Sermon for All Saints
“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down,
his disciples came to him.
Then he began to speak, and taught them”
Many years ago now, Sarah and I hosted a home group for our small church in Bradford. It was a very down to earth group with good honest down to earth members. There was Elsie – a former mill worker and clippie on the trams. She’d been ‘Born again’ in her late seventies, and glowed with the presence of Jesus – there was Sue and her husband John, who devoted their life to fostering children, and becoming so attached to them that they ended up adopting them. Sue always listened to the story of the Rich young man and said, ‘Jesus can have what he asks for, but I dread him asking me to give up my dishwasher . . .’ 🙂 John and his wife shirley. John had gone to Nicaragua on a mission trip and been so broken by what he’d seen that he never recovered. Then there was Cath. Cath who could recite the names of all the books of the bible without batting an eyelid, whose knowledge of scripture was unmatched, and had a deep gentleness of Spirit.
One year, the Vicar asked me to write some study material on Discipleship. I remember clearly the first night when I introduced the topic to the group, and Cath saying. ‘Ooohh. I’m not at All Sure . . . We’re not all called to be disciples you know . . .’ 🙂
I didn’t see the parallel at the time, but I was teaching at a Roman Catholic high school where, despite the best efforts of the RE teachers, there was a similar attitude towards ‘The Saints’ amongst the working class Irish Catholic population from whose numbers most of our students were drawn. The idea which despite all endeavours it was hard to eradicate, the idea that there was some kind of ‘spiritual elite’. That there were ‘ordinary Christians’, and then there were disciples, that there were ordinary Catholics, and then there were ‘Saints’.
For Cath, ‘Disciples’ were ‘up there’ – on a pedestal – although, looking back I wonder if she, or indeed any of us could have identified one we actually Knew . . . rather like the Saints, these were people of history and myth, many of whom in the school where I taught were literally on a pedestal, or a picture on the wall with a candle beneath.
And of course, given the prevailing understanding of heaven, the Saints were quite literally ‘up there’ . . . The Elite . . . but more than that, the myth of The Elite, produced an understanding of the Christian Life which was as it were two tier. Not only was there Heaven up there, there was Earth down here . . . of course we didn’t like to think about down there . . . and this sort of spiritual cosmology was replicated in a sort of Spiritual Geography, a hierarchy. Ordinary Christians, and the Elite Christians, the Saints, or for my sister Cath, a lady of Strongly Protestant inclinations, ‘Disciples’ . . .
And Jesus – demolishes this idea . . he doesn’t so much not turn on its head any ideas we have of an Elite. He calls his people to something far more challenging, something as it were out of this World. Which brings us to The Beatitudes . . .’ So wired together into our human psyche ares the idea of an Elite and Progress – as those who have Grown Upwards ‘Onwards and Upwards’ we say [Evolutionary thinking is the way our culture names this myth]. So hard wired is it that the Beatitudes come as a terrible shock.
Blessed are the Who??? The words of Jesus are SO hard to swallow, that I know of at least one American writer who twisted himself in knots to say that Jesus – despite the text being clear, wasn’t teaching his disciples at all. How hard is it for one soaked in say American culture, which is of course the one we’re all trained to buy into, how hard is it for one so trained – to hear the Gospel announcement of the Blessed?? The poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the persecuted . . . This writer choked on this passage declared that Jesus MUST have been looking beyond the disciples, and declaring, ‘Hey! The Kingdom is for the losers as well . . .’ . . . which is a problem as not all of Jesus words about the blessed can easily be translated as blessed are the losers . . . Blessed are the Pure in heart . . . Blessed are the peacemakers . . . BUT given that Growth MUST be upwards!!!! Then somehow we have to find a way to deny the words of Jesus . . . Certainly Jesus’ words addressed to his disciples, demolish all our ideas of Elite.
