All Saints’

Sermon preached by Angela Rayner, ordinand at Westcott House

 

Saint Paul, prior to his conversion persecuted Christians. Saint Moses, prior to baptism, was a leader of murderers and robbers who rampaged through Egypt. Saint Christina the Astonishing was a little unusual; after her conversion, she would throw herself into fiery furnaces and swim in icy rivers, all the while imploring God’s mercy. St Pelagia, after baptism, disguised herself as a male recluse in order to practice a life of simplicity. Saint Barbara’s refusal to marry lead to martyrdom at her father’s hand, although her historical existence is questioned. Who, then are these, robed in white, and where have they come from? What does it mean to be a saint?

 

Today we’ve heard the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ instructions for enabling us to recognise the saints when we hear or see them. That sermon, sometimes treated as though it can be extracted from the Bible and read as a discrete set of laws is not an optional extra. It’s not “be baptised and then try to follow this rather impossible set of rules”, but is a description of the church in the world, so “be baptised, and find yourselves amongst a group of people who look,” and this is putting it politely, “mildly peculiar”. Find yourselves among a group of people who shape their communities around the mourners, the merciful and the meek. The Sermon directs us straight to Christ, for it’s preached by God’s Son. Unless we are conformed to Christ, we will struggle to hear it and interpret it.

 

What I would like Jesus to say is “Blessed are the compromised”, “Blessed are the messy” and “Blessed are the people who will struggle to make it through the day”, but frustratingly, instead, we have “blessed are the meek”. I fear any association with the educational establishments of Cambridge casts a huge pall over meekness. And “Blessed are the peacemakers”. Those poppies and direct debits to Amnesty International do not exactly cancel out the taxes paid to fund the war on Iraq or the history of being part of an established church of a country that once ran the world’s largest empire. So, what are we to do?

 

Jesus doesn’t address us in the Sermon as individuals, but speaks to us here at St Bene’t’s as a community. He tells us what we already know, that we cannot exist without one another. We’re not all expected to be meek, poor in spirit, persecuted or peacemakers, but if none of us are, then we’re no longer the church, Jesus seems to say. These qualities can only be found in community. One cannot try to be poor in spirit or to be meek. They are gifts that are to be found in followers of Christ because Christ himself embodied them. And when we put on Christ, we will discover in our midst those who are pure in heart. We will glimpse a world that is turned upside down, and a church that contains some people who’d never be recognised as valuable by the world.[1]

 

The Sermon on the Mount, then is not a call for heroes in a culture that desires a quick fix. How we long for heroes to rescue us from the relentless news cycle of terrorism and famine and war and abuse. Societies seem often to unconsciously seek the self-sufficient and resilient, usually men, of Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If”. But “if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you…”, you’re likely somebody who is deeply isolated. Heroes, then, are solitary and often autonomous figures who can save the world only through their unique super-powers. Saints, by contrast, always appear in the New Testament in plural. They’ve no need to be the “centre of the story”[2] because Christ plays that role. Heroes cannot afford to mess up, but saints need not be afraid of making mistakes. If Superman crashes, then somebody will fall off the bridge. If the saint fails, then there is always the possibility of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation[3]. Perhaps we’d prefer heroes and heroines and bravery and valour and conquest and victory, but saints know they cannot achieve salvation by their own efforts. Saints are not heroes.

 

“A saint,” I heard said recently, “is a person whose biography has not been well researched”. It’s an amusing quip, but it reveals something about our insecurities concerning imperfection. Saints aren’t sin free, and they don’t need to be, since perfection is found only in God. Recently, we’ve seen attempts to erase from history saints who have been found wanting. And perhaps, in egregious cases, that’s as it should be. But I wonder whether it speaks of our inability to live with the tension that the “line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being”[4]? In our desire for something closer to perfection, we’ve given up on saints in favour of angels. “Be an angel” people say. But it’s a category error. Humans can’t be angels because we have bodies, and they do not. Humans are made a little lower than the angels. And when we discover the saints are sometimes as imperfect as us, we are disappointed. “If they can’t do it, how is there any hope for us?” It’s tempting to airbrush the saints, but it leads to idolatry. We can idolise the people that we don’t have to live with, who don’t sulk or nag or leave socks on the floor. No wonder we are tempted into “loving angels instead”[5]. But our call is only to sing the praises of God with them. Saints are not angels.

 

Today, we observe the feast of All the Saints because under the Roman persecution of Diocletian, so many Christians were martyred that there weren’t enough days to observe each of them. Eventually, the day was expanded to include all saints, whether martyrs or not. We invoke the prayers of the saints because the church is confident that they have attained fullness of vision in God. We recognise that some people, the Dorothy Days and Josephine Bakhitas and Mychal Judges make good in ways that most of us won’t. These people, we call, the Church Triumphant, but they always emerge from local congregations of Christians. Saints, then are recognised, not created. The Prayer Book reminds Anglicans to recoginse saints, “Hear what Saint Paul sayeth”, “Hear what Saint John sayeth”, not because these people were sinless, but because their lives were especially orientated to Christ.

 

So, we have the official saints, but can we call all Christians saints? We can, and we can describe ourselves as the Church Militant, not because we’re ferocious, but because we labour to follow Christ. The Church Militant is all of the baptised. It’s all of us who are in the process of becoming saints, for as John puts it, “we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed…” Being God’s children, we are friends of God. So some are formally canonised, but some are the person in the pew next to yours. And some are the stranger you met at a party who called you a cab when you couldn’t find your way home. What makes a saint is not total freedom from sin, but a life lived in devotion to God. We are called to imitate their virtues, but not necessarily to reproduce their actions. Christians can rejoice, for we are called to be saints, and thus freed from the burden of heroism and the impossibility of being angels.

 

So, here at St Benedict’s Church this morning, we’re about to engage in the greatest gift we can give another person. Through baptism, we’ll participate in the making of two new saints. We will welcome Elisabeth and Joel into the life of Christ and offer them the friendship of this community. Through baptism, we make possible a life where each person might choose “not between good and evil, but between good and better”[6]. Baptism is the riskiest venture anybody can undergo. Through it, each of us are given into the family of the church, in which water becomes thicker than blood. Through baptism our ethnicity, our heritage and our background are made secondary to our identity in Christ. Persecution will always be a risk because, we are lead first and foremost by the Lamb on the throne. Jesus is to be our Shepherd, not the emperor, nor the president nor the monarch. We know that life in Christ won’t always be easy, but it will be full of hope because we trust that Christ will guide us to the springs of eternal life where, eventually, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

 

“Who, then, are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” These are God’s people, the saints, whom Christ has called, through baptism, to participate in his life and feast at the divine banquet. They are us, and have come from every tribe and tongue and nation.

[1] The insights in this paragraph are drawn largely from Chapter 5 of

Hauerwas, S. (2015). SCM Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew. Grand Rapids MI: Brazos Press.

[2] p42 Wells, S. (2006). Improvisation: the drama of Christian ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos.

[3] p44 ibid

[4] Solzhenitsyn, A. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

[5] “Angels” by Robbie Williams

[6] From “Introduction”. Plekon, M. (2012). Saints As They Really Are: Voices of Holiness in Our Time. University of Notre Dame.