SERMON FOR SUNDAY OF ALL SAINTS 6/27/21
Today, the first Sunday after Trinity Sunday or Holy Pentecost, we celebrate the Sunday of All Saints. Why do we celebrate it today? Most of us know that in the West, “All Saints” falls on November 1st, right after All Saints Eve (or All-Hallows Eve, i.e. “Halloween”). Truth is, they moved it in the 10th century. We have maintained the ancient tradition. For us, the Sunday after Pentecost for “All Saints” makes perfect sense. Here we see for ourselves that the “Holy Spirit power” of Pentecost in the Church is not simply an historical memory of the past, but, rather, a living reality experienced today in the Orthodox Church.
How many of you have ever heard of a man named Pelagius? He was a very divisive character in West in the late 4th, early 5th century. He didn’t make much of a stir in the Eastern Roman Empire so we Orthodox don’t really hear much about him. However, let’s learn about him because he’s important in understanding today’s feast. Pelagius was a British biblical scholar and theologian who lived in Rome. He believed and taught that human beings, on their own, could fulfill God’s commandments, and thus are fully responsible for their own salvation. The role of Jesus, in his scheme, is viewed as only "setting a good example," and that divine grace is not essential to salvation. This teaching was vehemently opposed by St. Augustine, the leading figure in the North African Church, at that time. Augustine insisted that no one can do good without the assistance of God's grace. Only with the help of divine grace can an individual overcome the force of sin and live righteously before God. As a result, Pelagius was excommunicated in 417 by Pope Innocent I, and his views were condemned by a series of Church councils.
So, what is the point here? The point is that All Saints Sunday follows Holy Pentecost precisely because the “saints” wouldn’t have been saints at all without the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It was the power of the Holy Spirit, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, that made “the fishermen most wise,” not their own human efforts!
The descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles in Jerusalem on that first Pentecost was the fulfillment of the Lord’s promise in John 16:13 to send another Comforter to His disciples, “the Spirit of truth” Who would “guide [them] into all truth.” But that’s a promise the Lord makes, not just to those first disciples, but to every disciple in every age and nation…including you and me. This same Holy Spirit is still doing His precious work of salvation in the world and will continue to do so up to the end of time. The good news is that we each have already received Him in the Mystery of Holy Chrismation. But we received Him as a small seed, a seed which, by our surrendered and on-going cooperation with Him, grows into a large, strong tree, a tree that bears what in Galatians 5:22-23 the Apostle calls “the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control.” And not incidentally, it’s by cooperating with the Holy Spirit, to produce such fruits of righteousness in our lives, that we bear our most effective witness to others of the reality, power and wonder of the work of God. After all, anybody can learn to talk the talk; but how many who talk about wholeness and holiness, spiritual health and resurrection joy and all the rest, actually show it in their own lives? The Day of All Saints celebrates the continuance of what we began last Sunday; it celebrates and keeps us focused on the work of the Holy Spirit within the saints and within each of us.
The process of becoming more “saintly,” more “holy,” has two aspects: the “what” and the “how.” The “what” of that process is what the Apostle Paul tells us in Galatians 2:20, that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.” And we learn the “how” from what he says immediately before and immediately after that statement: that is “I have been crucified with Christ” and “the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God.” Completely letting go of my own will, my own plans, my own agenda, my control of my own life, my need to control others, my need to control the future, putting to death my own self-will, and trusting in Christ with every aspect of my life, is what it means to “live by faith, [totally and completely], in the Son of God.”
If we are truly Christians, if we are truly His followers, we must, as it says in 1 John 2:6, “walk just as He walked.” Living by faith in the Son of God is never easy; but it is, ultimately, the only way to stand against and to defeat the hostility of evil in our lives and in our world. Walking in faith is the only way that the Holy Spirit has a clear channel through which to pour His power into us. Note how, in the Epistle reading we just heard, Hebrews 11:33-35, St. Paul says that it was by faith that the saints of old "subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to flight the armies of foreigners. Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection…" And in the 2,000 years since these words were first written, this has been the Christian story: witnesses and martyrs. The faith, and the Church of Jesus Christ does not perish, but rather, continues to produce saints even today.
Look: to become a saint doesn't take great intelligence or great learning. It does take great commitment to Jesus Christ, great courage in the face of the world’s opposition, great reliance upon the almighty power of the Holy Spirit, and great love for God and for every person in this world. Do you or I have what it takes to become a saint? Do you or I even want to? Upon our answer depends our eternal destiny.