The Festival of All Saints
A Homily Preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fareham, on 7 November 2010
1 John 3:1–3
Who do you think you are?
What makes you who you are? How is your identity forged?
Of course, these are difficult and complex questions with no simple answer. However, at least in one way, the television programme that has our question as its title, Who Do You Think You Are?, has got the approach spot-on. In case you are not familiar with the format, Who Do You Think You Are? follows various famous people as they go in search of their roots, digging through their family history in order to understand better who they themselves are. The premise is simple: we are in some significant way products of our past—our personal histories, and the histories of our forebears.
And so it is. Every new day, we wake up at the end of a string of days stretching back the length of our lives, and the kind of day it turns out to be is determined at least in part by what has happened before. Our state of health, our state of mind; our bank balance, and how we hope to occupy ourselves; our families and friendships: they are what they are because of what has already happened. A good investment, a missed opportunity, a life-saving operation, an unexpected injury, a chance encounter, a relationship carefully nurtured, our sins, the sins of others—all these happy turns or dark shadows of the past have left a mark on us, and made us who we are. Some of you can look back at our pasts with pleasure, grateful for how a succession of happy events and circumstances have made our contented lives. Others will contemplate difficulties and hardships and wonder what might have been if things had gone differently.
And, humanly speaking, all of us have every right to be conscious of the unpredictability of life, of the great unknown that the future is. Just as we are made by our pasts, every day we are making our futures by our decisions and having them made for us by our circumstances.
Perhaps this is why in some languages, people speak of looking forward to the past—at what we already know and is laid out before us—and of looking back to the future—because it’s behind our backs, as it were, waiting to come to view as we travel unsighted into time to come.
Humanly speaking, that is.
When we examine ourselves in the light of God’s word, things look very different. In fact, they couldn’t be more different. According to our Epistle reading, it is not the past that is significant but the future; and it is the future, not the past, that defines who and what we really are now.
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.
In Christ, we are not products of chance, nor are our identities shaped by what we or someone else has done. In fact, to understand who we are in the Kingdom of God, it is not the past but the future that we are to consider. For while all of our pasts are chains of unpredictable events, our future is certain and guaranteed.
It used to be the custom, and in some places still is, that a child would not be named until its baptism. Likewise, people baptised later in life would receive a new, baptismal, name. This is a concrete way to mark the fact that in Holy Baptism, we all receive a completely new identity. In Baptism, we are united with Christ’s death and resurrection; in Baptism, we are clothed with Christ. And so we become by adoption what He is from eternity: children and co-heirs of the Heavenly Father. Being God’s children, we are members of His household, citizens of His kingdom.
However, we are always being tempted to think of this reality only as a future blessing: that one day, we will join the twelve tribes of Israel and the “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” in the heavenly kingdom. After all, our daily lives are hardly heavenly. And I am not referring to the circumstances of our lives. Rather, more often than not, each of us finds that it’s not the image of Christ that is shining forth in our lives. Even in church, we squabble and snap, play home advantage and judge one another as if we were just another social gathering. We measure our worship by our tastes and experiences rather than God’s word, we seek pleasure rather than God’s will, and ultimately prefer the promises of this fleeting life to God’s eternal and unshakeable ones. Such a far cry from the happy throng crowding around the throne of the Lamb. Thank God that one day we will go to heaven and it will all be different.
And in some ways this is precisely what John writes in his letter: we are God’s children now but what we will be has not yet been revealed. We are God’s children now, but what we are now is not the sum total of what God has in store for us. By no means! One day, we will not only be given the outside righteousness of Christ as a possession—one day, we will be righteous and pure as He is. One day, we will be part of a happy throng around the throne of the Lamb, pure and without blemish, united with Him and, through Him, with one another. Every time the Church on earth gathers around God’s gifts, she looks forward to the new creation when this sin-ravaged world will be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth, where there will be no sin. Every celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of the banquet at the wedding feast of the Lamb with His bride the Church, in unending joy.
But that’s precisely it: the foretaste is already here. We are already children of God, because He has already given us that name. We already gather at the throne of the Lamb—because He comes down to us, to establish His throne at this plain altar by His bodily presence. Only now we are living as dual citizens. Our sinful flesh is a product of our past and the past of our forebears. The only certainty for the flesh is that which is unchangeable because it has already happened or inevitable because it cannot be prevented—death.
But that is not who you really are. Since you were given the name of a child of God, that sinful self began its death and an entirely new life began. A life already determined by the certainty of a future guaranteed by Christ. While we live in this sinful flesh, we cannot imagine what it will be like to shed our mortal garb and to enter fully into life in the new creation. But we have the sure hope, the cast-iron promise that in Christ, that is our destiny.
And the promise is cast-iron because it is in Christ. Yes, we are a motley collection of rat bags of varying degrees like any motley collection of children of men always will be. But in Christ, we are God’s dearly beloved children, spotless and without blemish—because He has taken all our spots and blemishes upon Himself and given us His perfect purity. As His children, we are called to purify ourselves from the sin and filth to which we are so attached. But not as a condition but as a consequence of our heavenly calling.
Moreover, we have been not only been given the command to purify ourselves but also means of purification. Earlier in His letter, John writes, “The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.” And the motley crowd from all the tribes of Israel and from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages standing before the Lamb’s throne had this one thing in common: “They [had] washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
On this feast of All Saints, we remember with thanksgiving the saints that have gone before us and are now free from the shackles of the past, from every sin, suffering and evil. But we don’t only rejoice for them. We also rejoice with them. There is only one, holy, Christian and apostolic church. They have triumphed over death, we are still engaged in battle. But like them, we gather around the throne of the Lamb, to be purified by His very blood, and praising Him with angels and archangels, while we await the resurrection of the body, when sin, death and the devil will be no more and “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”