Solemnity of All Saints and Baptism

The Rev. Canon Mary Holmen


Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31

In the year 156 of the Common Era, an old man stood before the Roman Proconsul in Smyrna, a city in Asia Minor. His name was Polycarp, and he was the bishop in that city. He is said to have been a disciples of John, the disciple of Jesus. The Proconsul demanded that Polycarp curse Christ. To this, the bishop replied, “Eighty-six years I have served him, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” With this response, Polycarp sealed his fate. The Proconsul was reluctant to execute the gentle old man, but his hand was forced by the clamour of the mob, and Polycarp was put to death by burning at the stake.

Seldom does the death of a member of any movement, especially under conditions of persecution, do anything but fuel the fire and significantly increase the determination of the participants on both sides. The conflict becomes more and more deeply rooted, until there is no possibility of compromise or reconciliation. One side must win, and the other must lose. Witness the struggles of various liberation and human rights movements around the globe. The powers that be may arrest them, torture them, murder them, or cause them simply to disappear. Such is the conviction of the participants in these movements of the rightness of their cause that the persecution of their members only increases their determination to hold out to the end. This is the context of the book of Daniel. Even though it is set at the time of the exile in Babylon, in reality it is about the persecution of the Jewish people under the Syrian kings who succeeded to the empire of Alexander the Great. The message is one of determination. Hold out; be faithful, and you will win the victory.

Our own Christian movement has at its very core the death and resurrection of its leader. Because of his obedience and willingness to suffer in the cause of his mission, his death has become the model for our life. And following him, many, many others died because of their identification with the Christian movement and its leader. Such a sacrifice is almost impossible for us to imagine in the comfort and security of 21st century North America. I wonder what would happen to our ranks if the threat of death were made part and parcel of Christian discipleship. And yet, in many parts of the world, that is exactly the case.

And so the early church kept a calendar and remembered the martyrs each year on the anniversaries of their deaths, which was their birth into new life. We know who many of them were, and we have records of their deaths. The feast of Polycarp is observed on February 23rd. The feast of St. Peter and St. Paul is on June 29th. Look through the calendar in the front of the green Book of Alternative Services, and you will see the names of martyrs from James the brother of Jesus to the martyrs of Uganda in 1886, to which was added in modern times the name of Archbishop Janani Luwum, murdered by the order of Idi Amin. These are our Christian heroes, and we have neglected them too much, neglected too the inspiration of their examples. How many of us could tell our children the stories of saints, of bishops, doctors, missionaries, kings and queens, men and women of prayer, learned and ordinary men and women whose faithfulness has won for them a place in the annals of our faith?

As time went on, it became apparent that there was a significant number of martyrs whose names were not recorded, but who were equally deserving of recognition. Had anything been known about them, they may have qualified for canonization in the official sense. All Saints’ Day, November 1st, has its origins in the desire to honour those martyrs whose names were not known and whose deaths went unrecorded.

And yet, the New Testament refers to all baptized Christians as saints, holy ones. In today’s epistle reading, Paul writes, “You also , when you had heard the word of truth...and had believed in Christ, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” This refers to the baptismal sealing, the signing with the cross which is the pledge of our final inheritance. Paul then goes on to say, “Because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.”   Clearly, Paul is talking about the love of the Ephesian Christians for all other Christians.

Elsewhere, writing to the church in Corinth, Paul refers to them as “those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”. Another way of reading this is to say, “those called as saints”. Sainthood is not something reserved for the elite few as a reward for exemplary behaviour. Sainthood is given to all by virtue of their baptism. “You were washed,” says Paul, “you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” The saints are holy, not because of their moral achievements, but because they have been made holy. Together with its companion observance of All Souls Day on November 2nd, All Saints is a commemoration of all those who in faith have gone ahead of us into death and new life.

