King’s Acre Church, 3 November 2002
Last Friday was the first of November, a day which many Christians in many countries celebrate as All Saints’ Day. Of course, nowadays the previous evening, Hallowe’en, literally “All Hallows’ Eve,” or in the language we use today, “All Saints’ Eve”, is more celebrated. But even today, in some countries, Friday was a Bank Holiday, and if you were that sort of person, you might have bought chrysanthemums and put them on a loved one’s grave – when I lived in France, back in the early 1970s, you only ever saw chrysanths on sale around this time of year. But this year, I noticed, they were focussing on Hallowe’en far more than they used to.
In this country, though, we never have gone in much for All Saints, except in church names, like our friends up the road. We’ve tended to go straight from Hallowe’en to Guy Fawkes’ Night with nothing in between. But if the Church suggests, as it does, that we should celebrate All Saints’ Day, then maybe we should do so. And as we weren’t here to celebrate it last Friday, then it is all right to celebrate it today, instead.
But what is a saint, anyway? After all, if we are going to celebrate All Saints, we need to know what saints are.
It seems to me that there are two sorts of saint. The first is a Saint with a capital S. These are often Bible people, like St Paul, of course, but there are also lots of Saints who were, in life, totally dedicated to being God’s person. To the point where, very often, they got into serious trouble, or even killed for it. There was St Polycarp, who was put to death, and when he was given a chance to recant, to say he wasn’t a Christian after all, he said very firmly that he’d served God, man and boy, for something like eighty years now, and God had never let him down, so if they thought he was going to let God down at the last minute, they’d another think coming. Or words to that effect.
There were Saints Perpetua and Felicity, her servant. Saint Perpetua was a young mother, whose husband and father both roundly disapproved of her being a Christian, and Felicity, also a Christian, was expecting a baby when they were taken and put on trial. They were left until Felicity had had her baby – a little girl, who was brought up by her sister – and then they had to face wild beasts in the arena. And so went to glory.
There are lots of other saints, too, whose story has come down to us. Although sometimes their stories are rather less exotic than we once thought. St George, for instance, the patron saint of England: he was born in Cappadocia of noble, Christian parents and on the death of his father, accompanied his mother to Palestine, her country of origin, where she had land and George was to run the estate. He rose to high rank in the Roman army, and was martyred for complaining to the then Emperor about his persecuting the Christians – he ended up being one of the first to be put to death.
And his dragon? Oh, that was a bit of a misunderstanding. The Greek church venerated George as a soldier-saint, and told many stories of his bravery and protection in battle. The western Christians, joining with the Byzantine Christians in the Crusades, elaborated and misinterpreted the Greek traditions and devised their own version. The story we know today of Saint George and the dragon dates from the troubadours of the 14th century. Of course, you can look at it, as they did, in symbolic terms: the Princess is the church, which George rescued from the clutches of Satan. I imagine football fans often see places like Brazil or Argentina as the dragon, especially during the World Cup!
Goodness, the things one can learn off the Internet on a wet Saturday afternoon!
But not all Saints belong to the dawn of Christianity. There is Thomas More, for instance, who was put to death by Henry the Eighth as he wouldn’t admit that the King’s marriage to Katharine of Aragon was valid. And in our own day, Mother Theresa looks likely to be made a saint, if she hasn’t been already, although she died in her own bed. You don’t absolutely have to be a martyr to be made a Saint, although it helps.
So, anyway, those are just a very few of the many “Saints” with a capital S. No bad thing to read some of the stories of their lives, and learn who they were, and why the Church continues to remember them.
Our Saints have one thing in common. Well, two things, actually – the first being that they are dead! The Church doesn’t make people who are still alive saints, and there is a long process of investigating their lives to make sure they really were as holy and as saintly as they were alleged to have been. That’s partly why a lot of saints were moved to the “Second Division”, as it were, because the details of their lives and morals couldn’t be verified. But the Saints, along with a great many other people, are what we now call the Church Triumphant. We, down here on earth, are the Church Militant, and they, who have fought the good fight and got where they hoped they would, are now Triumphant.
But the second, and main thing that the Saints have in common is that they were all God’s people. Their whole lives revolved about God, all the time. Not just on Sundays. They may have led wicked lives in their youth – Saint Augustine of Hippo, who had rather disastrous relationships with women all his life, is alleged to have prayed “God, grant me chastity, but not yet!” – but they all knew what it was to have been converted to Christ, and did their best to live for him, and often to die for him, thereafter.
And it is that quality that we can share. We are, as St John reminds us, God’s children, and are constantly being enabled to fulfil our potential. We aren’t yet the people God designed us to be, at least, I don’t know about you, but I know I’m not! But with God’s grace that will one day happen.
Jesus gives us a blueprint, in the collection of his teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount, of the sort of people God’s children are: poor in spirit – not thinking more of themselves than they ought; mourning, perhaps for the ungodly world in which we live; meek, which means slow to anger and gentle with others; hungry and thirsty for righteousness; merciful; pure in heart; peacemakers and so on. All the sorts of qualities that our world deems totally naff, these are the qualities God’s children will have. No wonder being a Christian isn’t very popular! And yet, it is those of us who most truly display these qualities who are the closest to what we mean by “Saints”.
St Paul gives other lists of characteristics that Christians will display; you probably remember from his letter to the Galatians: Love, joy, peace, patience and so on. And he gives lots of lists of the sort of behaviour that Christians don’t do, ranging from gluttony to fornication. Basically the sort of things that put “Me” first, and make “me” the centre of my life.
But the wonderful thing is that we don’t have to strive and struggle and do violence to our own natures. Yes, of course, we are inherently selfish and it’s nearly impossible to put God first in our own strength. But the whole point is, we don’t have to do it in our own strength. That is why God sent the Holy Spirit, to come into us, fill us, and transform us. As we are, we would never inherit the Kingdom of God, whether on this earth or in the world to come. But transformed by God’s Spirit, then, in the words of St John, “We shall be like him”. And yet, paradoxically, we shall still be ourselves.
St Paul addresses some of his letters to “The saints in such-and-such a town”. He knew, and they knew, that it was possible to be a saint in this life. The letter to the Corinthians, for example, begins: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The word “sanctified” means “Being made saint-like”, and it’s one of the things that happens to Christians who are truly intent on being God’s person. You can’t help it; the Holy Spirit who dwells in you does sanctify you, makes you more the person that God created you to be.
So when we celebrate All Saints’ Day, we are not only celebrating those who have gone before us, although them too. We are also celebrating those among us, perhaps including ourselves, who are “The saints in Brixton”. There aren’t all that many of us, but if we truly become who we could be in Jesus, if we are truly dedicated to being His person, then I reckon we could make more of a difference than we think. Amen.