Church Unity: For all the saints

As All Saints’ Day grows nearer, here’s another hymn (this time a more popular one) to walk through together.  For all the saints is a long hymn, clocking in at 8 verses.  Unless you sing it during a nice long procession, chances are you usually only get to sing 4 or 5 verses at one time. So now’s your chance, finally, to check out all the lyrics in one go!

1. For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.

We’re singing about God’s saints, but we’re still worshiping God alone.  This may seem like a no-brainer, but because a lot of people with non-catholic backgrounds get very cautious about idolatry the moment the word “saint” appears, it’s worth pointing out.  The saints who now rest from the labors of this life are remembered here for their confession of faith in Christ, and we bless his name along with them.

2. Thou was their rock, their fortress, and their might:
thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
thou, in the darkness drear, the one true Light.

What was so great about these saints of old?  They had Jesus in their lives.  Jesus was their rock, fortress, strength, leader, and light.  That’s what made them great.  That’s what can make us great, too!

3. O may thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
and win, with them, the victor’s crown of gold.

Now we’ve taken what verse 2 said about the departed saints, and turned that into a prayer for all of us still alive on earth today here in verse 3.  We’re still going to where they’ve already gone.

4. O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.

Verse 4 now celebrates what the Apostles’ Creed calls “the Communion of Saints.”  Even though the situation of the living & departed people of God is different, we’re still united in Christ.

5. And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.

The militaristic imagery of verses 2 and 3 now come back with a vengeance!  There are several images in the New Testament of Christians being like soldiers, instructed to put on the “armor of light” or “the full armor of God.”  Our enemies are “not flesh and blood,” however, but spiritual beings.  We fight against sin and evil, especially within ourselves.  The “distant triumph song” in verse 5 is a description of our unity of worship with the departed saints.  When we worship together with them (who have finished their fights against sin), we are strengthened and emboldened to continue in our own spiritual battles.

6. The golden evening brightens in the west;
soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.

Continuing from verse 5, we now sing about the approaching end of our own fight against sin.  The promise of eternal “rest” in God (as Hebrews 4 details) is seen in the departed saints’ present condition, and thus is not just a hopeful goal for us but also a promise.  Jesus has gone “to prepare a place” for us!

7. But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
the saints triumphant rise in bright array;
the King of glory passes on his way.

It’s one thing for our individual battles to come to an end – that’s encouraging to know about.  But even better is for the sin of the whole world to be defeated.  Verse 7 describes that: the return of Christ, our King of glory, with all the saints, at the end of the age.  The final and complete victory of Christ on the Cross will be realized everywhere, and the individual struggles against sin will finally be finished.

8. From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Alleluia, alleluia!

On that final day of the victorious return of Christ, the world world will be united in praise to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  There are visions of this in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Revelation, and other books in the Bible.  Indeed, the worship of the Church even now, uniting the saints departed (the “church triumphant”) with the saints on earth (the “church militant”) is a preview of that final vision of universal worship of God.  All nations, tribes, and languages are being united at the Altar of his praise.  The classic “already/not yet” dynamic of Gospel reality is very much alive here as we sing about the future, overflowing back into the present.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit;
s it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.  Amen!

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Sts. Simon & Jude’s Day

(28 October)

The Collect:
O ALMIGHTY God, who has built your Church upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone: Grant us so to be joined together in unity of spirit by their doctrine, that we may be made a holy temple acceptable unto you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Readings:
Isaiah 28:9-16; Psalm 116:11-17; Jude 1-8; John 15:17-27

Very little is known of the Apostles, Saint Simon and Saint Jude. Whether Jude is the author of the Epistle of Jude, or if it was a different Jude, we stand on the foundation of his and Simon’s teachings, with the other Apostles. To this end, the Gospel points out that the witness of the Apostles is united to the witness of God the Holy Spirit. Therefore, as the Epistle says, we are to cling to the faith “once delivered to all,” and not be like those who reject their authority. The Old Testament has severe warnings against such rebels, and points to Jesus the cornerstone of the Temple – the Church, the people of God.

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Church Unity: the narrow stream of death

As All Saints’ Day approaches, I wanted to share this hymn by Charles Wesley with you.  It’s a nice five-verse song (at least in my hymnal) set to the simple tune Dundee.  And its theology is amazing.  Here’s verse 1.

Let saints on earth in concert sing
With those whose work is done;
For all the servants of our King
In heav’n and earth are one.

This starts us off with a call to worship, basically, calling us to sing alongside other Christians who have since departed this life.  Despite physical death, we are united, one in Christ.  This is what the Apostles’ Creed calls “the Communion of Saints.”  The second verse describes this further:

One family we dwell in him,
One Church, above, beneath,
Though now divided by the stream,
The narrow stream of death.

It is popular to talk about how we’re one in Christ, but how often we forget that even death cannot separate us from him.  And if we cannot be separated from him, neither can we be separated from one another!  Verse three takes this to another level of imagery.

One army of the living God,
To his command we bow;
Part of the host have crossed the flood,
And part are crossing now.

