Sermons from St Faith's

Saints galore!

Fr Dennis Smith: 4 November, 2007

From the Book of David: (7:18)

“But the saints of the Most High shall possess the Kingdom for ever and ever.”

Few of us would claim a close affinity with the saints and that’s surprising in a way because their presence is everywhere.

They crop up in our speech. “Saints alive!” we cry; or “Oh, my sainted aunt!” And how many times have we heard or used the phrase ourselves “You would try the patience of a saint!”

As we go about our daily rounds or sight-see on holiday, we pass, or walk around them: St. Paul’s and St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London; St. Peter’s, Rome; St. Mark’s, Venice; St. George’s, Nottingham; St. Luke’s, Southport; St. Endellion, Port Isaac; St. Asaph’,s Wales; All Saints, Middlesborough.

In every town and village, the names of the saints are immortalised in our churches, cathedrals, public squares and districts, schools, colleges, universities and hospitals.

At Wembley, and a dozen other football and rugby grounds, the “saints go marching in” before and during every match.

A pop group, a fictional detective, a breed of dog, a flower, an orange, a horse-race and an order of Knighthood, to cite only some examples, have all taken their names from the saints. We are surrounded by saints galore.

November 1st, “All Saints Day”, can be traced back to the year 373 AD, and has been celebrated ever since as a day when the Saints of the Christian Church, known and unknown, are honoured and revered.

But, who are the saints? They belong to the past, obviously: but do they have any significance for us who live, work and witness in this 21st century secular society?

We can think of the saints as “saintly”, “suffering” and “struggling”; categories not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Firstly: Saintly saints.

In Bodmin Parish Church in Cornwall, an ivory casket containing the relics of St. Petroc is displayed within a small illuminated alcove protected by a sheet of toughened glass. Petroc, who founded a monastery in the area died in 564 and was later canonised.

All over Western Europe there are thousands of such shrines. In the Middle Ages, pilgrimages to places where earlier saints had lived, and were buried, were commonplace, and this is a practice being revived in our time. Lindisfarne, Iona and Ninian’s Cave at Whithorn in Galloway, are typical of the many places to which modern pilgrims now flock, as well as Lourdes, Fatima, Compostella and Walsingham.

But why did they do it, go on pilgrimage – and why are pilgrimages still so popular today?

The early apostles, like Peter and Paul, were not always saintly. Sometimes they fell far short of the standards Jesus set, and even fought cat and dog with one another over some of the implications of his life and teaching. But, they had been close to him in his lifetime and were respected and honoured on that account.

Later, the criterion by which men and women were judged to be saintly was that they, too, were close to Christ. They were close to their Lord because they were holy, like him, and were venerated because their lives on earth reflected his character and his commitment to God’s saving mission in the world.

This nearness to Jesus sometimes gave them special miraculous powers; the gift of healing for instance.

When they died, it was believed that, in heaven they were even closer to him, so that their prayers were enhanced. Christians still on earth prayed at their shrines for help in times of trouble, for the forgiveness that would rescue them from hell, and for healing when they were sick.

It’s easy to see how the illiterate people of the Middle Ages fell prey to the abuses and superstitions which arose in the church and so outraged the Reformers. But we have to keep in mind that these were “saintly saints” whose purity of life was a credit to Jesus, a curb on the worst excesses of the church, and a shining example to the church and the world of what Christians ought to be.

When we turn our thoughts to “suffering saints” we can think of Daniel in exile and his bizarre dream.

Four beasts, symbolising the rise of the Babylonian, Median, Persian and Greek Empires appearing out of a stormy sea. They brought terror and suffering to the people of God, but in his vision Daniel proclaimed their downfall and the survival of the faithful.

Several centuries later, the example of Daniel and his brave companions gave encouragement to the Jews when Judas Maccabeus led them in revolt against the Syrians who had desecrated the temple and denied them the right to worship. They were reminded that Daniel had told the Jews that, “the saints of the Most High shall possess the Kingdom for ever”.

The Old Testament and the Apocrypha both bear witness to suffering saints. So does the New Testament. In the “Revelation to John” on the island of Patmos the question is asked, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?”

