Some years ago, when the former Bishop of Reading, Stephen Cottrell was here for a Confirmation service, he told the story of walking down his local High Street, in civvies, no Bishop’s purple or even a clerical collar, but wearing casual Saturday morning clothes. He was approached by a ‘market researcher’ who was wanting to stop passers by and ask them ‘ just a few questions.’ The Bishop responded and all was well until she came to the following question. ‘ If you could choose what you would really like to be , what you would really , really like to be in this life more than anything else, what would you choose?’ The Bishop’s answer (by which he surprised himself,or so he said) was ‘ to be a Saint!’ This floored the researcher totally. There were no tick boxes for saints on her chart and this was the end of the interview!
So, this leads me to ask the question what or who is a saint?
Is a saint someone who has ‘a holier than thou attitude’ to life ? Someone we would find it hard to emulate or would we wish to? Or is it someone who is robust in their following of the Christian faith – a very strong character, possibly charismatic, who encourages others to follow, such as John the Baptist? Someone who seems to be very close to living out the life that Jesus led, such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta? Someone, who gave up their former life to follow Christ and spread the word like St.Paul or one of the countless Christians who have tried through the ages, to be faithful Christians in their everyday lives?
We have all heard the expression ‘he/she must be a saint’ when we marvel at someone’s uncomplaining endurance/ dedication when coping with difficult times and remaining cheerful and optimistic, always thankful for the positive things in their lives. Certainly, we, as Christians, are expected to give freely of our time, our love, our lives in the service of others and when we feel maybe there is little left to give, to go on giving some more.
A few years ago a book was published called ‘Mrs Gates’ Diary.’ This lady, Mrs Gates, kept her diary in the early years of the C20th. She suffered a number of misfortunes and bereavements when she was young and yet we are told, maintained a strong faith and charming disposition. She was found to be very entertaining by the younger members of the family, good for a laugh and having a store of amusing anecdotes to recount on all occasions.
One of the family was quoted as saying:
‘ Aunty Daisy was a delightful companion, who showed us that to be saintly did not mean being faultless and certainly not boring. On the contrary, she was one of the most entertaining people I have ever known…………..’
As the reviewer commented:
‘It is an everyday story of keeping the faith and making the best of good and bad times.’
Life as a Christian is not always easy and cosy and what believers in every time and place share is their desire to be ‘the children of God’, to carry out as far as we can, Christ’s teaching of love and caring. The world can often be a hostile place. The values of the world are often very different from those of Christ.
Take the example of our patron saint, St. John the Baptist. Life was not easy for him and he certainly didn’t make life easy for himself. All those locusts and honey, wearing a rough coat of camel hair and living in the desert before exercising his ministry to prepare for Jesus’ coming, baptising in the River Jordan, those who repented of their sins. He upset the religious establishment of the day, the Pharisees and Sadduccees and was imprisoned by Herod for criticising Herod’s relationship with Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. Then of course he finally lost his head, literally, presented to Herod’s wife, Herodias, on a plate, after Salome, her daughter, had danced for Herod, at his birthday celebrations. Revenge indeed.
A classic example of a Saint with a capital ‘S’! John showed his total commitment to his faith in Jesus through his preaching and prophesying and also became a martyr by losing his life for his faith.
There have been many examples of such saints through the centuries, known and unknown. Not all ‘saints’ of course come into this category. John was not only an outstanding example of one who thought nothing of his own life but lost his life for his beliefs. There are many others for whom their Christian faith has been the centre of their lives, faithfully trying to love God and love their neighbour in their own way.
At an annual LLM service in ChristChurch Cathedral, Oxford, in his sermon on All Saints, Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, made the point very forcefully that the Church community sits well above the Church bureaucracy in its importance and that we are here to further God’s kingdom by who we are, not just as functionaries of an official church. It is the Community that is important, living and dead. The legacy of all those worshipping Christians through the centuries together with what we can contribute as members of Christ’s Church.
It is interesting to look at the list at the end of the Common Worship lectionary and see eg how many C20th saints have been added:
Under ‘ Martyrs’ , those who’ve died for their faith, there is Archbishop Luwum of Uganda, killed on 17th February 1977; those working with the poor and underprivileged such as the social reformer Josephine Butler who died in 1906; those whose holiness was revealed in marriage and family life where Mary Sumner , the founder of the Mothers’ Union who died in 1921, is remembered.
Could we add to this now those who are working selflessly and tirelessly to give some aid and relief to all the refugees in the Middle East and Europe and in Bangladesh with conditions deteriorating as winter approaches?
We have reached the first weekend in November and so we have come to the season of remembrance.
This weekend we celebrate All Saints and All Souls’ days following each other as they do on the 1st and 2nd of November. Next weekend of course we have Remembrance Sunday when we celebrate and remember those who have given their lives in war for the sake of their country and / or for a better world .
The title All Saints is a very positive one, as it tells us that all who follow Christ are ‘saints.’ We have of course our named saints from New Testament times down through the centuries and more are being added to the list all the time- but we also have the ‘countless host’ as the hymn puts it who are waiting for us at the end of our lives:
‘ We feebly struggle , they in glory shine,
Yet all are one in thee for all are thine…..’
Each week we say in the Creed,
‘ I believe in the Communion of Saints’ – what do we mean by this? It is the spiritual union of all Christians living and dead, those on earth and those in heaven and it is based on 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul compares Christians to a single body. In Hebrews Ch.12 a cloud of witnesses are described encompassing Christians on earth.
Sometimes we feel in old churches that the very stones seem to bear witness to the faith and prayers and worship of our ancestors through the centuries and that this will continue to the end of time, in whatever way the future develops. We do know that we all have a common future. We share the conviction that death is not the end of life with one another or with God and that somehow, in ways not at all understood or even glimpsed at in the present, we belong to one another even beyond death. The ‘communion of saints’ is a difficult but wonderful concept giving us our time and place in history and linking us with the past and the future.
So we have in our readings today, Jesus’ ‘Sermon on the Mount’ setting out how those who follow Him should try to live their lives, John’s vision of the new heaven and new earth in the book of Revelation and the promise in the first letter of John that we are to be called ‘the children of God.’
When we come to our All Souls’ service this evening, we come to remember all those who have gone before us and especially those known and dear to us.
In Roman Catholic countries of course this day is often a public holiday and families gather to meet each other and to remember those who have died. They light candles in memory of their loved ones and take flowers to lay on their graves or at their last resting place.
Memories are very important to us . They link us to our past and give us our place in history. As we know, they take many forms. Some are sad, or painful, but others bring us happiness, a sense of belonging and an ability to look back fondly to episodes and experiences in our life which, maybe, happened long ago but can be relived as freshly as if they occurred yesterday.
The Church knows how important this opportunity for remembrance is and gives us these days so that we can specially focus on thinking about what our departed loved ones mean to us and to know that they are at peace.
And so to the final verse of the All Saints’ hymn:
‘From earth’s wide bounds,
from ocean’s farthest coast,
through gates of pearl
stream in the countless host,
singing to Father,
Son and Holy Ghost’
This is what links us into the past, the present and the future, into the great family of the Church,‘ the communion of saints.’