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All Saints Day
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
But see, there breaks a yet more glorious day, saints triumphant rise in bright array…
As we have sung, sainthood bedecks us in bright array and we march triumphant into the place beyond, to that great communion we celebrate today.
In Exalted this week I suggest that there is a confusion in this time of the year and we conflate the three festivals of All Hallows E’en, All Saints and All Souls into one as we remember all who have gone before, whom we call ‘saints’.
But how do you see these people? And do you see yourself in their midst?
Have you achieved sainthood yet, or are we still waiting?
We tend to think of the saints as those of exceptional holiness whose lives and reputations somehow become elevated in the league tables that are the daily work of those who address such things in the back rooms of the Vatican. And some have their own feast day, like Peter and Paul, Simon and Jude, and Mary, both in the Valley and beyond. We honour the memory of others, like the martyrs of New Guinea, killed on the mission field in 1942.
I know I was rather disappointed to learn in 1970 that St Chistopher had been struck off the A list for whom masses might be said when the Roman liturgical calendar was reorganized.
We like to imagine the saints of the church as holy and flawless people. I recall as a young boy leafing through the Bible picture book that was an introduction to the tradition long before I could read. As I moved from one to the other, I remember feeling a sense of awe as I looked at them in the rich coloured plates on page after page. They were so HOLY. I longed for such holiness.
Many decades later, I see them differently. I see them as profoundly human. Holy, yes, remarkable, most certainly. But incredibly human for all that.
Consider some of the main players. Peter, the fisherman. Impetuous, wavering, hugely fallible. Yet used by God as the foundation of the church.
And Paul, too. The persecutor, an accessory to the murder of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
Like you and me, he never met Jesus in the flesh. His encounters are only with the Risen Christ, the Jesus of the resurrection; like you and me. Blinded by the light, he submits. And is transformed by God.
Throughout the scriptures, we see such people. Look at Mary, a simple village girl whose humility and love of God equip her to say ‘yes’ to the incomprehensible.
And King David, the giant-killer, anointed as king in God’s holy name, from whose line the messiah was to come. But an adulterer, a murderer whom God rebukes but embraces and uses wonderfully.
Like you and me, these are very ordinary people, flawed people, people with baggage, with history they would rather forget. Great and holy people they may be, but very human for all that. Ordinary people, but mortals of whom much is expected and, used by the grace of God, they achieve extra-ordinary things.
Few of us might expect recognition in such company, but saints we are. The reference in All Saints is not to those who already have recognition. In the NT scriptures, the faithful are referred to constantly as ‘the saints’, as in our epistle this morning.
The hagioi are the believers, not exceptional in their holiness nor even those who have died with a record of outstanding saintliness.
But saints they are, and we are, and holy too, but what is it that makes them so, that makes us so? Do you consider yourself a holy person? Well, I look in the mirror and often don´t much like what I see. I know my failings, many of which I may manage to hide from the eyes of others, but I know I cannot hide them from God, who sees all, who knows all, who knows me better than I can know myself.
Certainly, it is not our own virtue, nor even that we baked a thousand scones for the church fête. No, we are only holy, only saintly because God makes us so. In baptism and in the resurrection, we are made whole again – whole and holy.
As we remember today all who have died in the faith of Christ, members of the communion of saints, let us by the grace of God entertain the possibility of our own inclusion. ‘You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God’ (Eph 2).
In my struggle to get my small mind around all this, I am encouraged to think again of heaven and earth coming together, a theme of previous weeks. In that sense, in our communion with the whole company of heaven, we achieve that holiness to which Jesus refers when he speaks of those things in which and through which we are blessed – humility, to know the poverty of the poor and outcast, the capacity to weep with those who weep, to be hungry with those who hunger. Blessedness does not accompany a sense of personal satisfaction and pride in our comfortable status.
So we remember, at this season of Remembrance, all who put others first, as did Christ, and, thereby, achieve holiness through God’s grace. We shall find our reward among those who really grasp what heaven is – and what it isn’t. It’s not a reward for what we do. It is a recognition of who we have become.
So we give thanks for that great cloud of witnesses, those who rest in God’s peace and we who await our rest. Let us, in an attitude of gratitude, be assured of the promise of sainthood that God has made and that, even now, we may be numbered among them.
Let me finish with a story, appropriate to the conjunction today of All Saints and Defence Sunday.
Robert Poate was 23 when he was shot and killed in the base camp in Oruzgan province in Afghanistan. Along with two others he was siting playing cards and having a cup of tea when a rogue Afghan soldier opened fire.
I had the privilege of conducting Robbie’s funeral in 2012. We were all battling the collective emotions of anger, despair and loss and trying, as one does, to make sense of it. In conversation with Robbie’s mother, it was Robbie himself who brought logic to it.
Robbie commanded a Bushmaster, a large armoured military vehicle with 15 personnel aboard, 30000 rounds of ammunition and a few rockets. His vehicle had been out on exercise a week or so before he died. As he came over the top of a sand hill, he saw a child, maybe four or five years old, shepherding his goats. Robbie stopped and took a photo on his phone, thinking that no-one would believe that here, where no sensible person would venture to go without an armoured personnel carrier, a young lad was going about his business.
He sent the picture to his family and said “Now I know why I am here, why we are here – so that a small child can shepherd his goats in peace.”
In that spirit of wisdom and revelation, we come so close to God’s purpose and being that we are one with him in the holiness of spiritual wisdom. Saints in heaven and saints on earth.
Peace to those who are far off; and peace to those who are near.