For all the saints, who from their labours rest,William Walsham How (1864)
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Who are we remembering on this day dedicated to the memory of “all the saints”? I’m Protestant enough to think in terms broader than a who’s who of the apostles, evangelists, martyrs, and other spiritual heroes who initially inspired this feast in the Middle Ages. When I go to our (outdoor) All Saints’ service tonight, I’ll be thinking about those who have died, this year and those before.
But what makes those “who from their labours rest” saints? And what about those of us whose labors continue: are we saints?
If nothing else, today’s set of readings suggests that saints are those who worship God. Like the psalmist, a saint “will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (Ps 34:1). The saints are those “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” who come together to cry out, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:9-10). On All Saints’, I feel that fleeting sense of worship lifting us from time into eternity, as we gather in the present to remember those who gathered in the past to anticipate our future experience of gathering before God’s heavenly throne.
But All Saints’ also seems like a good time to think about who I am, have been, and will be in this world. It makes yearn to be more, well, saintly.
In the New Testament, the Greek word we translate as “saints” is related to the Greek word for “holy.” When the apostle Paul addresses himself to those in Rome “called to be saints” (Rom 1:7), is he not speaking to people called to live lives as holy as “the law is holy, and the commandment [not to covet] is holy and just and good” (Rom 7:12)? “Little children,” admonishes the author of today’s epistle, “let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:7-8).
A day removed from commemorating Martin Luther’s reformation, I trust that I don’t achieve holiness by my own efforts, that God’s righteousness is “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe… since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” (Rom 3:22-23). The saints are those whom God loved so much that he gave his only Son.
So in the end, here’s my basic definition of all the saints: those whom God loves; those who therefore love others.
Those whom Paul identifies as “called to be saints” he first addresses as “God’s beloved in Rome” (Rom 1:7). Likewise, John can exhort his readers to “purify themselves, just as [God] is pure” because they have “this hope”: that in the love of God the Father, “we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 John 3:1, 3).
“Beloved,” he reiterates, whatever will yet be revealed, “we are God’s children now” (v 2).
All Saints’ does turn our attention to the past, but it offers a message for the present. For if we are beloved of God now, then we can love like God now. “For this is the message you have heard from the beginning,” John reiterates, “that we should love one another… not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (vv 11, 18). That we should recognize those in need and not refuse to help (v 17).
This is the labor from which we saints will one day rest, but not this day.