I do not know how many of you have a favourite saint, or a favourite story from the lives of the Saints. I suspect that we might surprise ourselves if we spent time today, on this festival celebration of All Saints, sharing with each other the connections that we have experienced with the Saints during our lives so far.
If we had the time to do that, my guess would be that there would be some of us here who would instinctively feel a little uncomfortable about Anglicans having a strong focus on and connection with the lives of the Saints; and I know too that there would be others here who would be able to speak gratefully about a life lived in communion with those saintly heroes of our faith who have gone before us. As ever, when we dig down into the reasons why we feel the way that we feel about this and so many other things, I suspect that we would discover that our own response to the idea of the communion of the Saints, on this All Saints Day Festival (for good or for bad), would have a great deal to do with what others – parents, priests, Sunday school teachers – have taught us to embrace or to be suspicious about in the past.
It is certainly true that Anglicans have often found it difficult to express and hold to a reasonable line between the distasteful and superstitious excesses around the Saints that we might encounter in some other traditions on the one hand,
and on the other hand, the need for us to remain consistent in our practice with Christians, who down through the centuries have affirmed in the ongoing life that the Saints share with God, our own hope that through our baptisms we have been joined not only with the death of Our Lord Jesus Christ, but with his resurrection as well.
In our Christian tradition, it is the Saints who provide the clearest sign of hope for us, that the eternal life into which we have entered through the waters of baptism, have so blessed us that we can indeed live in hope that we will not be forgotten by God when our human bodies are no longer of any use to us – and that we will live in his eternal blessing for ever.
So I acknowledge today that at various times in our history Anglicans have veered to one understanding or another in the way that we have expressed the communion that we share with the Saints as we have wrestled with all of this, and I want to offer within the context of that conversation, two very simple points that we might feel able to ponder in the week ahead.
Firstly, I want to say something about blessing. I have used that word a number of times already this morning,
and we use it a lot in the life of the Church, and I am conscious that it needs some explanation. Anyone hearing our Gospel reading this morning, whether the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ was familiar to them (as it is for most of us), or whether they had walked into this beautiful Church and were hearing it for the first time – anyone hearing it would not be able to avoid the reality that the signs of what God is blessing seem to bear no resemblance at all to the markers that we use in our world to measure success and accomplishment.
Jesus (in our Gospel reading) is speaking in the style of the great wisdom tradition of the Old Testament prophets.
The single focus of the entire line of those prophets of wisdom is God’s call to his people to live: to live fully, consistently, in a joined up way, not simply surviving, but to live in the knowledge of the blessing of God.
It is important to hear that in our Gospel reading, Jesus is not determining who will be blessed at some point in the future, he is naming those who already have God’s blessing now, and who will have a further sign of the fulfilment of that blessing in times to come. So, Jesus is pointing to the reality of how God sees the world, and not how we see the world: blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted. No matter what it looks like, no matter what alternative values our society may champion. It is these people that God has already blessed and made his own.
The Hebrew word for “blessing,” barak, means at its core the awesome power of life itself. A fundamental claim of Christianity in regard to creation is that there is enough, in fact an abundance, of creation, and therefore of blessing, to go around. Whatever may have happened later, God created a world that was good, and that was blessed by the integral love of his presence. The signs of that blessing, according to the groups of people that Jesus identifies are not wealth, popularity, power, or celebrity status: they are dignity, respect, justice, and loving community.
In our ongoing conversation about where God calls us to be, and what God us to do as the community of St Augustine here in Merewether, we should be continually challenged by Jesus’ teaching that wherever else in all creation God’s presence and favour can be found, it can certainly be found amongst those who are poor, and mourn, and hunger and are persecuted, even in this city.
So that is something about where the people who live in God’s blessing here on earth are today.
Secondly, I want to say something more about those Saints who have been blessed to live in God’s heavenly presence now.
My favourite Saint is Saint Birinus, a Roman Bishop who lived many hundreds of years ago. He was one of the early missionaries to the people who lived in what is now England, in fact to be more specific, to the people who lived in the area which is now Oxfordshire – which is where we were living before we came to Australia.
He was made famous because of a miraculous event which took place as he was leaving Italy to come to England. He said Mass on the quay-side, got on the boat, and only after it had been sailing for some time, realised that he had left his treasured chalice and paten (the cup and the plate for communion) behind on the shore. So he swam back to the quay, collected his mass-kit and swam all the way back to his ship, which had, in the meantime, continued to sail on its journey. And when he got out of the water, his vestments which he had been wearing whilst he was swimming, were completely dry: a miracle indeed I hear you say!
