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November 05, 2006

All Saints

The question of the Saints is a long and complex one - or not. I suppose to a large extent it depends on the denomination you belong to, the tradition you have received and your interpretation of certain scriptures. Tonight I must preach on this subject for the Solemn Evensong at the Abbey, and it has exercised my mind more than a little as to how to cover this wide topic in a sermon!

My final effort is in the extended post below and I hope it will provide those who read it with a little more insight into the calling of all Christians. We are indeed all called to be Saints of God - that is implicit in our Baptism and in our expression of faith in the creed week on week. Those who are remembered by name and in the calendar are the examples of fellow travellers in this life who have made sacrifices or some other contribution to our understanding of the nature of our calling and of the love and grace that is conveyed in the Gospels. We pray with them and hope that they pray with us as we walk through our lives surrounded by the "faithful cloud of witnesses" described by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews.

May we, with the Saints, be joined in the service of Christ. Amen

All Saints Evensong 2006
Tewkesbury Abbey

O Lord, open to us thy Word, and our hearts to thy Word, that we may love thee better and know thee more; for thy mercy and for thy truth’s sake. Amen

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorned its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Over the last few days we have had the occasion to give a lot of thought to the question of Saints and who they where, who they are and what they do or have done for the Church. When we speak of a saint today to a child they generally come up with an image of someone with a halo, usually dressed in white and fitted up with a deluxe set of fairy wings. Older children will usually have a modified version while the more cynical adults will generally associate the saints with a bit of a hygiene problem,, frequently reclusive or thundering about iniquity and probably completely out of touch with the day to day realities of life. But is this a reasonable picture? Would we actually recognise a saint if we met one?

We should, because, in the strictest terms, all those who believe in Christ and who practice the principles of the Gospel in their daily lives, are saints of God. In short, we are all in the company of saints right now.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews gives us a shortlist of people who were obedient to God in the Old Testament and in so doing changed the world around them in some way. He gives us three categories in which this was achieved – conquering the world, justice for the people of God and the inheriting of the promised salvation. In each category he names three people involved in this saving work – yet, he makes the very important point that they, themselves, could not bring about the full realisation of God’s plan until the Word itself is manifested in the person of Jesus Christ himself. Then, in and through him, they become a part of the great cloud of witnesses who have thrown off all that holds us back from the fullness of God’s love.

Isaiah speaks tonight of the promised Kingdom in which no one need ever again suffer sorrow, hurt or bereavement. A world in which fear is banished and the weak and the powerful are equals. The powerful imagery of the passage –

“The wolf shall and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food.”

Uses powerful allegory to bring a vision of harmony – but also a measure of retribution. For the serpents there is no grace, no reward, only suffering; for their day is now past and it is the servant’s of God who will see the reward and enjoy the fruits of their faith in God.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews draws upon this rich legacy of the Old Testament to illustrate his own point. It is in the Faith of God that the first group of his nine named “heroes” overcame far more powerful enemies. Their faith made them stronger than any enemy and brought them triumph, even though, in Samson’s case it also cost him his life. In the second group again he is pointing to the fact that their devotion to God and their faith that he would give them the strength for the task saw them through to the end, bringing justice, peace and stability to their people for a time. But then he changes the image and he introduces the suffering of others, suffering that was unjust and seemingly, to the world, unrewarded.

As this particular letter makes abundantly clear throughout, we are all called to be saints, to be among those whose names we have in scripture, in legend and in the history of our faith. To be those who make things happen through love of God and through faith. That is the calling of every man, woman and child who professes the faith of Christ. To some of us will be given the recognition that we have succeeded, to others of us, it will be in God’s knowledge alone as to whether we have fulfilled that calling or not.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

Now there is a challenge! If we are to fulfil our true calling we must first make ourselves fit for the task. St Paul was a great user of the imagery of the sports field or even of the military discipline of his time and the image of the sportsman training for the race is one of his favourites. And it is not out of place, since, unless we do take the time and the trouble to “train” for the task, we cannot hope to succeed when we are put to the test.

So just how accurate is the image we have received of a saint? Are we called to be so other worldly that we cannot function in this one? Are we called to live in caves dependent on handouts and scraps for survival? Are we called to wander around looking at the world with an expression of acute distaste? Of course not, what we are called to do is to show the world the love made manifest through Christ on the cross. The love made manifest in the babe in the cradle in Bethlehem. The love that knows no barrier of denomination, of colour or of creed and deals with everyone we meet in the same way that we would deal with Christ himself.

No one, least of all the writer to the Hebrews, says it will be easy. No one is promising a rich reward in this life, and no one is promising that the life of the saint we are called to be will be painless, without sorrow or even without some regrets – but it does have the richest reward of all, the sure knowledge of the love of God and of his salvation at the last when we are called to His service in the next.

For some there may well be the process of “official” recognition as a Saint of God, but not all of us will be remembered as a Benedict, as Claire, or Patrick, or David, soldiers of Faith and people whose faith touched and changed the world around them. But each and every one of us changes someone around us in some way every time we meet them. If we are out of sorts and treat them badly, even if unconsciously so, we may leave that person feeling rejected or damaged in some way – and that is not as it should be. Our calling is to give to others the love that is given to us, that is the calling of a saint! It is a calling to serve and not to be served.

Recently I found the answer to something I have long pondered, and in answering it, I have received an insight into another aspect of the faith that drove at least one of the greater Saints. Why did the Celtic Church adopt the shaved fore part of the head as their mark of servanthood to Christ? Why not the Latin tonsure? The answer lies in the early life of Saint Patrick. It was the mark of the slave in Ireland - a slave had their head shaved from ear to ear, leaving the forehead and temples bare, and Patrick adopted it as his mark of his servanthood to Christ – and probably as a reminder of his own early life as a slave in that country. A strong reminder to us that we are the servants of God and of each other and not the other way round.

As we bring to a close our celebration of All the Saints of God, surrounded as we are by a great cloud of witnesses, particularly in this holy place, let us renew our calling to be, with them, Christ’s servants on Earth and to strive to run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Posted by The Gray Monk at November 5, 2006 05:15 PM

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