Rethinking saints

All Saints

Revelation 7:9-17- Psalm 34.1-10- 1 John 3:1-3– Matthew 5.1-12

The Very Rev’d Bertrand Oliver, Dean and Rector

‘When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.’

Today, we are celebrating the Feast of All Saints – we have already sung familiar hymns of the season, and the readings set for today may have already given us some pause for thought.

And I wonder whether we might take a moment to think about what saints are for us?  Who is a saint for you?  Take a moment to bring to mind someone who you might think fits the bill of a saint.

Then I wonder whether you might be able to identify the qualities that make this person qualify for the label of a saint.

And now, turn to a neighbour and share briefly with them the person and your reasons for identifying as a saint.

Well, judging by the conversation, there was much to say about that, and I will guess that some of you found the exercise easy, while others might have found it difficult.

Some of you will have remembered the ancient and not so ancient saints fêted in the calendar of the Church, and who are celebrated as part of their regular cycle of corporate prayer – people who have been recognised as particular heroes of Christianity, and either Canonised by the Roman Catholic Church or recognised by Anglican provinces around the world.

I remember, when I was a child growing up in France, how the postmen would come and sell us their annual calendar which listed all the saints, and children could only legally be named after one of those.

Others will have thought of people you have known or still know today who are helping you understand the life of faith by the way they act, by the way they are, by the effect that they have had and continue to have on your own relationship with God.

And aside all those people we will have collectively remembered today, there are all those countless men and women who are quietly living out their faith in lives of prayer and service of others, unnoticed and unremembered, and yet who also form part of that vast innumerable cloud of witnesses – living and dead – who have and continue to contribute to building the kingdom of God today, expressing Christian hope even in the midst of the greatest turmoils, sometimes at great cost to themselves in their living, sometimes at the cost of their lives.

The original word saint, in the Greek Hagiazo, had a strong connection of being set apart, made holy, for the work of God, because in history only a chosen few – priests and high priests – were able to stand in the presence of the divine in the Temple.

And so holiness became something that felt unattainable by most, especially as hagiographies – the stories of the lives of the saints – tended to focus on their qualities and spiritual prowess rather than the reality of their humanity and often flawed characters. They are usually remembered for their deeds or their writings, the inheritance they have left behind or their contribution to the world if they are still alive. Not for their failures in life.

And yet, in the Christian tradition, we are all set apart by our baptism for the singular work of building the Kingdom of God and rejecting all that is evil.  At baptism, we are affirmed as children of God, and the relationship we have directly with God is made manifest in this new birth, as it was made for Jesus at his baptism.  We are God’s people.

St Paul’s addresses some of his letters to the saints of Rome, Ephesus, Colossae, among others.  For him, the saints of those cities are the Christians set apart for the work of God who together form the body of Christ  – not that they had already attained perfection.  In fact they often had not and kept misbehaving or bickering over this and that, and forming into different factions, which is why he kept writing them letters of encouragements.

Today, likewise, we hear the writer of the first letter of John encourage the Christians of his time, as well as all of us.  The world in which they lived seemed out of control to them, with no sense of redemption at work.  Just as the world in which we live seems also out of control and we wonder how the Christian community may have an impact when the world continues to reject the message of the Gospel and the promise of a kingdom of love, peace and justice.  And so, like them, we lose heart, we forget that we are God’s children, and that ‘what we will be has not yet been revealed’, that God has a plan beyond our knowledge and yet we are also part of that plan, if we will persevere in the faith.

In our Gospel reading today, we hear the words of Jesus as he preaches his sermon on the mount, to the assembled crowds of Galilee.  His statements seem counterintuitive – but they speak to an attitude of the mind, an attitude of the soul as we seek to live in faith.

All are welcome in the community of God’s children, but there is no promise that being a member of that community will be pain free.  We know all too well some of the suffering that Christians have endured since the times of Christ.  But even without persecution, we are not sheltered but touched by life just like others, and are called through our faith to transcend some of the travails of life as we seek to live in faith.

Many of these Beatitudes – from the Latin word for blessings – are paradoxical.

The first three, because they imply that poverty, sorrow, and gentleness are all gifts from God.  Next is a reminder that, even if we struggle for human food, a hunger for justice brings about fulfilment. Beatitudes five to seven highlighting the Christian virtues of mercy, purity and peacemaking. But the eight, “Blessed are those who are persecuted” may come as an unwelcome shock.

Thankfully, so far, they have all been in the third person so we can pay lip service to them, or can we?

Then Jesus says: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you.” It is then that we can “rejoice and be glad” because it is then that “you” are on the side of God’s prophets.

The Saints have been called to stand for their faith, as we are, and sometimes to take a countercultural stand for justice, for peace, for love.  Not uninformed knee jerk reactions, but positions that were reached after deep praying and meditation on the scriptures.  Positions that were prophetic.

We might hope and pray that our Christian witness does not take us to that place where we will feel compelled by our faith to speak out, and the prophetic tradition remains part of our calling.

The saints, like us, have been people who strive to lead authentic Christian lives, to discern God in the midst of a world that is often chaotic, and to hold a grounded centre.  This is a hard calling, and we often fail individually and collectively.

The good news today, from the Book of Revelation, is that by the Cross of Christ we are redeemed even in our imperfections.  His self-giving of himself washes away our sins and shortcomings.  And at the last, we will be gathered into God’s everlasting Kingdom where there is no hunger, thirst or tears any more.


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