It would be fair to say that sometimes the lives of the Saints can seem to be so very different from our own lives, and come from a miraculous world which is so different to what we expect to experience, that they might appear to be nothing more than characters in fairy stories. We do well to remember that for several hundreds of years the basic minimum criteria for being recognised as a Saint, was the qualification of remaining faithful to Jesus whilst being killed for him. It was only in the Fourth Century, when the normal expectation of martyrdom as the preferred passage to, and sign of being blessed by God began to recede that other marks of God’s work of blessing in the life of an individual – such as charity, holiness, poverty, generosity, purity and spirituality – became signs of the saintly life.
It would be easy for us to fall into the trap of modelling the Saints of God on the kind of celebrities and heroes that our society creates. The most important difference between those celebrities and the Church’s Saints, is that celebrities basically point to themselves; but the Saints of the Church point through themselves to God, and to God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. God’s Saints have been through the same difficulties and doubts that many of us have been through. And that should be no surprise, because as we remember the Saints of the past today, and as we celebrate their lives, we know too, that God has called each and every one of us on that same journey to sainthood as well.
The Church has a kind of two tier system for all those who have gone before us. There is the group who have been recognised by the Church as Saints, the ones we celebrate today, and then there are all those other people who have departed this life – and for whom we hope for salvation and eternal rest in Christ. In other words, there is a separation between those people who the Church has come to know as Saints, and the rest of us – those people we have known – who are still in some way on the way to sainthood. And that manifests itself most clearly in our Christian thinking, not only in this separation between All Saints Day and All Souls Day, but in the different attitudes which we have to prayer in relation to all of those who have died.
We are conscious that the Saints join us in the one great prayer of the Church to God -we might for example ask for their intercessions, as we would ask each other to pray for us at certain special times. We do not pray to them, but we somehow gain strength from praying with them.
On the other hand, and in contrast, we ourselves remember in our prayers all those who have died, who the Church has not yet come to recognise as Saints. That may mean that we remember in our prayers quite specifically people who we have known and loved who have died – regularly or on the anniversary of their deaths. This is a normal and proper part of our way of life, and an expression of our love for those who are no longer with us.
Saints do not point to themselves like our modern day celebrities might try to do, they point to the one who has created and loved and redeemed us all. There may be some very strange things which have happened in their lives, but the stories are told to help us to draw closer to God, and not to focus on the individual Saints. Today we remember the lives of these people, the many thousands of Saints and martyrs who through the ages have been singled out by the Church as special examples of what happens when God’s blessing works through the lives of us humans, and who do not have another day in our liturgical calendar on which they are remembered. Today is their day in the life of the Church, when we give thanks to God for them, and when we are reminded of their place in the Christian family, our community.
The lives of the Saints may seem extraordinary, but what runs through everyone of those lives, and can run through our lives too, is the fact that the stories of their lives point not to themselves but to Jesus. They point to God’s blessing present in the world in the most surprising places as our Gospel reading has reminded us, and to the one who has created and loved and redeemed us all.
I want to say one further thing. In a few moments time Fr Stephen is going to pray God’s blessing on the beautiful new window that is being set apart this morning as a further reminder of God’s presence here in this place. The window in turn depicts and celebrates God’s presence amongst us in the blessed sacrament of the body and blood of Christ.
For those people who are unsure about the Saints being blessed by God, the idea of an object being blessed by God can be even more perplexing. The truth is that God has already blessed the whole of creation with his presence, so what we are doing today is giving back to God what is already his. And we do that particularly through the generosity of our dear brother Dennis, as we also remember with gratitude those whose skilled labour has enabled this window.
One of the great things that we have discovered since our sacrament chapel was created is just how much light streams into it. If you want a picture of the Saints, and all that we have been reflecting upon and celebrating this morning, then a stained glass window is a good place to start. If we look at the Saints and see only them and their lives then we are missing the most important element of all. Saints are Saints, because the blessing, and the light of Christ streams through them to others. Just like our new window.
We are each in turn called to be a sign of that blessing as well; confident in God’s love for us, and responsive to God’s call to us to serve those on the margins of our society who nevertheless are named by Jesus as right at the centre of it all, as being blessed by God; as we journey on together to the sainthood which has been prepared for each and every one of us, pointing not to ourselves, but with the Saints to Jesus – the author and perfector of our faith.