Sunday 3 November 2019

Celebrating All Saints

Address given at All Saints Stradbally (Castleconnell) on All Saints Sunday 3 November 2019

We are celebrating All Saints today - but who are these Saints we celebrate?
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 Saints, such as outstanding bishops, teachers, martyrs and missionaries within their own area - this includes our many early Celtic Saints.

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 to be a Saint, after exhaustive enquiries and checks. By now there are thousands of them. I have a RC ‘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.

Today in the calendar of the CofI we also celebrate St Malachy, a C12th archbishop of Armagh, who was made a Saint in 1190 by Pope Clement III.

It is particularly important for RCs 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 whether someone 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 person.

Most reformed Christians reject this 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, Anglicans like us continue to honour Saints, at least those recognised before the Reformation. But we do so as examples of holiness and faith, in order to strengthen and encourage our own holiness and faith, and we do not ask them to intercede for us.

The Church of England has not declared any new Saints since the Reformation – with the odd 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 later 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 Bishop of San Salvador, and Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

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

All of these are examples for us of holiness and faith – 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 todays 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 were not just exceptionally holy people, but also ordinary Christians like you and me!

We are all saints (with a small ‘s’) 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. 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 – 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 burdens we may carry. Jesus tells us:
‘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 is often called the Golden Rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you’:
‘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.’

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 to finish, as we celebrate the lives of all the Saints, let us pray:
God our Father, by our baptism you made us your holy people
and called us to share in the joy of your saints. 
May your Holy Spirit encourage and strengthen us
to live for others as Jesus taught us.
We make this prayer to you in His name.  Amen