If you haven’t worked out by now that I have a strong devotion to the saints, then you haven’t been listening to my sermons! On Wednesday mornings we have been reading and celebrating and meditating on the lives of the saints as a part of our coming together for worship at the Mass.
Some of those stories which we have heard have felt very close to us, like the saintly followers of Christ in the last century who fought for prison reform, or the rights of all to vote. They have felt especially close to us because they lived and ministered in a world not too dissimilar from our own. Others have seemed very strange indeed, coming as they do from a different place in time and in history.
I don’t know whether you have a favourite story from the lives of the Saints. Perhaps you have no particular interest in any of the stories of the saints at all!
I remember a number of years ago attending the annual celebration of the life of St Agatha. As the service went on, I became more and more uncomfortable about being there. Because as I discovered, St Agatha (who we were celebrating) had had her breasts cut off for refusing to deny the Christian faith, and St Peter appeared to her in a miraculous apparition and put them back on for her!
I remember clearly the embarrassment of singing a seven verse hymn whilst we were in a grand procession around the church which told this event in great (and I think unnecessary) detail! Each verse brought yet more awkward images into our heads! Even now when I think about that beautiful service I remember the thought that kept going through my mind, over and over again – please don’t let any visitors walk into the church for the first time whilst we are singing this, they will simply never understand!
Sometimes the lives of the saints seem to be so very different from our own lives, and come from a world which is so completely set apart from our culture, that they might appear to be nothing more than fairy stories. There has certainly been a tendency in the church to distinguish the saints from the rest of us, as people who are “other worldly,” as if they really did have the kind of direct line to God that many of us have dreamed about for ourselves. I am conscious that what the church has done with the stories of the saints is not dissimilar from what our contemporary society here in Perth does, with the latest batch of new celebrities. The desire of publicists to present us with new and better “stars” on a daily basis, is mirrored by our own deep desires to adore great celebrities whose lives we can follow, and whose eventual downfalls we can mourn as if we really did have a close connection to them. Now it seems to me that those same temptations to take ordinary people and make them great celebrities and heroes, might also be true of those of us in the Church who celebrate the lives of the saints on this All Saints’ Day celebration, and indeed who remember the Saints through our cycle of prayer and celebration throughout the year.
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, the “normal” people like you and me, who we will remember at our All Souls Masses of Remembrance on Wednesday morning and evening of this week. There is a separation in the Church between those people who have come to be known as saints, and the rest of us – those people we have known – who are still in some way on the way to sainthood. 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 gone before us.
We are conscious, I think, that the saints (the kind of spiritual elite) 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 don’t pray to them, but we somehow gain strength from praying with them; from them standing beside us as we pray. 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 who have died – regularly (sometimes daily) or on the anniversary of their deaths. This is a normal and proper part of our tradition, and an expression of our love for those who are no longer with us. So we ask the saints to pray for us, and we in turn pray for those who are on the way to sainthood.
Those of you who have stood around the altar here at St John’s will know that it is covered with icons, placed around the space in which bread and wine will be consecrated in our celebrations. Its not magic – they are just symbols, reminders of some of the people we celebrate today. They are reminders that we are not the first people to do what we are doing here this morning. We are not the first people who have tried to live out the Gospel in our lives. We are a part of something much bigger than we can ever imagine – that great Cloud of Witnesses which point to the love of God, and who join us this morning in our worship. If you have been in an Eastern Church, Greek or Russian or Coptic Orthodox you will know that when those traditions worship they surround themselves with images of the saints, to remind themselves of this very fact. The European Reformation, of which we are inheritors, did a great deal of good, but removing the sense that we pray with the saints, behind the visual image of icons, was something that many of us as Anglicans have come to see as mistaken. Just as one Gospel is not enough to convey to us the life of Christ, and so we have four very different Gospels; our lives too and the lives of all those who have gone before us become a part of the great testimony of what God has done and is doing around us.