Certainly as far as the world understands it, the poor, the mourners, the meek, the persecuted are not those ‘who have made it’, but Jesus says, those who have made it are the poor, meek, mourners – those persecuted for righteousness sake . . . but surely we might argue, isn’t Jesus setting up a different idea of Elite??? Isn’t he purely reversing the direction and those who ‘make it’ make the best fist of ‘downward mobility’?? after all, didn’t he say ‘The first shall be last and the last first – whoever would be chief amongst you must become the servant of all – whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel shall find it . . . Isn’t it still all about some form of achievement by downwards progress??? After all, aren’t the Saints pictures to us of deepest humility, as opposed to Pride, or Poverty as opposed to Riches?? As if these things were to be understood on a continuum and all we have to do to understand Jesus is to tip things upside down??
Our difficulty I think comes from a misunderstanding of ‘Saint’. It’s a misunderstanding that we’ve been happy to live with – pertly because it fits our understanding of the world as we know it – a simple parallel between Worldly success, and Spiritual success, even if in opposite directions. But we may also be happy to accept this simple story of reversal, because the actual meaning of Saint is far more shocking than any simple reversal of values which we might try to live out.
Christians, are not people with as it were a set of values which are simply ‘downward’ instead of ‘upward’ mobility – rather they are a people with a completely different form of existence, a New Life. Not an improvement on the old – not the old life with the bad bits taken out – not the old life tipped on its head, but a New Life.
‘Saint’ comes from the word for ‘Holy’ . . . well so far, so not useful – there we go again, another elite word. Holy we generally take to mean in terms of ‘at the top of the virtue scale’ As it were the opposite end of the spectrum from ‘Evil’. As if everything were some from of sophisticated moral gradation. Not just Good people and Bad people, we know that that is too simplistic . . . but Evil people through bad, through naughty, through rough diamonds, through good, right up . . . (there we go again with the up down language) Right up to Saints, the ‘holy’. But That is the meaning that we have given to ‘Holy’ – it is not the meaning that the Scriptures give.
‘Holy’ means ‘Set apart’. The things associated with the worship of God were Holy, but that was as it were a signifier, that The people of God were as set apart as the Holy Things. The people of God from the call of Abraham, a landless wanderer, through the calling of Israel, a people called to a land, to the disciples – were to be a people – are to be a people – set apart for the Glory of God. So set apart that they were not to be like the surrounding nations with their Kings – for God was to be their Shepherd King. A people with a land, but not like any other, that God might be glorified in and through them. And so The King comes and calls his people to separate themselves and gather round Him.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain;
and after he sat down,
his disciples came to him.
Then he began to speak, and taught them
Jesus sees the crowd, he sees Everyone, but those whom he has called to be with Him, his disciples, come out of the crowd – they come to Him, stood before Him and separated from the Crowd – they are set apart – and he teaches Them. He teaches them about the nature of their existence, their New life in and with Him. A life which in its Otherness, would be Light to the World, which is dark. Jesus tells them, your life as the poor in spirit, mourning, meek, persecuted, pure in heart, peacemaking, your Life Is Salt of the Earth, Light to the World. A Life which is radically for the World, but not of the World. A life in which their identity is completely bound up with Him. Set Apart – Holy – Saints.
To be Baptised is to become part of a people, the body of Christ set apart entirely for the purposes of God and the Glory of God. To be a disciple, to be a Saint. Not Better than the World, not to be a brighter light in the world, but to be different, to be The Light of the World. Not each in his various callings, you in your small corner, and I in mine, but Together as the community of the Saints, those called apart for the Glory of God and for the sake of the World.
Christendom, as we have been recalling, subverted that. There were those whom everyone said were ‘called into the Church’ – I must admit that I choked upon my ordination at a card from a colleague of a Catholic persuasion ‘upon the occasion of your ordination into the Church of Christ’. Denying that we are a Kingdom of Priests, together. Then there were for my sister Cath, those special ones, the ‘disciples’, denying that there is only one form of Christian existence, which is to be with Jesus and taught by Jesus, to be a disciple, and of course The Saints . . .
And so St Paul as he writes to the churches of Asia minor and further afield writes ‘To the Saints who are in Ephesus’ or ‘To those called to be Saints . . .’ Those called to be with Jesus, Together . . .
The call into Christian existence is not a call to huge moral effort – it is far far more challenging than that – to hear the call of Jesus is to belong to a people set apart for the Glory of God in the world. There is an old name for that people, an old name but a truthful one, The Communion of Saints. We are all called to be Saints