Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

A Sermon for All Saints


Steven W. Manskar

The first church I pastored is a small, rural congregation in Maryland. It is the only church I’ve pastored that had a cemetery. Graves in that cemetery date to the early nineteenth century. Every time the people of West Liberty United Methodist Church gather for worship, fellowship, and meetings, the first thing they see before entering the building are the graves of their ancestors. One of the reasons old churches were built in the middle of or in close proximity to a cemetery is to remind the people that the Church is the communion of saints, living and dead.

We worship a God who has defeated the power of death. In Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, death no longer gets the final word. The final word belongs to Christ who called out to the dead man, “Lazarus, come out!” and “Unbind him, and let him go.” Jesus’ word is life in the kingdom of God and freedom from the powers that demean and destroy life. He is the one who that the world “may have life, and have it abundantly.” All Saints is another great celebration of the Church that reminds us that in Christ we are connected with one another here and now and with all those beloved saints who have gone before us; and with those who will come after us.

Celebrating All Saints also helps to remind us that the Church is a living, breathing organism. It is not limited to a place or building. In fact, the Gospel Lesson we just heard helps us understand the character of the church more clearly when we see Lazarus as the church in any age. Lazarus was a close and dear friend of Jesus. Jesus said to his followers, “I have called you friends, because I have made know to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15:15b). Like Lazarus, when the church wanders from the person and work of Jesus, it gets sick and begins to die. It takes on more of the surrounding culture and less of Christ and his commandments. In the process the church becomes wrapped up and bound, to the point of death, by the culture of success driven by standards of the marketplace and powers of domination, power, and wealth. When the church gets wrapped up in this culture it becomes more of a static thing to be used and consumed than a living, breathing community of love and forgiveness.

This “bound up” church is reflected in the way its members talk about it. For example: Christians say they are “church goers”? We say things like “When church starts …” and “When church is over …”? I’ve noticed this is how many fellow Christians talk about the church and their relationship to it.

It seems to me that the way we talk about the church is an indicator of how we perceive it. The language of “church-going” conveys an understanding of the church as a place, a thing, an inanimate object. “Church” is a place to go to on Sunday morning. It is an activity that we do for an hour each week. “Church” as place has very definite boundaries defined by the walls of the building or the property on which the building sits. “Church” is also bound in time. It begins when we step onto the property and ends when we get in our car and go home.

“Church” is what Christians do on Sunday morning; and perhaps Sunday night and Wednesday night. It is the place to go to have needs met. Christians go to church to be served by their pastor and, if it is a large enough, the church staff. The members pay for the services and programs they expect by putting money in the offering plates on Sunday morning. In return they expect basic services such as exciting, enriching worship that is relevant and well-performed, activities for the children, Christian education, weddings, funerals, and other pastoral services as required. After all, if we pay our dues we deserve good services for our money.

Is this a Biblical image of “church?” Is such a way of “doing” church what we find in the Baptismal Covenant? If you study the word “church” in the Bible you will find that every place the word appears (ecclesia) it references a living, breathing community that is a sign community of the coming reign of God. Paul speaks of the church as a living, breathing organism: “the body of Christ” (52 times). The Biblical understanding of “church” is that of a community centered in the life, death, resurrection and coming again of Jesus Christ. This community is defined by faith, hope, and, most of all, love. It’s mission is to proclaim and model the kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, the church is a Christ-centered sign community of the coming reign of God.

The Biblical depiction of the church helps us shift our attitudes and language from “church-going” to “church-being.” Scripture and tradition, along with the popular hymn, help us to see that “the church is not a build, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.” The buildings we call “churches” are simply the buildings where the church meets for worship, teaching, learning, prayer, and planning for living its mission and ministry in the world. The church gathers to worship on Sunday and, when worship ends, the church scatters to witness to Jesus Christ in the world and to follow his teachings through acts of compassion, justice, worship, and devotion under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

All Saints reminds us that the Church of Jesus Christ is not bound by time and space. It is an eternal community of love, reconciliation and justice that witnesses to the living God who was, who is, and who is coming again. In baptism God marks us as God’s own daughters and sons, as members of God’s eternal household.

Jesus comes to the church today, this church that is in so many ways like Lazarus in the tomb, bound in the grave cloths of cultural captivity and enculturation. Jesus comes to the church today calling “Lazarus, come out! … Unbind him, and let him go!” Let us claim the freedom Christ gives to live, serve, and witness to him and his coming reign on earth as it is in heaven.”


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