Sunday 3 November 2013

Saints and saints

An address given at Templederry and Nenagh on Sunday 3rd November 2013, celebrated as All Saints.

We are celebrating All Saints today.
But just who are these Saints we are celebrating? Let’s try to tease it out a bit.
The common answer, I suppose, is that Saints are dead Christians who were most particularly holy and close to God, either because they lived such exemplary Christian lives, or because they died as martyrs for their faith in Jesus Christ.

But how can we be sure that any particular individual is a Saint?

No one would doubt, I suppose, that Jesus’s earthly family and close friends, and the Apostles and Evangelists we meet in the NT, were very close to God and worthy to be called Saints.

Later on, in the first Christian centuries, local churches and dioceses quite informally came to recognise other people as Saints, such as outstanding bishops, teachers, martyrs and missionaries within their own area. This includes our many early Celtic Saints, among them St Brendan the Navigator, who a number of us in the Pilgrim Fellowship was remembering in Clonfert Cathedral yesterday.

The process of recognising Saints was gradually formalised over the years, until eventually in the pre-Reformation Western Church it was accepted that only the Pope in Rome could declare someone a Saint, after exhaustive enquiries and checks, as is still the case in the Roman Catholic Church. By now there are thousands and thousands of them. I have a Roman Catholic ‘Book of Saints’ at home which has alphabetical entries for almost 5,000 named Saints and groups of Saints, starting with St Aaron – a C6th  Breton Abbot, and ending with St Zoticus – a C4th  priest in Constantinople.

It is particularly important for Roman Catholics to have certainty about who is a Saint, because they believe in the intercession of Saints – that dead Saints can effectively intercede on our behalf with God, if we ask them to in prayer. Only God truly knows who is a Saint, the theory goes, so no one is declared a Saint until God has demonstrated this by performing miracles in answer to prayers addressed to that candidate for sainthood.

Most reformed Christians reject the practice of asking Saints to intercede – Article 22 of the 39 Articles describes the invocation of Saints as ‘a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God’. Nevertheless, reformed Christians like us continue to honour Saints, at least those recognised before the Reformation, as examples of holiness and faith that we do well to imitate, in order to strengthen and encourage our own holiness and faith.

The Church of England has not declared any new Saints since the Reformation – with the peculiar exception of Charles I, who was honoured for political reasons as St Charles King & Martyr from the Restoration until 1859. But the Church of England Calendar does list many post-reformation Christians as worthy of commemoration, without explicitly calling them Saints. Not all of them are Anglican – they include for instance: George Fox the Quaker, Oscar Romero the martyred Catholic Bishop of San Salvador, and German Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

We in the Church of Ireland are more parsimonious, but our BCP Calendar includes commemorations for two post-Reformation Bishops - Bishop Jeremy Taylor of Down, Connor and Dromore, and Bishop Charles Inglis, a bishop in North America from Raphoe.

All of these are examples for us of holiness and faith whom we should honour at All Saints – I suppose we might call them ‘heroes of the Church’ – and we are at liberty, I think, to consider them Saints too if we wish.

So far so good – but St Paul in today's reading from Ephesians 1:11-23 gives us a completely different view on who the saints are.
‘I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints’, says Paul. ‘I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ … may give you a spirit of wisdom … so that you may know what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints … for us who believe’.

It is clear from the context of this and other similar passages, that for St Paul the saints are all those who are ‘in Christ’, both those alive who believe and follow Jesus as his disciples, and those who have died. For the first Christians, the saints included ordinary Christians like you and me, as well as a few exceptionally holy people.

We are all saints (with a small ‘s’)!

We are all saints in this sense: we are sanctified, that is made holy, by being made part of the body of Christ in his Church at our baptism - the English word ‘saint’ comes from the Latin ‘sanctus’, meaning holy. Even though we know we are all sinners if we are honest with ourselves. We are not particularly holy, we often feel far from God – and, please God, we won’t be asked to die as martyrs. But we do try to live good Christian lives, and when we fail we seek forgiveness and try again - and again, and again. That is what makes us saints.

Those that we recognise as Saints (with a big ‘S’) and heroes of the Church are different from us in degree but not in kind – they too knew they were sinners. Even as marvellous examples of holiness and faith worth celebrating, they were human and fallible just like us. Remember, even the great St Peter was rebuked by Jesus with the words, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan’.

I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that we should celebrate ourselves at All Saints - how horribly narcisistic that would be – but surely at All Saints tide we should remember the saints (with a small ‘s’) from whom we have received our own faith, whether they are parents, teachers, friends, or others we have met on the way.

Since we are all saints, surely there are implications for how we should live our lives.
And I think Jesus spells them out for us very clearly in today’s 3rd reading from Luke’s Gospel (6:20-31).

First, as saints we must never forget that we are blessed by God, whatever bad things may befall us. Let's hear Jesus's words again:
‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man … for surely your reward is great in heaven.’

Second, as saints Jesus tells us that we must obey what philosophers call the Golden Rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you’. He tells us:
‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.’

Wow! That is a big 'ask'! How difficult these things are for ordinary, self-centred human beings. But they are commands from the very lips of Jesus, the Son of God. Unless we do our best, however poor, to follow them, we cannot claim to be part of the body of Christ, and we are not worthy to be called saints, even with a small ‘s’. No wonder we need the example of the Saints with a capital ‘S’ to show us that it is possible!

So as we celebrate the lives of all the Saints, let us pray that God the Father, through his Holy Spirit, will strengthen and encourage us to live up to the example of the Saints, and to behave as Jesus has commanded us to.