Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31

All Saints Day

St Barbara’s 03.11.2019

Rev Tulo Raistrick

Let me tell you the story of a tear-away youth. This youth grew up in the home of a devout Christian mother but a decidedly anti-Christian father. Though much influenced by his mother, he broke away from home and lived a somewhat wayward lifestyle. He stole apples from orchards, and by the age of 18 was already the father of at least one illegitimate child. Then he began to settle down, developed an interest in philosophy and even began to teach at one of the universities. But life was still a bit of a mess. In order to keep his mother happy he ended up marrying someone he was clearly unsuited for, and in the end the marriage broke down. His pursuit of philosophy had just left him yet more disillusioned with life – nothing seemed to make sense. At this point, something extraordinary happened. While sitting outside in the garden one day, he heard a child singing the words: “Pick it up and read it”. A bit non-plussed, he picked up a Bible nearby, opened it, and read the first verses he found: “Put on the Lord Jesus and turn away from sinful living”. Convinced that this was God speaking directly to him, the young man did just that. He became a Christian and devoted the rest of his life to serving God.

This could have been the story, or something like it, of countless Christians over the years, of finding emptiness and despair in life and then discovering God’s love for them, reaching out to them, calling them home. This particular story is in fact the story of Saint Augustine, a north African man who lived 1600 years ago. He was to become one of the most influential teachers and writers in the church, whose work in helping to explain the Christian faith we still draw upon today.

The reason for sharing his story this morning is because of these words he penned: “Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

St Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus put it a similar way. From before we were even born, from the very beginning, God had a plan for us – a plan to know his love and live our lives for his praise and glory.

We live in a world where people are desperate for meaning and purpose. For some life is going well – they may have the job they’ve always wanted, or the home and holidays they’ve always desired, or the family and friends close by they always hoped for – but there is still an emptiness, a sense of “is this it? is this all there is?” That can lead some to keep on pursuing the next thing in the hope that that next thing will satisfy, to lead driven, non-stop lives, gradually running themselves into the ground. For others it can lead to feelings of loss, frustration, depression. And for many others in our world life can feel a bit like survival, simply hanging on by our fingertips, as we struggle with health challenges or economic hardships or increasingly frail bodies. Again, the cry of so many is “what is the point of all this?”

God’s Word speaks to us into those situations. For we are told that God has a purpose for each of us, that there is a point to our lives, that there is value and meaning to our existence. For we are created to be in relationship with Him, to offer him our love and praise. There is a point to life, there is a reason for our existence: to live knowing, loving and serving God, the creator and saviour and sustainer of our world. That is something we share with all the saints, all the Christians who have gone before us or who live alongside us today.

So we have a purpose that is rooted in the fact that even before we were born God had a plan for us.

We have also been given by God a gift, the gift of his Holy Spirit.

In recent years I have come to realise that some of the joy of a holiday is in the anticipation, is in appreciating now what will come to full fruition in the future. The thought that in a few months time I will be visiting the northumbrian coast and walking the beaches and visiting ruined historic castles fills me with real joy. Its not that I am living in the future, wishing the days away. It is more that the anticipation brings pleasure now. That struck me particularly forcibly this year. Sarah had organised for a weekend away with 50 of my family and friends to celebrate my birthday. She and the children told me about this on top of a hill overlooking the spot where we would be staying. The joy of hearing the news and knowing what was to come was just wonderful. Having a foretaste, having a sense of anticipation, of a good thing to come, can be life-giving.

Well, Paul writes that we as Christians have been given the gift of God’s Holy Spirit to give us a foretaste, to give us that sense of anticipation, of what is to come in the future. He describes it as being like the deposit, the down payment, guaranteeing what is to come. God gives us His Spirit so that we may have confidence and joy as we look to the future.

Two thousand years of Christian teaching may have slightly lessened the impact of this for us. But at the time when the church began, at the time when Paul was writing, it had been the case that God only gave his spirit to specific important individuals – leaders, prophets, kings – for particular occasions and for specific periods of time. The holy of holies in the Temple, which represented where God resided amongst his people by His Spirit, could only be approached by one person once a year. Now suddenly, God was choosing for his spirit to reside permanently in every Christian, for his temple, as it were, to be us.

God dwelling in us gives us a foretaste of what it will be like when we come to dwell fully in him, when we will enter fully into the presence of God. For when we experience God’s Holy Spirit guiding us, comforting us, leading us, prompting us; when we experience God’s Spirit helping us to become more patient, kind, peaceful, joyful; when we experience God’s Spirit helping us to do things we didn’t think we could do; when we experience that, we are experiencing the presence of God within us. It is a foretaste of heaven.

God gives us a purpose for life; he gives us the gift of his Holy Spirit; and he gives us a hope for the future.

I wonder whether you have experienced something going way beyond your expectations. Maybe it was a job by a local tradesman, doing a job far better, far more thorough, than you had ever expected. For me it was the other week when a tooth broke off over breakfast – I seem to be of the age now where these things seem to happen. I rang the dentist expecting to be told I would have a several week wait. Instead they fitted me in that morning and by lunchtime I had my tooth filled in and sorted, and at no charge! Way beyond my expectations! 

Paul, later in his letter to the church in Ephesus, was to write that God is able to do “immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine”. The Holy Spirit gives us now just a tiny foretaste of what we will experience in the future. Indeed it is almost impossible for us to comprehend what it will be like for us to be with all the saints in heaven in the full presence of God. But we have experienced enough of God here in this life to know that whatever our expectations, they will be more than exceeded by the reality.

We have experienced some real sadnesses as a church over these last few months, and we will recognise that again in our service of commemoration and thanksgiving this afternoon, and as we grieve for the loss of those who we have loved, and it is right that we do so, it is also right that we give thanks that they are now in a place far better than we could possibly ever imagine, a place where our own anticipation is merely the briefest of glimpses into the eternal life that Christ through his cross and resurrection has made possible.

On this day when we celebrate All Saints Day, it is right to give thanks for those who have gone before us and are no longer with us but are in the eternal presence of God.

It is notable that given these remarkable truths – our purpose for life, the gift of the Holy Spirit, our hope in a future where death is not the end, but the doorway into the eternal presence of God – it is notable what Paul’s response is. For his response is prayer, prayer for his fellow Christians. He writes, “for these reasons, ever since I heard about your faith and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.”

He begins his prayers with thanks. No wonder. How much we have to thank God for all he is doing in each one of us, for these promises he is making true in us. Let us be thankful for one another. Look around – each person here is a miracle of God’s love and grace.

And he prays that they may continue to grow in their knowledge, their love, of God, and in their confidence in the future that God promises. When we pray for one another, when we pray for those we love, let us pray that they will come to know more and more the filling of God’s Holy Spirit, his presence in their lives, and will have hope in the future, no matter what it brings.

May we join in with all the saints, living and departed, as we pray to and praise our God in heaven.