You and I are called to follow their example. To be saints here and now.
It is not the path of popularity, nor is it easy, because it goes beyond what people expect or want of a Saint so that he or she doesn’t threaten our own sense of security or comfort or challenge our own unwillingness to follow a difficult path. Theres the nub of it isn’t it. So today we celebrate the Saints but don’t let’s get them imprisoned in stained glass images.
If you ever get the chance to go to Rome, as a Christian one of sights not to miss are the Catacombs.Underneath the city are literally miles and miles of passageways carved into the rock by the early Christians and an estimated one an half million graves covering several centuries. Also underground are carved chambers for meeting and praying, churches with remnants of C3 and C4 paintings and frescos one of those frescos shows a woman priest celebrating at the Altar. Not quite such a new thing then. .,
It is a virtual city underground and it was here that Christians fled and lived during the terrible persecutions of those first few centuries and if you go further East to eastern Europe and the Middle East you will find that the stories of the saints play a particularly important role in the worship and memory of the church. Churches are filled with icons and frescoes of the saints and the story of their lives. We have some amazing saints in our own country too of St Columba, Aiden, Alban, Chad, Augustine, and of course, more locally St Swithun in Winchester.
But why do we remember them? All of them are known, of course, for their service and dedication to others, but also for their great faith and holiness but these aren not super-human beings. Most of their stories reveal a deep humanity, whose discipleship is achieved often, at great personal cost, and today is a wonderful opportunity to remember them. They not just inspire, but set example for us to follow.
They are the ordinary human beings who remind us of the vocation we all have as disciples of Christ and the challenge of that journey. Their message of hope echoes across the centuries and it’s as relevant today as it was then for saints are not, of course, a long dead feature of Christian discipleship.
But we are all called to be saints, holy ones of God, and there are many examples today. When in India I visited a number of institutions serving the sick or the homeless and there was always a profound but difficult to define difference between those which were set up simply for the good of others as worthwhile as they are of course, and those which were run because of faith, and a desire to love and serve God in others. None more so than another great saint, Mother Theresa’s her home for the destitute and dying, for orphans and the homeless in Kolkata which though heavy with profound suffering are yet somehow places of profound joy and hope in which those who work there do so because of their Christian conviction and love of God.
And in recent years we have witnessed profound acts of faith and courage by Christians under threat from a level of extremism in the Middle East the like of which we have not seen for many centuries. I’ve stayed in monasteries in Syria and Andrew has welcomed their safe refuge in recent years where the monks and nuns stayed and carried on ringing the bells of the church even when ISIS / DAESH front lines were only a kilometre away.
And I think of another great living Saint. Elias Shakur a Palestinian priest, now Archbishop of the Melkite Church in Galilee who spent a lifetime working for reconciliation between Muslims, Christians and Jews Israelis and Palestinians and works tirelessly for justice in a situation of profound injustice and conflict and there are so many others, in so many contexts, whether it be our friends in Uganda our local Christians struggling to serve the poor, ordinary Christians working in the camps in Calais; or of course people living out the Gospel of hope and love in our own communities here in this place.
The sainthood which so many through the ages have achieved is far from an easy path and perhaps that is one of the reasons why they inspire us so much. So. Are you a saint? It may be surprising but the answer should be and is Yes because that is the calling of each one of us.
The first Christians called themselves ‘The Saints of God’ – the holy ones;
and so they were, and so are we by virtue of our humanity that is in all its wholeness, both the good and the bad, that has been redeemed, transformed in Christ, and made in the image of God. For too long the church has equated sainthood with perfection thereby conveniently distancing ourselves from a sense of call or participation to the sainthood which Christ calls us to.
Rather our sainthood comes when our whole humanity, both our strengths and our weaknesses are directed towards striving to do God’s work even when sometimes we won’t be able to overcome them. Remember some of the greatest saints were also the greatest sinners whose lives have been transformed in the love and service of Christ. So what are the marks of a saint? Through the year we celebrate the saints of the past, perhaps forgetting that they were just ordinary people full of weaknesses and failings, some of which they never overcame but who nevertheless achieved extraordinary things.
The first disciples were just a bunch of people who regularly got it wrong, and struggled with their frustrations, their pride and their ambitions, their selfish desires, but nether the less they achieved much more through putting their trust in God and seeking to follow his will, even though they often failed and often didn’t see the results of their work in this life
If we ask what are the marks of sainthood, and therefore the marks of the kingdom of God they are perhaps most clearly defined in the passage we heard in our Gospel reading this morning popularly called the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. At the time people were filled with their own expectations of what the messianic age would mean to them. For centuries the basis of the religious way had been the Ten Commandments as received on Mount Sinai but the law had been so expanded as to make adherence almost possible and so it is highly symbolic that Jesus goes up a mountain – as Moses did, to proclaim a new Law, and a new challenge, a new Sinai. One not based on judgement and condemnation, but on the marks of a kingdom that turns upside down the prejudices and demands of the old way, that led to so much conflict and prejudice.
Earlier I mentioned Elias Shakur the Palestinian Archbishop who it’s been my pleasure to meet several times. The Beatitudes is his favourite passage, but as a Palestinian familiar with Aramaic, the language of Jesus, he tells us the English translation of the text is misleading. We are all familiar with the phrase ‘Blessed are they’ or ‘Happy are you when’ but Fr Elias points out that whilst the English translation of the phrases is very passive the Aramaic original was much more active. He says that the word that Jesus used for blessed are you – means ‘you will be blessed’ when you do these things.
In other words Jesus is saying ‘go and create these circumstances – go and do the works of Kingdom, If you are hungry and thirsty for justice, or if you long to restore your spirits, if you want to serve the poor, if you want to be peacemakers, go and do something about it. This is the work of the kingdom. These are the marks of the saints – not to be just a good person, to sit back and hope for the best to pray and worship but not to be transformed by prayer and worship.
Anyone can sit and do nothing and wish they could do more. Rather those who create new circumstances where those who mourn for the state of the world can find comfort and change, where those who long for justice, righteousness and peace can find their thirst quenched.It is they who will be blessed, but to achieve these kingdom values requires long going against the grain.
It will mean breaking down barriers of prejudice and power of challenging the status quo
It is not the path of popularity, nor is it easy, because it goes beyond what people expect or want of a Saint so that he or she doesn’t threaten our own sense of security or comfort or challenge our own unwillingness to follow a difficult path.
Theres the nub of it isn’t it.
That it threatens our own sense of security or comfort and challenges us to follow a difficult path – but that is the path we are asked to follow.
So today we celebrate the Saints but don’t let’s get them imprisoned in stained glass images. Let us remember them for who they really were ordinary people like you and me – with faults and failings; ordinary people who heard Gods call and against all odds responded to it. Their lives were a struggle and often involved great sacrifice and pain. For the path of the kingdom is often not what we want or what the world expects and let us remember that the call to each one of us is for each one of us as well.
You and I are called to follow their example. To be saints here and now.
So what is Jesus calling you to? The answer to each of us where we are on our journey of life will be different of course but the important question is how will we respond. Amen.