Sunday 2 November 2014
All Saints Day
Readings Rev 7:9-17, Matthew 5:1-12
May I speak this morning in the name of God + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The family and I have just returned from a half term break in Wales, the land of our fathers. Actually, strictly speaking, Essex is the land of our fathers but we went to Wales anyway!
We often head west on our holidays, either to Wales or to Cornwall, and one of the things that I love about being on the western, Celtic, fringe of these islands is the hundreds of tiny villages and churches that are named after saints that you never hear of anywhere else. In this south-eastern part of the world most of our churches, with one or two notable exceptions, are named after a fairly short short-list of saints: St Mary, St Peter, St Paul and so forth, and this can give the impression that there are not many saint names to go around – but when you get far enough west there is a veritable explosion of saints, one for each church it seems.
And in fact that is not too far from the truth. Prior to the 8th Century, churches in Wales were named for the monk who consecrated them by observing a 40-day fast on the site, and these founders became de facto saints.
Now that is very different from the way in which saints are made now. Because the Anglican church does not proclaim anyone to be a saint, and perhaps that says something about our ability to produce saints, most of us are only familiar with the process through watching the Roman church. As you probably know in order to be canonised as a saint in the Catholic church there needs to be evidence of two or three miracles either performed by the person or as a result of prayers of intercession made in the name of that person. This involves lots of evidence gathering and committees and sometimes hundreds of years.
Now I am sure you have known me long enough now to know that I am not anti-Catholic. Far from it. Some of my evangelical friends seem to think that I am more Catholic than the Pope, which is ironic because some of my Catholic friends think I am a hot prot. Still, that is my cross to bear.
So I am not anti-Catholic at all, but I do think that their way of making saints sends the wrong message about the nature of sainthood. Now, I may be wrong and as you know as a married man I am very used to being wrong, but to me the problem of confining sainthood to the makers of miracles is that it puts the saints into the same category as super-heroes – we may look up to them but we can never aspire to be them because we know that we do not posses super powers. Although I just want to say that I did get the Coverdale chair into the sanctuary on my own and some holy levitation may have been called for.
But seriously, if we think that sainthood is confined to those who can perform miracles then we can quickly opt out of thinking that it has any real impact on our lives and our own journeys of faith.
But today, on this All Saints day, I want to give a very simple message: everyone in this church is called to be a saint. The word saint comes from the word sanctus which means holy and time and time again the bible says that we are called to be holy, because our God is holy. And the word holy is itself derived from the word whole (with a w) – we are called to be whole people because our God is a whole God.
So that is why I am attracted by the early Celtic way of proclaiming someone to be a saint – if someone showed themselves to be a whole person by living a holy life then the local community would simply declare their saintliness and there would be no need for additional miracles. It could well be said that the living of a holy life in a fallen world is miracle enough, but we shall come back to that in a moment.
Interestingly the Eastern Orthodox church behaves much more like the early Celts when it comes to proclaiming saints, and much less like the Catholic church. Firstly the Orthodox church makes it clear that it does not make saints at all, because saints are made only by God, but the church merely recognises that a person has co-operated with God’s grace to such an extent that his or her holiness is beyond doubt. And that one sentence holds the vital clue to how each one of us can progress along the path of holiness – to co-operate with God’s grace. When we do what God wants us to do we become whole people, holy people, saints.
And today’s readings give us a glimpse both of the path to saintliness and of our heavenly home.
The Gospel reading was from Jesus’ sermon on the mount and it was from the Beatitudes. Many of you here took part in our Lent Pilgrim Course through the Beatitudes and I hope you remember it. as I do, as a fascinating and challenging journey.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,
Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Throughout the beatitudes Jesus makes it clear that we are blessed by God and draw closer to him and his kingdom when we confound the expectations of the world. The world respects strength, a stiff upper lip, for us not to suffer fools gladly. But the way of God, the way of Jesus, recognises that we are closest to God not when we are full of ourselves but when we are empty and acknowledge our need for him, when we confront a world of war with the way of peace, when we seek justice and pursue it. There is nothing here about possessing super powers of healing but everything about allowing God’s ways to take precedence over our own. To co-operate with God’s grace.
And then in the reading from Revelation we are given an image of the multitude of white robed saints standing in the presence of God, who have come out of the tribulation of the world and from whom God will wipe away every tear.
Interestingly just before we see the multitude of saints the book of Revelation tells us about the 144,000 servants of God – 12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel. This group interest me for two main reasons – firstly the Jehovah’s witnesses believe that this group is them – i.e. that you have to be a Jehovah’s witness to be in the 144,000 and they seem to ignore the great multitude mentioned in this mornings reading. Perhaps more interestingly we are expressly told that this group represents each of the 12 tribes of Israel, i.e. the Jewish nation. God’s chosen and covenanted people were the Jews and although he extended that covenant and widened it to the gentiles this makes it pretty clear to me that Jew and gentile will be bowing down together before the throne of God.
So today we are thinking about all the holy people – all the saints – who have gone before us into the glory of God, and who now surround us as the great cloud of witnesses. But do not make the mistake of thinking that they are somehow in a totally different category to you and I and that we can sit here and think about them in an abstract sort of way. As baptised members of the Body of Christ in this place you and I and everyone here are called on the journey to sainthood. And that does not mean that you have to try and copy the lives of the saints from the past. On the contrary you can only become a saint by co-operating with the grace of God in your life in the here and now. And don’t tell me that you are too old or too young or too busy – God can transform you in an instant or in a lifetime. He only needs your co-operation with his grace.
Don’t forget I never said that the call or the journey to sainthood was easy – but I did say that it is for everyone!
When you exchange the peace this morning let the scales fall from your eyes and recognise not only all the saints in heaven but all the saints gathered here today.