So today, the Solemnity of All Saints, is a feast of martyrs and a celebration of our sainthood as members of the Body of Christ. All of which makes it especially appropriate to celebrate baptism, the sacrament of entrance into the Communion of Saints. The themes of All Saints are rich with baptismal implications.

All Saints is a feast of martyrs. The word martyr simply means a witness. It came to be used for those who had made the supreme witness of laying down their lives. In the baptismal liturgy, we will shortly be asking Claire’s parents and sponsors for their commitment to martyrdom: “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?” The congregation will be asked, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to uphold Claire in her life in Christ?” And when we all renew our baptismal promises, we will be asked, “Will you by word and example proclaim the good news of God in Christ?” Witness is implicit in baptism, for it is simply the response of a thankful heart for what God has done for us. Parents and sponsors and this whole Christian community are to be living witnesses to each other and especially to the newly baptized of the maturity that awaits us as we become more and more like Christ.

All Saints is a celebration of our membership in the Body of Christ. The Christian life is one which can only be lived in the context of a Christian community. The introduction to the baptismal liturgy in the Book of Alternative Services puts it like this: “Christians are, it is true, baptized one by one, but to be a Christian is to be part of a new creation which rises from the dark waters of Christ’s death into the dawn of his risen life. Christians are not just baptized individuals; they are a new humanity.”

I think we can look at the gospel text from Luke as the charter of this new humanity. The Gospel of Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount; this text from Luke is sometimes known as the Sermon on the Plain. Matthew’s Jesus, re-enacting the pattern of Moses, goes up the mountain to deliver a new law that is the fulfilment of the first law. Luke’s Jesus comes down from the mountain where he has been praying to a level place, where he is surrounded by sickness and suffering. Not for Luke what you might call the more “spiritual” interpretation of Matthew: blessed are the poor in spirit; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. No; “Blessed are you who are poor, who are hungry, who mourn, who are marginalized.” And he says, “Woe to you who are rich, who are full, who laugh and of whom people say good things.” Does this mean that God has it in for people who are well off, well fed, and well thought of? Think back to last week’s gospel reading about the Pharisee and the tax collector. Luke says that Jesus told this story to those who trusted in their own goodness and looked down on others. Jesus clearly teaches that God is on the side of those who are vulnerable and know it, and condemns the folly of those who rest in their own self-confidence.

The beatitudes are to Jesus’ mission what the ten commandments were to Moses’ mission, the foundation and charter. Jesus identified not with the temple, which was established in the law of Moses, but with the prophets who were defamed for speaking a word from God into their time and place. Like the prophets before him, Jesus turned the values of his society and its religious institutions upside down from the inside. Who are the poor, the suffering, the sorrowful? They are the ones called blessed; the future belongs to them. Who are the ones who enjoy the security of privilege, who trust in their self-image, wealth, or race? Who is contemptuous of those who do not fit their pattern? Woe to them.

We cannot say those words of blessing or woe of others alone. We must say them to ourselves as well and first, if we as individuals and as a church are to continue Christ’s challenge of the values of the society around us. Our baptism propels us into the world to continue the mission of Jesus. Where he is, there we must go too, among the hurt and oppression and mixed-up priorities of our culture and its institutions. How are we to do this? By living his teachings: by doing to others as we would have them do to us, that is, to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, pray for those who abuse us, and give generously to those who take advantage of us. It is a radically counter-cultural way of life.

Claire doesn’t know all this yet, but she will. This is the life of faith to which she, with all of us, is called. This is the life in which her parents and sponsors and her faith community must raise her, train her, and form her to follow the way of Jesus. She in her turn will teach us how to receive this gift of relationship with God in the way a little child receives, with joy and wonder, spontaneously and trustingly. She will remind us that this relationship is not a privilege to be earned, but a gift freely given. As she takes her place among us today, we welcome her into the household of faith, the family of God, the Body of Christ, the new humanity formed by God to re-make this world into the realm of God’s justice, love, and mercy. Amen.