And the answer is, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation” – the brutal Neronian persecutions. But, they have remained faithful to Jesus, and the robes, bloodied by their wounds and martyrdom, have been made white because they shared in his suffering. But, they will hunger and thirst no more, nor have to endure the scorching heat, “and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” They, too, are numbered among the saints in God’s Kingdom.

The strong link between sacrificial suffering and the saints, in Old and New Testament times, has remained unbroken throughout the Christian era, and is still part of our heritage today.

Without doubt the best known ‘|All Saints’ hymn is Bishop William Walsham How’s “For all the saints who from their labours rest.” The symbolism is largely from the Book of Revelation and, sung to Vaughan Williams’ tune, “Sine Nomine”, it’s a moving portrayal of the triumphal entry of the suffering saints into the heavenly kingdom.

Since the end of the First World War this hymn has become associated with “Remembrance Sunday”. For those whose loved ones were among the millions who died in one or other of the terrible wars of the last hundred or more years it has a particular and personal poignancy.

Nor is it only in wartime that suffering men and women reach out to claim the reward of the saints. Most of us will know someone, unknown to the world at large, who has done just that.

And then there’s the category that we can call the “struggling saints.” Most of us I would suspect feel that we are neither saintly enough nor have suffered enough, to be called saints of any kind. We are not likely to have a church named after us nor even to find ourselves commemorated in a stained glass window (like our beloved Robert Runcie). But, in the Biblical understanding of the word, we are saints nevertheless. We are struggling saints – that is – saints in the making.

In the letters of Paul, and of the other writers of the early church, which circulated among the Christian communities of Asia minor, the word “saints” was in frequent usage. It wasn’t addressed to men and women who thought themselves “Perfect”. Far from it. They knew they were frail, all-too-human, struggling people. But, they were “called” and “committed”: called of God and committed to the way of Christ. If at times they felt unequal to the task, they could take comfort from the knowledge that it was God in his love who had taken the initiative and that, like the Jews of Old Testament times, they were being set aside for a special mission.

Like the companions of Daniel and Judas Maccabeus their inspiration was with “the saints of the Most High who have received and possess the eternal Kingdom.” We are fellow citizens with the saints, says St. Paul, and more than that – members not only of the same community but of the same family, the household or lineage of God. Mary doesn’t ask of us the homage due to a Queen, but the devotion and trust we might feel for a wonderful mother. Peter doesn’t want us to kiss his toe, but as a younger brother or sister to lend a hand with the fishing.

But All Saints’ Tide is most specially the festival for recognizing our kinship with the unnamed, unsung members of the community whose hidden lives have borne the likeness of Jesus radiantly, and inspired others to love him.

We will all have memories of such saints whose lives have crossed our paths and at this great festival we acknowledge our debt to them and we thank God for making us members of such a family, with such a heritage.

But we must remember that this family of Jesus, this people of God, are not just exceptionally kind and gentle men and women. Even in the worst of societies people are not hated and persecuted and killed for being nice.

Ever since Abraham, God’s people have been strangers, different, and they strive to stay different. This is God’s protest movement, this is a clan of revolutionaries. These are the ones who bear witness that the world is wrong in its values and its judgements.

We are here to be a different people and to stay different in our defiance of the world’s idea of power, our defiance of the world’s idea of success, our defiance of the world’s idea of marriage, our defiance of the world’s view of death.

Just how different we are is expressed in an amusing version of the Beatitudes which I came across recently:

    Pathetic are those in any sort of need, for they are obviously failures.

    Pathetic are the sorrowful, for they embarrass the rest of us.

    Pathetic are those of a gentle spirit, for they shall be kicked around.

    Pathetic are those who hunger after justice; they are crying for the moon.

    Pathetic are the ones who sow mercy; everyone will take advantage of them.

    Pathetic are those whose hearts are pure, for they miss all the fun.

    Pathetic are the peacemakers, for they shall be called wet.

    Pathetic are those who suffer persecution if the cause of right. We are sorry for them, but they set themselves against law and order.

We recognise that voice, we know we have to stand against it, as all the saints in all the ages have stood against it. And at this All Saints-tide, in the company of these magnificent brothers and sisters whom God has given us, we pledge ourselves again to live in defiance and in love.

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