirror, dimly, but then, we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love”. What this text lifts up is the assurance that we have in the here and the now: that we are loved…deeply…fully…as God’s children.
The text puts our assurance in the now this way: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is”. We can be assured of one thing. Everyone of us here will all…die. Yet there is one thing that is up for grabs. Not all of us will fully choose to live…to live as children of God.
The choice to live is the call in this text. John offers two definitions of what is required of us in our living as children of God: doing righteousness and purity. This is the call to living the Christian life. “Doing righteousness” is that act of assisting in the unfolding of God’s justice. It is living the faith. There are no perfect Christians; however, there are no armchair Christians either! Doing righteousness is about lifting a finger and helping your brother and sister as you are uniquely enabled to do so. It is about lifting a finger, lifting a pen, lifting the phone, lifting a prayer. Lifting up your legacy as God’s child. The 1960’s hymn sang: “and they will know we are Christians…by our love…by our love”. Doing righteousness is about acting out our identity as God’s children. The second part of this identity is described in the letter as being “purity”. In realizing my personal call to ordained ministry, this was an area that I really struggled. I had lived a life that was far from pure. Who among us is ‘pure’? (I didn’t think so). But that is not what this is about I learned. Purity is that call to seeking the right path, to seeking to live with integrity and faith. It is that assurance we recall in our forgiveness in Christ; it is that reassurance we witness every time one is baptized. We are all given the choice, with each fresh breath we take, to live lives of gospel purity, to be shining examples of God’s light into the world. And whenever we get caught up in the divine life ~ living our identity as God’s children, we begin to taste, touch and smell the heavenly realm in the here and now. Heaven is not something just to await in the future. Heaven is in the here and now…if we open our eyes and live!
I mentioned that there were two rich blessings for us to realize on All Saints Sunday. The second is the realization, that as we lift up the Saints who have gone before us, that we further experience God’s light, that we are further inspired by God’s presence, that we are buoyed up for the journey that continues. This has been a very difficult year for us at Northwood as we have lifted up the lives of some of our dear saints at the church. In the past few months, we have lost three of the founding members of this church. And, as a ‘church family’, this has been a profound time of grief. How could it not be? When we love deeply, we also hurt deeply at times of goodbye. Who will carry on? Who are the leaders of the future? We are afraid; we are grief-stricken. Yet, when we love deeply, we also live fully, opening ourselves to other’s light. The Christian faith is incarnational, which means that God was revealed through the incarnational presence of Jesus. In a similar way, the saints in our lives also reflect parts of God towards us. In Jesus, God is fully present. And as we lift up our Northwood saints, our faith continues to grow. Our times of grief are calls both for us to mourn, and also to continue living!
It is important to remember the biblical definition of a saint. A saint is not only a dear, departed loved one. A saint is also one of the faithful parts of the living body of Christ. A person is a saint when they live out their destiny as a child of God. A person is a saint whenever they allow God to commandeer their living in the here and now. You and I are, as we seek to live our destiny as children of God…saints. A few folks spoke with me in concern that this Sunday would be depressing. ‘All Saints Sunday sounds like a funeral’ they quietly confessed. I tried to describe to their concerns that this is not merely a celebration of the saints who have died. This is a celebration of the light that has been cast. It is a call to live in the heavenly realm now! The second blessing of this day is a call to live our destiny…as children of God!
In a few moments, we will be invited to come to the table and share in the feast of Holy Communion. If communion was merely a re-enactment of the Last Supper, it would be devoid of hope and joy. What we do, as we come to the table, is have a foretaste of the great banquet of life. In communion, we have an opportunity to taste the heavenly feast in the here and the now. While we know that there is, surely, more to come. We still gather in faith and in remembrance, as we eat the bread and drink the wine. For we are welcomed to Christ’s table as children of God and called to live that legacy. Let us truly live in the heavenly realm as the saints of today, celebrating the saints who have gone before us, living towards the future that will unfold in God’s grace and peace.