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All Saints Sunday, Year A, (4 before Advent), St Mark’s, 3.11.02
Rev 7.9-17: great multitude of saints before the Lamb on the throne
Ps 34.1-10: Fear the Lord, you that are his saints
[1 John 3.1-3: Beloved, we are God’s children]
Matt 5.1-12: Beatitudes
Summary: Saints are sinners who nevertheless authentically show forth Christ.
We are keeping today as All Saints Sunday.
Saint Paul addresses all the Christians as "saints", the holy ones, and "holy" basically means being set apart by God. When we were baptised into Christ, we were set apart by God for his loving purposes. We are all saints at the same time that we fall short of our calling, and are therefore sinners.
So why have bother to have some Christians designated as "saints", and why have saints’ days? In a nutshell, the answer to both questions lies in the story of Polycarp.
In the year 156 AD Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor was brought before the Roman authorities and accused of being a Christian. Because he was an old man, the Roman proconsul tried to get him to forswear his faith and curse Christ. But Polycarp replied, "Eighty-six years I have served him and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King, who saved me?" So they condemned him to be burned to death. His flock gathered his ashes and buried them, and on the anniversary of his martyrdom, the 23rd of February, and each year after, they gathered at his tomb and celebrated the Eucharist with joy and thanksgiving. The Church of Smyrna wrote an open letter concerning the whole matter which they addressed to the Church of Philomelium and to all those of the holy and Catholic Church. And thus arose the very first saint’s day in the Christian calendar, with their letter spreading the news and hence also spreading the observance of the anniversary of Polycarp’s martyrdom.
Why did they observe the day? Because he had set them a memorable example of how to live and die in Christ. It was a meaningful example and one worth remembering on a regular basis.
So what is a saint? A saint is a sinner, who, despite being a sinner, shows forth in one or more aspects of his or her life what it is to be a follower of Jesus.
For example, in the early fifth century Saint Jerome was a great biblical scholar who learned Hebrew from a rabbi in a day when few Christians any longer knew any Hebrew. He did this in order to work on his great translation of the scriptures from the original Hebrew and Greek into the vulgar tongue, namely Latin, which is why his translation was known as the Vulgate. His outstanding dedication and diligence were worthy of recognition, but to say that he was lacking in interpersonal skills would be to put it very mildly, for he castigated people left and right. He rendered a great service to the Church while remaining a sinner.
Over the centuries more and more saints’ days were added to the calendar and the whole cultus of the saints and invoking them in prayer loomed larger and larger. This explains why Thomas Cranmer cut down the observances in the Prayer Book to only figures appearing in the New Testament, about most of whom, frankly, we know very little. While Cranmer’s aim was admirable, namely, to focus the Christian life more clearly on Jesus, it also had a less fortunate result. And this was the weakening of our sense of being surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, as Hebrews expresses it. This is akin to the author of Revelation’s heartening depiction of the saints in the heavenly courts that we heard in our first reading..
So how are saints to be given recognition? The general tradition of the Orthodox Churches of the East is rather relaxed about this on the whole. When an observance arises around a saintly person, it is allowed to flourish, but only so long as it serves a useful purpose. If and when it no longer does, then it is quashed.
The Western Church under the Bishop of Rome, probably as the heirs of Roman civil law, likes things to be tied up neatly, and hence there has developed a very involved procedure for declaring a person a saint. The process is called canonisation. Because it is a Roman Catholic doctrine that the saints may be directly asked to pray for people’s particular needs, one of the requirements for canonisation is that there must be two miracles directly attributable to a given candidate. This can indeed lead to a rather humorous situation as in the case of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. A woman had a tumour and placed a medal of Mother Teresa on her body. She also sought medical help. She no longer has the tumour, and a miracle has been claimed. An Indian society of scientists and rationalists is all for having Mother Teresa declared a saint, while at the same time strenuously denying that the woman’s cure was miraculous.
You have probably all read in the press that the present Pope, John Paul II, has made 486 saints, including such questionable candidates as Father Escrivan, the founder of Opus Dei.
Within the last two months one of our celebrants told us of the wonderful yet poignant example of Father Maximilian Kolbe in Auschwitz, who is one of those who has quite rightly been declared to be a saint by the present Pontiff.
A simple, yet similar example also in our time is that of Jonathan Myrick Daniels from the 1960’s. He was an Anglican seminarian at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He went to the American South, I believe it was the state of Mississippi, to join others in peacefully demonstrating for civil rights for the American blacks. The governor of the state called out the National Guard who confronted the demonstrators and then opened fire. Jonathan stepped in front of a fourteen year old black girl to shield her, and he was shot dead. The Episcopal Church in the U.S. has added his name to the calendar.
In the same way the Church of England has added to its calendar such people as Josephine Butler, wife, mother and social reformer.
Today, as you can see week by week in the calendar of prayer in the back of our pew sheets, we once again have a greatly enriched calendar of saintly persons drawn from all centuries of the Church down to the present day.
We Anglicans may not call the modern additions like Josephine Butler "saints" as such, but we acknowledge that they have significantly contributed to what we deem to be an authentic expression of what it means to be a follower of Christ.
And what is an authentic following of Christ? We all know of Matthew’s parable of the sheep and the goats as separated by the Son of Man at his coming (25.31-46), with its calling to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit those in prison. These are certainly marks of the saints, but perhaps today’s gospel gives us a more basic orientation.
The gospel chosen for today is from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and consists of the nine beatitudes. The first three are related to Abrahamic well-being based on faith in God, the second three are related to the Davidic wisdom of mercy, and the last three are related to the Christ-like power of the way of the cross. The beatitudes, in effect, define the true human being, as exemplified in Jesus as the Son of Abraham, the Son of David and the Christ. So let us look at the beatitudes as the basic pointers to what it is to be a saint.
The first three point to Abrahamic faith: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, and the meek. The poor in spirit claim nothing for themselves: they do not claim to have a leg of their own to stand on. Those who mourn are mourning for their sinfulness, recognise the need for forgiveness and a fresh start. They shall be comforted. The meek obey God’s desires rather than their own. If it is said that the kingdom of heaven belongs to the poor in spirit and the meek will inherit the earth, this is because of a Jewish tradition, according to which Abraham, because of his obedient faith, will inherit both this world, the earth, and the world to come, the kingdom of heaven.
The next three beatitudes point to those who thirst for righteousness, are merciful, and are pure in heart, all traditionally associated with David, and mercy towards others, or to use a Pauline and Johannine word, agape, love.
The last three are concerned with the peacemakers and those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. This concerns the going in the way of the cross as the ultimate embodying of love as seen, for example, in Maximilian Kolbe and Jonathan Daniels. The peacemakers are the children of God because they show forth his very character.
So if we would see saints, we are to look for those who trust in God through hell and high water, who truly love and serve their neighbour, and who are ready to die to themselves in order that others may live. God has lots of saints, and each of us knows some personally, whether they are acclaimed or not. Our closing hymn ['I sing a song of the saints of God'], written for children, will give us some hints of where to look and what to do about it.