To put it another way, the good news of Christ grows in the tradition of the Church, through the lives of all of the Saints. That’s what Augustine, and then later Martin Luther, called the “Total Christ” – totus Christus –not just the risen and ascended Jesus by himself, but including too all those who have shared in the work of Christ. It is this Total Christ that we celebrate today, and that we welcome here today. Yes, at the centre we find Jesus Christ, the one who has died and is risen, but as a part of that life of Christ, that total Christ, we find his life intermingled with the lives of all of the saints. It is that fuller life of Christ, the Total Christ, into which we also take our place every time we live lives, like the saints, who pointed not to themselves but to Jesus.
The lives of the saints may seem extraordinary, they may create in us a sense of celebrity status, or homage or awe, 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 God, and to God’s Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Saints don’t 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. We heard in our Gospel reading this morning, the mandate for those of us on the journey towards sainthood – the Sermon on the Mount, the Beautitudes – which make very clear for us those ways of living and the people who are embodied in them, who are called the blessed, for the Kingdom of Heaven, says Jesus, will be theirs.
So this morning we celebrate not just Christ in his life and death and resurrection, but the Total Christ, found in his saints of every time and place. As we come again this morning face to face with God in the sacrament of bread and wine, we can be confident that we come not just as a few token people from this suburb, but we come rather with the assurance that we are surrounded by all of the saints who have gone before us. We are part of something much bigger than ourselves, for we live and witness with the saints as the “Total Christ,” we are a part of the total manifestation of Christ throughout the world. Today we rejoice that our prayers are joined with the angels and with the saints who stand beside us, and on Wednesday we will remember those who have gone before us, who are still on the saintly path. And on this All Saints Day celebration, as we experience Christ afresh this morning, here in this place, we are reminded of the heavy responsibility placed on us, to continue their work, and to point our own lives, as the saints have done before us, not to ourselves, but to the one who is the source of all life. Today we take up our inheritance, and we consciously give thanks for those who stand beside us as we pray.
Holy ones present at our beginnings: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, makers of the covenant, forebears of our race: all a part of the total Christ, stand here beside us! Prophets of the Old Testament, John the baptizer, map-maker of the Lord’s coming, Peter denier of Christ and holder of the keys: all a part of the total Christ, stand here beside us!
Holy ones who showed the good news to be the way of life: Thomas the doubter; Augustine of Canterbury; all travellers who carried the Gospel to distant places: all a part of the total Christ, stand here beside us! Bernard and Dominic; John and Charles Wesley, preachers in the streets; all whose power of speaking gave life to the written word: all a part of the total Christ, stand here beside us! Benedict of Nursia, Teresa of Avila; Richard Meux Benson; all founders of religious communities: all a part of the total Christ, stand here beside us!
Holy ones who gave their lives to the care of others: Mary Magdalen, anointer of the Lord’s feet; Luke the physician; Francis who kissed the leper; Florence Nightingale; all who brought to the sick and suffering the hands of healing: all a part of the total Christ, stand here beside us!
Holy ones who made the proclaiming of God’s love a work of art: Palestrina; Merbecke; Bach; Mozart; Britten; all who sang the Creator’s praises in the language of the soul: all a part of the total Christ, stand here beside us! John Wycliffe, who brought the Scripture to the common folk; Martin Luther, who lit the fire of change; all who kept the Church ever-reforming: all a part of the total Christ, stand here beside us!
Paul the apostle, transfixed by noonday light; Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, architects of the divine; Karl Barth, knower of the unknowable; all who saw God at work and wrote down what they saw: all a part of the total Christ, stand here beside us! Stephen the deacon, the first martyr, stoned in
Jerusalem; Perpetua and Felicity, torn by beasts in the arena at Carthage: Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, burned at the stake in Oxford; Maximilian Kolbe and Edith Stein, put to death at Auschwitz; Martin Luther King, shot in Memphis, Bishop Oscar Romero, shot in San Salvador; Martyrs of Japan, of Uganda, of Melanesia, martyrs of everywhere: all a part of the total Christ, stand here beside us!
Holy ones of every time and place, glorious company of heaven, all climbers of the ladder of Paradise: all runners of the celestial race: great cloud of witnesses; Mary most holy, “yes-sayer” to God: all a part of the total Christ, stand here beside us!
Jesus our liberator, creator of all; Jesus our liberator, redeemer of all; Jesus our liberator, sanctifier of all: Jesus our liberator, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end: with all the saints, stand here beside us!