The previous verse’s “narrow stream of death” is now a flood that we, God’s army, are crossing.  We’re headed out of this world and into the next: God’s eternal kingdom.  This unity of purpose and movement is described in the next verse.

E’en now by faith we join our hands
With those that went before,
And greet the ever-living bands
On the eternal shore.

In the writings of J.R.R. Tolkein, the elves and certain other characters “die” by sailing West on the sea to a distant land.  A similar concept is being used in this hymn, except here the opposite shore is in reach – the unity of God’s people is not seriously interrupted by death.  So instead of being afraid of death as if it were a permanent defeat, we are able to see it merely as part of our journey in Christ.  The last verse reflects this attitude.

Jesus, be thou our constant Guide;
Then, when the word is giv’n,
Bid Jordan’s narrow stream divide,
And bring us safe to heav’n.

Now the “narrow stream of death” has a name: the Jordan.  This brings in Old Testament imagery: as the Israelites had to cross the Jordan to enter into their promised land and earthly Jerusalem, so do we now, as Christians, cross the stream of death to enter into the promised land of the heavenly Jerusalem!  The reality of death is a sad and painful interruption of visible union, but in terms of spiritual reality it does not separate God’s people at all.  Thus we can sing this song about death without thinking of it as being morbid, but matter-of-factly.

Being one in Christ is a profound and beautiful reality, and it merits celebration.  All Saints’ Day is a day we especially highlight it in the liturgy and teaching of the Church, but this unbroken communion of saints is one of those Gospel truths that ought to be remembered and lived out every day of our lives.  As my (and my wife’s and my mentee’s) favorite part of the Eucharistic prayers put it, “Therefore, with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your name: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of power and might…!”

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The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity

(26 October 2014, 11 October 2015)

The Collect:
O GOD, forasmuch as without you we are not able to please you; Mercifully grant, that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Readings:
Genesis 18:23-32; Psalm 141:1-9; Ephesians 4:17-32; Matthew 9:1-8

The Collect of the Day makes a serious claim: it is impossible to please God on our own! In essence, union with God is necessary for a life of friendship with him. The Scriptures attest to this in many ways. Abraham’s plea for mercy on the city of Sodom is based on the number of righteous people there. Jesus’ primary act of healing for the paralytic is forgiving his sins – the physical healing was just to demonstrate the reality of the spiritual healing. The Epistle contains a lengthy set of reminders that we must live according to the New Creation – the indwelling Spirit within us. The Psalm, finally, is a prayer that God would cleans us from our sins.

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St. James of Jerusalem’s Day

(23 October 2014)

The Collect:
GRANT, O God, that, following the example of your servant James the Just, brother of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The Readings:
Acts 15:12-22a; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Matthew 13:54-58

There are several men named James in the New Testament, and the Church has not always been completely unified in sorting out exactly who is who. Saint James of Jerusalem is the one understood to be a “brother of Jesus” who initially doubts Jesus’ ministry. But after a post-resurrection visit from Jesus, James became a believer and a leader of the Church in Jerusalem. Just as he was reconciled with Jesus, James’ greatest legacy recorded in the Scriptures is his act of reconciliation between Jewish and Gentile Christians, as related in the book of Acts. The Psalm describes the type of man he’d become, and the Collect asks God for the continued ministry of reconciliation in our own day.

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The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

(19 October 2014, 4 October 2015)

The Collect:
LORD, we beseech you, grant your people grace to withstand the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and with pure hearts and minds to follow you, the only God; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Readings:
Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Psalm 122; 1 Corinthians 1:4-8; Matthew 22:34-46

Today’s Scriptures are very clear in their focus on teaching us about union with God through loving him first above all; the Old Testament even provides the quote that Jesus recites in the Gospel. Such union is meant to enrich our knowledge of God as well as our ability to speak about him, serve him, and anticipate Christ’s return, as St. Paul teaches in the Epistle. The Psalms, then, gives us an example of a prayer putting love for God first, and so the Collect asks God to purify our hearts and minds so we can truly love him first, specifically asking for grace to resist sin’s influences upon us.

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St. Luke’s Day

(18 October)

The Collect:
ALMIGHTY God, who called Luke the Physician, whose praise is in the Gospel, to be an Evangelist, and Physician of the soul: May it please you, that, by the wholesome medicines of the doctrine delivered by him, all the diseases of our souls may be healed; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Readings:
Isaiah 35:3-6; Psalm 147:1-6; 2 Timothy 4:5-15; Luke 10:1-9

The concept of sickness and healing is common throughout the Bible, frequently referring both to physical ailments as well as to spiritual ailments caused by sin. The Old Testament, Psalm, Gospel, and Collect each speak to the healing ministry of God through his people in various ways. Because Saint Luke is identified as a physician, his feast day is an appropriate day for the Church to remember Christ as the Great Physician. For God’s blessings of health and peace are not merely worldly promises that apply to our bodies today, but eternal promises that apply to our very souls.

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