Sermon preached at St James, Colwall, All Saints Day 2015 at 08.30
Revelation 7.2-12; Matthew 5.1-12
On All Saints Day, Christians’ thoughts turn to our most outstanding predecessors in the faith. If you were asked to come up with a list of saints, I imagine you’d come up with a list of well-known names – St James for one, of course. You’d probably want to add as many apostles as you could remember and then you would surely want to put St Paul on your list, the evangelists St Luke and St Mark and so on. If you seriously wanted to make a list of saints, you could look in the Lectionary and find people there as diverse as St Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, or the famous mystic St Catherine of Siena. There are thousands of such names, each with her or his own story. St Paul makes the picture even more diverse by addressing some of his church members as saints – and yet they were probably people just like you and me, rather than great heroes of the faith. All of which prompts the question: what is distinctive about saints? What do they have in common?
I want to offer you an answer to that question which may surprise you. The answer I offer lies in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s such a well-known text. Many of us recite it every day – so much so that its depths of meaning may sometimes elude us. In the gospels, the Lord’s Prayer appears in St Matthew and St Luke. It’s possible that St Luke’s is an earlier version: it ends (not where we end it) with the phrase “do not lead us into temptation”. St Matthew adds what may be an explanatory phrase: “do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil”. But let me offer you a more literal translation of the original Greek text. “Do not bring us to the time of trial (but rescue us from evil / from the evil one)”. This “time of trial” may not initially mean much in Colwall this week, but it means everything today to a Christian in, say, Iraq or Yemen or China or Pakistan. Christians in St Paul’s time also knew what it meant. You have to remember that those early Christians were believed to be dangerous political dissidents and sources of immoral behaviour. They were looking for the coming of God’s domain – on earth and in heaven – and so were not willing to accept that the Roman Empire corresponded to God’s will for the world. So they had to expect that there would be trouble: they could not back down from their belief that the world had to change, and that God would guide faithful Christians into and through inevitable conflict. That time of trial was bound to happen and, indeed, was a sign of the spiritual struggle between God and human evil. The oldest members of our congregations will not need reminding of that sense of confronting evil when the Allied Powers stood against the horrors of the Third Reich and the militaristic Empire of Japan. Those were indeed times of trial, though they are not the most recent. We live in a world where the will of our loving Creator and the will of errant human corporate and political systems are still in conflict. We see it writ large in the atrocities of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, but we must not blind ourselves to the evil that even democratically elected governments can do to the powerless, voiceless people of their own or other nations. There are times of trial in our own society today, where Christians and other people of goodwill are required to speak out. The saints pray not to be led into the time of trial, as Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, but they know that sometimes a time of trial cannot be avoided, that it must be faced. They pray then that they are not overcome by the evil they confront, but are delivered by a loving parent and creator. Brothers and sisters, as we say the Lord’s Prayer after this Communion, we will join our voices with the saints who have gone before us. “Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from evil."