It has become quite a well-worn observation that the Bible begins in a garden and ends in a city. People, and the biblical thread, find one another and set up camp together – for protection in numbers, support and companionship. We are not made to be alone, but for relationships and belonging. And when we want to know what it means to be human, we find this in our relationships with others, with the environment, with God. We and our brains are more than machines because we relate to our surroundings and those who trigger emotional responses in us. We are conscious and can make more than programmed responses. And so when we want to know what it means to be holy, to live a life that shines with the light and glory of God, we have to look to those who help us see this in their lives, in the way those lives interact with others and in the hope and joy we see there. These are the saints and we have just entered the church season of the saints, of the holy, of the light of Christ shining in human living.
Today is All Saints Sunday. Keeping this on a Sunday is a relatively new development and it has taken an ancient festival of the communion of saints and made it a pivotal point in the church calendar; it has made it the beginning of a season focused on the Kingdom of God. With this, November is given a framework of light, hope and peace, and this is the lens through which we assimilate everything that is to come over the next few weeks. This means that when we commemorate next week – the horror, sacrifice and darkness of war – we will do so in the light of Christian hope which brings reconciliation, the pressure for peace and all that brings us together, to relate, rather than what divides and sets us against one another in hostility. We will do this in the light of redemption and resurrection where death and destruction do not have the final word. This came out in our Gospel reading (John 11:32-44) where death does not have the final word and Lazarus is brought back to life. When we remember those who have been special to us and have died, as we will do with the cards brought forward to be placed on the altar later in this service or at the special service in two weeks time, we do so in the hope that no life is lost and all are held in the love and redemption that comes through Jesus Christ. It is a season when we focus on God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness, of light shining in darkness.
The beauty of the saints is that they give us worked examples of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in the messiness and complexity of real life. They are not impassive statues but, in their rich variety, are remembered because they managed to shine light into whatever challenges came during their day. For some it is the witness of their blood, as martyrs who refused to deny their faith even when threatened with death. For some it is their teaching which continues to inspire down the centuries and still speaks to us today. For some it is their writings and insights, which help us make connections or give words to express what we struggle to put into words. For some it is the challenge of prophetic witness, standing for justice and defending the weakest and most vulnerable, reminding the powerful of their responsibilities and obligations. For some it is the leadership they gave which was transformational and shaped a people. Saints help us see what it means to follow Jesus Christ in every aspect of our lives and because they have done it we are not let off the hook when we try to argue that it is harder for us. Yes it may well be hard, but it was hard for them too so in God’s grace we can rise to the challenge.
The saints say to us that to be truly healthy we need the Spirit of God. And in an interesting essay on healing, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, talks about healing as being filled with God [Holy Living: The Christian Tradition for Today (2017) p13-27]. The process is one of becoming a place that is inhabited, rather than one that is empty. Being empty we seek to fill up the space with other things – easy gratifications, possessions and things which don’t bring lasting value or pleasure. Rowan Williams draws us back to our biblical origins as creatures made of dust and clay, who have life breathed into us. This life is from the life of God and so we become who we really are when we accept that creation is inhabited by God. This deeper presence that the saints point to, we see in their faces that they have been and are inhabited by the Spirit of God. This is how we see lives transformed and transforming of those around us.
To put some more flesh on that, this means that the story of our faith is in the driving seat for lives lived in holiness. This is a story of purpose, of love and all that brings people together to live in hope and with thanksgiving. It isn’t mean, it isn’t grudging, it isn’t angry all the time, even if some things do make us cross. There is a gracious way of being which shows that love dwells inside, the house that is occupied is occupied by love. And that brings blessing, brings life-affirming embrace to all who come into contact with it. Transformation is a popular word at the moment, and we need to be clear about what makes something transformational. In the saints it is when the presence, call and power of God are made known and let loose. It is when we live in harmony with the story of faith, its central themes are given physical shape and form, and we bless the earth, setting people free and enabling flourishing.
So as the Bible begins in a garden, it quickly gathers people around it and it ends in a city. This was reflected in our Epistle reading where the vision of heaven is of a celestial city (Revelation 21:1-6a). This city is a place where people dwell together in peace. There is no death, no crying, and God’s presence is ever present. The saints are those in whose lives we have seen this reflected, who bring heaven to earth so that we see holiness shining as a light shines in the darkness. The calling of all of us is to be such people, whether it is in ways which seem great or small, and the small can make a profound difference as was shown in a recent episode of Doctor Who on Rosa Parks, the black civil rights activist from 1950s America. It was the power of a small action, like refusing to accept the racism which demanded that she give up her seat for a white, and the boycott of that bus company which followed. Small acts of kindness and being positive can be transformative where the tone and mood around might be otherwise. It brings light and hope, proclaims resurrection life, and that death, hatred and destruction do not have the final word.
Today we celebrate the saints; the holy being seen and let loose in human lives. Holiness brings people closer, it does not make them isolated. It is a vision of a celestial city where we find who we are as we relate to others, to our surroundings and ultimately to God.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, All Saints Sunday, 4th November 2018