All Saints Day
Rev 7 7-end, Ps 34 1-10, 1 John 3 1-3, Matt. 5 1-12
Simul Justus et Peccator! Indeed, we are saved sinners or, as Luther said so trenchantly out it, we are both Saint and Sinner.
So this. All Saints, is our day too- as is any day for a follower of Christ ‘our’ day, to be spent, as that morning prayer puts it, ‘joyfully in your service.’ But so many Lutherans among whom I worked in South Australia shuddered at such hubris: we cannot be saints, so we are just sinners.
Where that view does not derive from orthodox Lutheran thought, it how it can end up. But what a travesty of faith, of teaching, and how vulnerable to control and even abuse are those who have been taught to see themselves as ‘only’ sinners, held back by the apparently inevitable and wicked sin of pride from claiming, and riding on, that balanced tandem of saint-sinner. Don’t get me wrong, when pride means arrogant elitism based on wealth, education, origin, with supercilious nose-sniffing vis a vis other ‘lower’ or less perfect creatures, pride is sinful. But due pride in a jar of jam perfectly made, due pride in knowing I am worth God’s loving me, saint and sinner that I am: that’s joy.
Clearly I’m using ‘saint,’ as was Luther, in a rather different way from that capital S followed by a given name: St Ephraim, St Catherine, and so on, on which this day tends to focus. This more inclusive usage refers to and therefore challenges all followers of God in Trinity, all here, and I’ll set out three reasons.
Firstly, if we leave saint-like behaviour to the centrally or in the past locally acknowledged paragons of faith, that lets ordinary individuals off the hook. ‘I’m supposed to sacrifice myself, totally or daily? To follow the path of virtue beyond being reasonably nice?’ A common if unsaid response to that view of saints might be: ‘Feel free, indeed please do, to count me out as that’s what we have Saints for, those people out there, the special others.’
A second reason saints are all who would live in Christ, not just that select cluster of capital S Saints, is that who makes the grade, especially but not only with centrally approved saints and for that matter also martyrs, has too often been a matter of church or indeed state politics: locally acclaimed people of holiness may be a different matter. The fast tracking of John Paul II, tied to inner Vatican politics, meant John XXIII could move from the siding where his case had been parked to the mainline. The 2002 canonisation of Juan of Guadeloupe in Mexico was a first for an indigenous South American: a pity therefore, said many indigenous Mexicans, that the icon from Rome showed a Spanish hidalgo not the Mayan Indian he was! The political benefit of the organisation and ethnocentric control over representation loom large. Not just in the Roman calendar. Presbyterians in Korea over the past 60 years have designated their saints –and- martyrs primarily according to their anti-communist rather than anti-fascist resistance. That’s not to say the chosen people were not worthy: but the choosing served church and national politics. Churches within the Anglican Communion nominate days to remember and reflect on lives lived: in the UK, George Bell, Bishop of Chichester closely involved with the Confessing Church in Germany, and the Presbyterian Mary Slessor, and in the US, following a truly democratic designating pattern, Episcopal Deaconess Alexander of Georgia and the Methodists John and Charles Wesley.
But a third reason this day is yours and mine as well as a day of calling to mind those whose lives commonly exemplified the justice and mercy inherent in the fruits of the spirit, is simple. It is that the earlier meaning of saints, the Biblical meaning which held for roughly the first two hundred years, was simply ‘a believer,’ just as the earlier meaning of martyr was equally simple: ‘a witness.’ And it is this challenge we ordinary followers of ‘Christ in us, Christ behind us Christ before us,’ need as our loadstar, living The Way with today’s readings as our map.
The 144000 given in Revelations, made of twelve thousand radiant people, or saints, from each of twelve tribes, it not a finite number of believers, but a metaphor of mass and a reference here to the historically significant grouping of the twelve tribes of Israel, just as in other linguistic contexts, the ‘10000’ Roman Catholic martyrs in the Korea of 1865 means ‘very many people.’ Psalm 34 also speaks of ‘those who look to Lord are radiant,’ yet explicitly urges ‘you his saints to fear the Lord, for those who fear the Lord have no lack,’ for they live according to the Way, loving God, the neighbour and the self. John’s letter makes equally clear that all who try to follow Christ by doing their best to live in love with all, rejecting covetousness, greed, envy, indifference, lust and accepting God, are saved and thus numbered among the saints.
We could have a year of sermons on the Beatitudes, of which we had the first nine today. So you’ll be glad to know I’ll just point out a couple of common misunderstandings, and leave you to read the verses at home. Jesus did not want everyone to be persecuted – which in his time and too often in ours commonly meant being killed – as the purpose of following God, but saw that as a consequence of following the Way, individuals will be regularly faced with dissention, rejection and loneliness. What he clearly does want is that we follow the Way with passion, not apathy, for while a life of following Christ without passion, without deep commitment, will avoid marking difference, irritating friends and family, it is unlikely to be a life lived in Christ.
What are we to do with this day of all the saints, this Way for the saints and sinners? A line in today’s psalm may be a help: ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good, blessed is the one who takes refuge in God.’
That’s the Way, for tasting means ‘try something by experience,’ and taking refuge actually says’ hide yourself in God’s embrace.’
We all fail and flag, have times amid the clouds of unknowing, times of doubt about ourselves and our relationship to God and our neighbours, times when we indeed feel far from confident belief and certainly far from sainthood. Rather than grovelling in spiritual dust, let us rather taste a line of scripture, try again the prayer Christ taught us, the simple Morning and Evening prayers of our tradition, and ride in love on the saint and sinner tandem.
All Saints Day, 2014