(The text for this sermon can be found in Ephesians 1.11-23)
Before his assassination Archbishop Romero of El Salvador had a practice of reading at the Eucharist the names of members of his church who had either ‘disappeared’—or died the previous week. As the prayers of the community were spoken—the names were be lifted up one after another. The congregation would respond after each name was called out: “Presente.” Present. Here--with us today.
Presente I do not know a better word for All Saints Day. And we join with churches around the world in remembering that great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. We have called out some of their names. And even now some face rises us before us. Presente. They are always with us. Our lives have been touched. I love the way Stephen Spender put it when thinking of what he called “the truly great.” “Born of the sun they traveled a short while toward the sun, And left the vivid air signed with their honor.”
When Paul wrote to the little house church in Ephesus he wrote, interestingly enough, “to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faith in Jesus Christ…”(1.1.b) And so in that first chapter he gives us a prayer of what he hopes will happen in their lives and in the life of the church. Unless I miss my guess it was a prayer for his life, too. All the best prayers are. That in the ragged edges of his life which he knew all too well—he prayed for himself, too. E.F. Scott, one of the finest New Testament scholars of his day, has said that this particular prayer is decisive to the letter. For all the main sections of what will follow in chapters two and three flow out of these words here. This is prelude or overture in which the themes will be played out are first sung or played. Only in this text they come to us in the form of prayer. Here we find a definition of a healthy church or a healthy Christian. But more than that here we find a proper definition of sainthood. For what does he pray?
The Wise Ones
“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him…”(1.17) Who are the saints? They are the wise ones.
This wisdom is not particularly book learning or education. It could be. We are never, ever to leave our brains outside the doors of the church. Education should open doors and windows on vistas we’ve never seen. But we all know some of the most unwise people are the most educated. The wisdom Paul talks about here is not facts or technological expertise. Fred Craddock says that the longest journey any of us will ever make is from the head to the heart. From “I know” to “I know.” Paul said that saints were people that were truly wise.
The Ones That See Clearly
Paul prayed that “the eyes of your hearts will be enlightened.”(1.18a) Moffett translates these words: “that the eyes of your heart will be flooded with light.” Saints are not only wise but they see with a clarity that others do not see.
W.O. Carver has said that with openhearted clarity we know how significant we are to God. All our lives most of us are like that blind man Jesus touched and gave sight to. The healed man said he saw men as trees walking. He could not make out their faces—everything was still blurry. He saw through a film. But Jesus touched him a second time and maybe a third and fourth time. And he saw clearly faces, everything—the world around him. And this is what conversion truly is. Sometimes we get discouraged because we keep on breaking our resolutions. We keep on lapsing back to old and destructive patterns of living and thinking. We wonder if we are making any progress whatsoever. And God comes and touches us again. And sometimes again. And we begin to grow and see things we never, ever saw before. The reason that Paul prayed that the eyes of your hearts would be enlightened was so they could see the world and our own lives through the eyes of God. Saints learn to do that.
The Hopeful Ones
The third thing Paul prayed for was that “you may know the hope to which he has called you.”(I.18 b) Saints are the wise ones. They look at things through different eyes. And they are the hopeful ones. They keep on believing despite all the odds. Are you a hoper?
Do you know the name, Samuel Ogden? Samuel Ogden was a writer and former member of the Vermont legislature. He wrote an article in the New York Times, which was widely reprinted. He said that on one of the happiest Christmases he and his family had ever had his wife of 51 years just died there before their eyes. He said he was left alone. Not literally, he had children and many friends and associates. But he said that he just couldn’t get over his grief. For 51 years he had slept in the same bed with this woman. He said they had a wonderful relationship and at age 76 it was just more than he could take. Grief plunged him into a depression that got worse and worse. Finally, in desperation, he decided to kill himself. He rigged up a hose to the exhaust pipe of the car, stuck it though the car window and caulked up all of the cracks. But, he said for some unknown reason, maybe a backfire when the motor started, but the pipe disengaged from the exhaust. He said he did not know this. But Miss Fannie, the housekeeper saw him fooling around with the back of the car and eventually came out and discovered what he was trying to do.
He was taken to the hospital and there, he said, he made a great discovery. He said that all the values which his unbearable grief had twisted into a pattern of evil could be set right once he began to look through Mamie’s eyes. He began to do this. And so he made a new resolve. To live with as much joy as he could accomplish. To do things she would want him to do. To do work that was still left undone. He began to move out of his self-centeredness and fulfill some of his obligations to his family and community. He said that he had learned to hope again—and it was hope that kept him going. Life had purpose and he was on the road again. Could a man be a saint who has tried to commit suicide and failed? I think so. If we learn to hope we can help others become hopers, too.
Those That Know God's Power
But maybe Paul saved the best for last. He also prayed: “that (we may know) what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”(1.19) Saints are wise. Saints are insightful. Saints are hoppers. And saints are the powerful ones.
Listen to Paul as he unpacks this: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”(1.20-23)
F.F. Bruce asks why this attempt to exhaust the resources of language to convey something of the greatness of God’s power? Because, he answers his own question, the text is thinking of one supreme example when the power of God was exerted in a special way. When Jesus was raised from the dead. And what he says is that God’s resurrected power is available to the whole church.
This is the heart of the gospel. And the saints of God are those who have come to terms with this power. It has touched their lives and changed them forever. And they know that if he is Lord and if he really is in charge and the powers and principalities are really under his feet—that he is present and all of God’s children that ever stuck their necks out for the cause of goodness are here too. Presente. Present. Here.
God has dominion over whatever touches and cripples us all. And who among us is not crippled or broken in some way. And we have spent much of our lives trying to run away or cover over and ignore or evade or just deny that we do not yet believe in this power of God that takes the shackles off our lives. For faith is that stubborn, stubborn belief that God moves through even the worst things of our lives. So Paul said in another place: “Nothing…(no-thing) can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
Theodore Wedel observes in The Interpreter’s Bible that the key word in this whole prayer is power. For the early church Christ was the great miracle. He was present in who they were and in what they did. And they believed in that he walked with them and was always there. Presente!
When we think about saints Mother Theresa easily comes to mind. In 1979 she was awarded the Nobel peace prize. There was a great outcry from some quarters when she was recognized. They were used to political and religious leaders like Ghandi and Martin Luther King. What in the world had Mother Theresa ever done for cause of peacemaking? And in one sense they were right. She was not a peace activist. But she had patterned her life after Francis of Assisi and devoted her whole life to the poorest of the poor. Educating children, washing the putrid sores of the dying, caring for lepers whom society shunned, taking in street urchins, giving away medicine to people with tuberculosis. She reached out to the unwanted, the unloved and the abandoned. She did not look at the big picture—Mother Theresa looked at the small picture. One baby here. One child there. One old man coughing and dying. One by one by one by one. And this is what she said about her work. “I am nothing. He is all. I do nothing on my own. He does it. This is what I am, God’s pencil. A tiny bit of pencil with which he writes what he likes.”
So simple it seems ridiculous. God’s pencil. Believing that God takes what we are and uses it for his purposes to make a better world. Isn’t this really a good definition of sainthood: God’s pencil. So today as honor all those saints who have come before us—let us remember this word, presente. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And on this special day we remember them. Thanks be to God.