May only truth be spoken, and only truth received. Amen.
Our readings for the Feast of All Saints’ both deal with matters of life and death, though in quite different ways. From a passage close to the end of the Book of Revelation, we heard that promise of a coming age in which “[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ (Rev 21:4) Death and all the tears and grief and sorrow that accompanies it will not have the final word, either in our lives or in the life of the whole of creation, for creation itself is being made anew. And then we heard the story of the raising of Lazarus from the Gospel according to John, which stands as something of an enacted parable of death’s defeat. As Robert Farrar Capon has it, “Jesus never met a corpse that didn’t sit right up then and there.
- To listen to the audio of the sermon, click play:
Why all this talk of death on this particular feast day? Because what All Saints’ Day really marks is what the Apostles’ Creed calls “the communion of saints.” We believe in the communion of saints, which is to say that we believe that this thing called the Body of Christ is not severed by dividing lines between life and death; that though we may no longer see those who have died, we live in a very real and spiritual union with them as members of His Body. That includes not only the big league, stained glass, upper case “S” saints whose lives and witness are well known, but also all of those who you might call “ordinary saints”, including those whose names have been long forgotten. And in the strange economy of the communion of saints, the upper case and lower case shall all sit down side-by-side to feast at the same table.
Of course as St Paul uses the word, the “saints” are simply members of the church community. Most of the “saints” Paul writes of were still very much alive, though at least some had died. He uses the term “fallen asleep”, not as a way of denying death but as a way of saying that death does not have the final word. The Greek word we translate as “saint” is hagios, which means literally “holy one,” though anyone who has read Paul’s epistles will know that the “holiness” of the people in those churches was based pretty much entirely on their having been recipients of grace. On their own steam, those “holy ones” could still make rather a mess of things. But it is “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Eph 2:8)
It is from these saints—the ones named “holy” in spite of all their failings and foibles—that we have inherited this faith, this great and deep tradition. That word “tradition” sometimes gets a bad rap, as in something is just a tradition. And truthfully, sometimes people and churches do get trapped in their traditions. There’s an old joke about Anglicans, that when something is done for the first time it is an innovation, but after it is done a second time it becomes “traditional.” I’m more taken by the insight of the theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, who wrote that, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” Do you see the difference? Pelikan then quips, “I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name,” and I think that is very true. It is a living faith that has been “tradition-ed” to us by the saints, both living and dead. So let me tell you a story of standing in the tradition.
For some fifteen years now, I have begun my sermons with that simple invocation: May only truth be spoken, and only truth received. I first heard it in 2001, at the gathering of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada. During those days, the lawsuits related to the church’s historic involvement in the Residential Schools were swirling all around us, such that it looked quite likely that the Anglican Church of Canada was about to be sued out of existence. At the beginning of the Synod, Archbishop Michael Peers—the Primate of the Canadian Church—said quite bluntly that this was in all likelihood the last time General Synod would ever meet. Rather than casting a pall over the proceedings, though, that reality was strangely liberating. If this was the last time the Anglican Church in Canada would gather for a General Synod, then we better be on about things that really, really matter. And so on one of those days, when Archbishop Peers stood to preach and opened with that invocation, “May only truth be spoken, and only truth received,” the words caught me in the most powerful of ways. I knew right away that I would use that invocation whenever and wherever I preached.
This past summer, I received a letter from Michael Peers, portions of which I want to read to you. Dated August 10, 2015, the letter begins:
Yesterday in our parish church, Epiphany and St Mark [in Toronto], Andrew Colman preached his first sermon. I was mildly startled at the beginning when he used an invocation I have almost always used, “May only the truth be spoken here and only the truth received.” I was surprised, as he has never heard me preach (the days when I was invited to preach appear to have passed, though I occasionally am asked to preside).
Many of you will know that, with his wife Rachel, Andrew was an active member of saint benedict’s table for several years, and that from here he has gone to Toronto to pursue theological studies at Trinity College. And so, Michael continued,
When Andrew and I were speaking together after the service, he told me that this invocation came from you, and that when he asked after the source, you said, “a Primate, Michael Peers.”
Let me tell you where the words came from. After my confirmation in 1948, I made my first communion. My parents, who had diligently sent me to Sunday School (not accompanied me) promised me that Confirmation meant that I was accepting church-going as my responsibility, and that they would never bother me again on the subject. Hooray! I quit.
In 1953, two fellow UBC students invited me to St James, a great [Anglo-] Catholic parish with a major ministry in the downtown Eastside. I never looked back. The parish sponsored a mission led by a young, bright priest from Toronto, Michael Creal. He began each address with “those words” and I never forgot them.
When Archbishop Howard Clark was elected Primate in 1959, he hired Michael to revivify Christian education for the Canadian church—he did that, but those were the 60s and the church could not contain him. He became a professor at York University, and is now, like me, an octogenarian honorary assistant at a Toronto parish.
We so often think of time as a long line into which we step at our birth, but it contains some wonderful circles as well. Thank you for being part of this one.
You might have noticed that the words Michael Peers cited are ever so slightly different from the ones I use; “May only the truth be spoken here and only the truth received.” That is also part of how a living tradition works; there can be subtle shifts and variations, yet at the core of things it remains solid.
Sometimes we just don’t know the impact that our words or actions can have; how something so simple as a sermon invocation can place you in a long line that is, at the same time, what Michael calls a wonderful circle. And so from stumbling saint to stumbling saint to stumbling saint, things good and true are passed along, sometimes almost in spite of ourselves. I am ever so grateful to be a part of this rag-tag, stumbling, grace-filled thing called the Communion of Saints.