Ephesians 1: 11-23, Luke 6: 20-31
It is the time of year to grow melancholy and reflective. The nights are drawing in and now that the clocks have changed many of us will be getting home in the dark. We are digging out scarves and hats and gloves and trying to re-activate the central heating.
Yesterday was Bonfire night – “remember, remember the fifth of November..”
Next Sunday will be Remembrance Sunday..
So today it is good to remember the saints of the church.
There are, though, some pitfalls to be avoided when we remember the saints.
The first is the tendency to look at the lives of special holy people, who lived special holy lives and think ‘we could never be like that’.
The song we sang earlier tries to make the saints sound a bit more ordinary :
‘one was a doctor and one was a queen and one was a shepherdess on the green…one was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast’ – but these are references to the most extraordinary lives – the author of the hymn said she had in mind St Luke, St Margaret of Scotland, Joan of Arc, St Martin of Tours, John Donne and St Ignatius of Antioch.
An amazing collection of people – who could easily fuel a sense that saints are God’s most extraordinary people.
But remember that wonderful quote from Frederick Buechner : “In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. Those handkerchief are called saints.”. Saints are there to attract the attention of the world. The extraordinary may get our attention, but isn’t it also the case that we have all known extremely ordinary people whose lives have nevertheless shone with God’s love, and stopped us in our tracks with a realisation that there is something holy about these people?
In addressing the church at Ephesus, Paul talks about the saints:
“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints…”
“Saints” is a term Paul uses a lot – and he uses it to talk about God’s gathered people – the church. Paul is praying that as the Christians of Ephesus gather they will come to know Jesus more fully and see the light of God’s love burning more strongly. We are saints – we are called to be saints to one another – we are the lights of God’s love for each other so that together we can see more clearly what God’s love is doing and together live out lives more full of that love. Some of us are brighter lights than others, it’s true – but the brighter lights are there to help all of us see more clearly that we are all God’s special saints.
Which leads us to the second pitfall in remembering the saints – a sense of inadequacy which leads us to want to try harder to be more saintly.
At Taunton URC, where I worship when I’m not elsewhere in the Synod, we have on the wall two large written texts – one is the ten commandments; the other is the teaching of Jesus which we often all ‘the beatitudes’. I don’t know why those two texts were chosen – maybe they were thought to be the most helpful bits of the old and new testaments, maybe they were both lists, so lent themselves to being painted up on the wall, but what the presence of them side by side implies, if we’re not careful, is that the beatitudes represent Jesus’ new commandments to this followers.
In place of ‘do not steal, do not lie, do not murder” and the other commandments, Jesus is saying ‘be poor, be meek, be merciful’ and so on.
But that is not what Jesus is saying at all: he says ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are persecuted’.
Jesus is not telling us what to do, he is telling us what we can expect – blessings, grace, outpoured love. All of this is gift to those who most need it, says Jesus – open yourself up to the gift God wants to give.
So being a saint isn’t about effort, but openness to the gift of God.
Rowan Willams, writing about the need to find time to pray in a way which is more than just a supreme act of our will, says this:
“Prayer is like sunbathing. You simply have to be there where the light can get at you. On the beach, it is no use screwing up your eyes and concentrating: you wouldn’t get a better tan.”
And so it is with saints. We don’t get closer to being the people God made us to be by trying harder – we need to sunbathe in God’s love, open ourselves to God’s presence and God’s action and God’s blessing. That is the route to being more saintly.
Saints, large and small, ordinary and extraordinary, are those who help us to be aware of the love of God shining on us.
So we come to our final pitfall about remembering the saints – the possibility that we forget that the journey towards being a saint is never a solitary one. Saints exist in communion.
I spoke just now about the beatitudes as something other than new commandments. But of course Jesus did give his followers a new commandment in John 13:34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians says “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers”. As saints we are called to share our faith together, and to love one another. It is for this unity, holiness and mission that we are called as churches and as a United Area.
Sisters and brothers – as saints in Christ let’s remember all the saints.
Let’s give thanks to God for all those saints who have shown us signs – handkerchiefs - of God’s love.
Let us pray for the gift of God’s blessing and grace so that we may grow more saintly.
And let’s pray that together we grow in love and fellowship, for the sake of the world
And in the name of Jesus.