Sunday 1 November 2020 Revelation 7:9-17, Matthew 5:1-12
Today is All Saints Day; All Hallows Day to give it an older name, which immediately follows All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. I can’t claim to be too sorry that Halloween was a lot quieter this year than it normally is. Although it may not be good theology, I always like the idea that today the army of all the saints rides into town and chases out the army of mischief from last night.
I do have a certain fondness for All Saints Day, not only because it reminds us that we are part of a story which is much larger than we can fully know this side of heaven but, more prosaically, because I served my curacy at All Saints Church in Woodchurch, who are therefore having their patronal festival today – many blessings on them, especially as they welcome their new Rector.
This time last year, give or take a week, the family and I were just starting our half term holiday and had motored our narrow boat from Alvechurch up to Birmingham. Lots of people in the South have all sorts of preconceptions about Birmingham but, let me tell you, when you arrive there by boat and can tie up in the city centre it is a great place to be. On Sunday 20 October we all went to church in the morning to a new church in a converted warehouse in Gas Street. The family loved the modern worship there, although I did feel a little bit sorry that none of the worship leaders could afford jeans that didn’t have rips in them.
How old does that make me sound?
Anyway that evening, as a slight antidote from modernity, I decided to seek out Evensong at the Anglican Cathedral. On my own.
After Evensong one of the vergers said that if I fancied going to a rather bigger and fancier service then they were all going straight down to the Roman Catholic Cathedral to celebrate the beatification of Cardinal, I should say Saint, John Henry Newman, who had been made a saint just the week before in Rome but who had long connections with Birmingham.
Let me tell you, dear listener, I went to that service.
If the morning worship at Gas Street was a bit like having Rice Krispies for breakfast and evensong at the Cathedral was a bit like having a bacon sandwich then celebrating the making of a new saint at the Catholic Cathedral was a three course meal, with the finest wine. It was a sumptuous affair.
For those that don’t know St John Henry Newman started life as an Evangelical Anglican having had a conversion experience at the age of 15. This was in about 1815. He went to Oxford and was ordained as an Anglican clergyman at the age of 23. However the Anglican church was in something of a parlous state at the time and it’s worship life had been reduced to a rather lacklustre prayerbook services. Newman and his contemporaries at Oxford wanted to revitalise church life, to make communion a more central part of worship, to beautify the churches and to recapture the sense that the Anglican church was a branch of the Catholic church, in fact a via media, a middle way, between Protestantism and Catholicism. Through a series of Tracts, written to the church in order to educate them about such things and through the Oxford Movement which placed clergy in parishes open to such ideas, the Church of England underwent something of a seismic shift, although not without legal battles including clergy being prosecuted. Most of the things we take for granted here at St Mary’s are a direct result of the changes wrought at that time, and therefore at least the indirect result of the work of that new saint.
Over time, however, the Church of England itself took other steps which increasingly disillusioned St John Henry Newman that there could ever be a middle way between Protestant and Catholic and he eventually decided that Catholicity could only be found in the Roman Church and he converted. He was later ordained as a Catholic Priest, became a Cardinal and now a Saint. He gives me some small hope that an Anglican Priest can become a Saint, no matter how unlikely it may seem.
I’ll come back to that in a minute.
Although St John Henry Newman is one of the newer Saints of the Church, in many ways he fits a mould which at least looks a little bit saintly and ‘other’ and does not bring saintliness too close to home. Which I why I want to mention an even newer one who was beatified on 10 October this year.
This is Carlo Acutis, who was born in 1991 and died in 2005 at the age of 15 of leukaemia. Although his parents were Italian he was born in England. So we are essentially talking about an English schoolboy who was both born and died within all our lifetimes. Which I think brings the possibility of saintliness a bit closer to home.
Like many boys of his age Carlo was a bit of a computer geek. However, unlike most other such boys, he used his computer skills to promote the gospel and he was particularly dedicated to the Eucharist saying:
When he was diagnosed with leukaemia he wanted to go on pilgrimage but became too ill too quickly; when the doctors asked if he was in pain he responded that “there are people who suffer much more than me” and when he died he asked to be buried in Assisi, as he was dedicated to St Francis.
It is easy to feel that the internet is the opposite of holy, and in many places it is, but the Bishop of Assisi said of this young man:
“This is a youngster of our time: a model of holiness for the internet age,”
When we think about Saints we don’t just have to think about people from long ago and far away – here we have a former Anglican clergyman and a computer geek schoolboy, both elevated to Sainthood.
However, I do have a slight reservation about the way in which the Roman Catholic Church measures saintliness which is this: in order to be canonised as a saint in the Catholic church there needs to be evidence of two or three miracles either performed by the person or as a result of prayers of intercession made in the name of that person, and these were provided in both the new Saints we have just mentioned.
Personally I think that this sends the wrong message about the nature of sainthood because if sainthood is confined to the makers of miracles then this puts the saints into the same category as super-heroes – we may look up to them but we can never aspire to be them because we know that we do not possess super miracle powers.
But today, I want to give a very simple message: everyone in this church is called to be a saint. The word saint comes from sanctus which means holy and the bible says that we are called to be holy, because God is holy. And the word holy comes from the word whole (with a w) – we are called to be whole people because our God is a whole God.
Interestingly the Eastern Orthodox church does not proclaim its saints in the same way as the Catholics. Firstly the Orthodox church makes it clear that it does not make saints at all, because saints are made only by God, but the church merely recognises that a person has co-operated with God’s grace to such an extent that his or her holiness is beyond doubt. And that one sentence holds the vital clue to how each one of us can progress along the path of holiness – to co-operate with God’s grace. When we do what God wants us to do we become whole people, holy people, saints.
Throughout the beatitudes Jesus makes it clear that we are blessed by God and draw closer to him and his kingdom when we confound the expectations of the world. The world respects strength, a stiff upper lip, for us not to suffer fools gladly. But the way of Jesus, recognises that we are closest to God not when we are full of ourselves but when we are empty and acknowledge our need for him, when we confront a world of war with the way of peace, when we seek justice and pursue it. There is nothing here about possessing super powers of healing but everything about allowing God’s ways to take precedence over our own. To co-operate with God’s grace.
And then in the reading from Revelation we are given an image of the multitude of white robed saints standing in the presence of God, who have come out of the tribulation of the world and from whom God will wipe away every tear.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that they are somehow in a totally different category to you and I and that we can sit here and think about them in an abstract sort of way. As baptised members of the Body of Christ in this place you and I and everyone here are called on the journey to sainthood, to standing in the presence of God amongst the multitude. And that does not mean that you have to try and copy the lives of the saints from the past. On the contrary you can only become a saint by co-operating with the grace of God in your life in the here and now. And don’t tell me that you are too old or too young or too busy – God can transform you in an instant or in a lifetime. He only needs your co-operation with his grace.
Don’t forget I never said that the call or the journey to sainthood was easy – but I did say that it is for everyone!
When you exchange the peace this morning, however socially distanced, let the scales fall from your eyes and recognise not only all the saints in heaven but all the saints gathered here today.