All Saints Day is celebrated in many of our churches as a time to honor those members who have died during the previous year. But, it can also be a good opportunity to re-emphasize a theology of holiness.
In the region of the United States where I live most conversation about “saints” tends to refer to the NFL football team from New Orleans. Occasionally, someone may use the term “saint” to identify a cathedral or city named for someone such as St. Peter or St. Paul. It is uncommon to find someone talking about “saints” in connection with their own spiritual life, and yet, this is the message the Bible conveys to us as followers of Christ: that we are called to be saints.
For example, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians – 2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:2-3, NRSV).
Paul is not writing to perfect people. First Church of Corinth had some serious problems, yet Paul calls these people saints – holy ones: People set apart by God and for God. A saint is simply a sinner who has discovered the marvelous grace of God through Christ Jesus. We are called to live holy lives in an often unholy world.
All Saints Day then becomes an opportunity for us to remember that calling. We honor the lives of the martyrs who sacrificed all for the sake of Jesus. We lift in prayer those we have known and loved who have died in the faith, and we challenge those saints among us to devout and holy living.
John Wesley thought All Saints a day worth remembering. There are several entries in his journal on this date. For instance, November 1, 1748, “Being All Saints’ Day, we had a solemn assembly at the chapel; as I cannot but observe, we have had on this very day, for several years. Surely, ‘right dear in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints!’” On November 1, 1766, he wrote, “‘God, who hath knit together his elect in one communion and fellowship,’ gave us a solemn season at West-Street (as usual) in praising him for all his Saints.”1
A sermon for All Saints Day can remind us that we share a holy community. Holiness is not simply a personal attribute. We are individually called to live holy lives, but we are given the opportunity to do that in the context of a family of faith. Throughout the New Testament holiness is attributed to the collected people of God. The concept of social holiness often attributed to John Wesley is not really about societal activism. It has to do with how we worship, and grow, and serve together as the Body of Christ.
It is this aspect of living together in holiness which really serves us well when it comes to a day like All Saints Day. In remembering those who have gone on to glory we call to mind their faithful witness to a God who transformed their lives. We shared those lives, we know their stories and we have seen the Holy Spirit at work in and through them. It is that group testimony which is particularly strong in this context.
This concept of a holy community can be especially helpful for those pastoring transitional and growing congregations. New persons will not have a connection to the history of a church. They will not know the story of it’s faithful service over the years and the work of the saints in their midst. A sermon on All Saints Day can help graft these new members into the family tree.
As Christians we are united with all the saints of the Church: those who are scattered around the world and those who are around the corner; those who lived two thousand years ago and those yet to come; and those who are in our midst and those who have gone on to glory. We are all bound together through the same Lord and Savior. We are a holy and catholic church. A community set apart for God, which transcends space, time, and even death itself.
All Saints Day thus becomes a good day to not only honor the lives of those who are part of the church triumphant but to also call the church militant to holy living as a community of believers.
As preachers and teachers in the Wesleyan tradition, holiness should be one of our major themes. We are called to be saints – all of us. Thanks be to God who makes it possible through Christ Jesus our Lord.
1 Wesley, John. The Works of John Wesley. Ed. Thomas Jackson. 14 vols. 3rd ed. London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room. 1872.