Sermon for All Saints at All Saints
2 Esdras 2:42-48; Hebrews 12: 18-24; Matthew 5: 1-12
To be or not to be, that is the question. To be saints or not to be saints. To be saints in the making or to be saints who make other saints. But what is a saint and why should anyone want to be one? The writer of our Old Testament reading creates a wonderful picture of the saints gathered together in heaven and of the Son of God, unmistakable, in their midst. Like this writer, we should want people to ask: “Who is this young man?” For it has been said: “Saints are persons who make it easier for others to believe in God.”
This surely must be the calling of all Christians. We may not like idea of being “saints” very much, but we do have something wonderful and precious to share with a world that is now largely ignorant of it. Quite how ignorant was revealed in a recent survey commissioned by the Church, which discovered that 40% of people do not realise that Jesus was a real person who actually lived and one in four 18-34 year old thinks that Jesus was a mythical or fictional character. It came as something of a shock to read in the Daily Telegraph that Synod was advising Christians not to talk about their faith, as it did more harm than good. No doubt there are ways in which this is true. Talking about Jesus in the wrong way can be extremely off-putting – we can all bring to mind examples where, far from encouraging us who already have faith, certain speakers and context make us want to cringe and, even worse, refuse to come out into the arena ourselves. Not only this, but much of the language that we use can be extremely off-putting too. I love Hebrews and particularly the passage we heard today, but if you had no knowledge of the bible or thought that Jesus was a myth, what would you make of him as “the mediator of the new covenant” and “sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel”? And if you read the Daily Telegraph article on-line, as very many people will, what would you make of the photo that accompanies it of Synod members looking terminally bored with the whole proceeding!
Unfortunately, people will believe what they read or hear or see in the media, rather than bothering about the actual facts. I was a case to point – I nearly based this sermon on the idea of how saints should not be talking about Jesus, but then I thought that I’d better have a look at that report itself. Sure enough, it doesn’t say what a newspaper article suggests it does and I recommend the C of E booklet summarising the findings to you all. “Talking Jesus”, commissioned earlier this year, was a carefully screened sample of 2,545 English adults ages 18 and older, who are nationally representative by age, gender, region and socio-economic grade. Not a huge sample, but a statistically sound one. In the introduction, the purpose of this survey is described: “The power of the Holy Spirit was needed alongside the hard work of contextualising the gospel: not an institutional response but a people movement; something simple that enabled Christians to have millions more sensitive, positive, culturally-relevant conversations about Jesus that could be deeply effective in evangelism.” No argument with that! Nor with a number of the findings: (from snapshot) in fact only two of the key findings actually referred to negative aspects of sharing knowledge about Jesus.
Nonetheless, we do need to work on our communication and the way the language that we use conveys ideas. Take, for instance, the Beatitudes which I read this morning and which many Christians will know by heart. Just a minute – “Beatitudes? You’ve lost me there. Oh, it’s Latin, is it? Sorry, don’t speak Latin. Oh, the church used Latin a long time ago. Yeah, that’s interesting, but what’s it got to do with my life now?” And that is just thinking about the word, the technical term, never mind the implications of the Beatitudes themselves. For a start, it is easy to think that the Beatitudes are setting standards, targets we must reach or hurdles to get over before we can receive a blessing. Just a minute – “What exactly is a blessing, I mean you only say bless you when you sneeze, don’t you?” Even if we get over this idea and realise that Jesus is giving examples of ways in which blessing or happiness reaches us, the ways themselves are counter-intuitive. In real life, positivity, determination, ambition, competitiveness, skill, knowledge – these are the things that are thought to bring happiness and success. Jesus is recommending some strange qualities and we are hampered in understanding the full depth of these because English, which has a wide range of words with slightly different meanings, does not capture the contextual allusions of Greek and Hebrew. When it says those who mourn, for instance, the word translated comfort does not refer to the kind of comfort that does its work with hugs and hand-holding. Parakaleo offers comfort in the form of exhortation, of calling the mourner out of immobility into action. It can also refer to the “calling” that comes to a witness in court: witnesses are called to speak the truth straightforwardly. Similarly the Greek word translated “meek” can have a positive sense of "humble" or "gentle," but it can also have the negative sense "humiliated" or we might say, "the walked-on," "the doormats," "the powerless." They "inherit" their blessing. It is not a reward that one earns, but a gift for which one must wait. The gift of what they are lacking because they have not been given their share of the earth. They have been denied access to the world's resources and have not had opportunity to enjoy the creation that God intended for all people. And a third example: "Mercy" (eleos) can have quite a broad range of meanings – which all involve concrete acts rather than just an attitude. It can mean "to forgive sins." A related word refers to the giving of money to the poor. Showing mercy can mean "to heal those who are sick or those possessed by demons."
All of this suggests that saints are not just required to talk. The Beatitudes are about what our actions should be – deeds speak louder than words. So what about this definition of sainthood: "In New Testament usage, saints are those who aspire to the holiness of the Holy God whom they serve. Because the Holy Spirit dwells within them, they too are made holy. A saint, therefore, is one who reflects the sanctity of the God he or she serves." Certainly the Follow initiative in our own diocese and in our parishes (Thursday 12 November: Conference Room, Hereford Diocesan Office 6pm) is seeking right ways, in word and deed, to connect with people around us. It is a huge task, but we should not be daunted. Christianity started with twelve men and a few women, saints in action. The conclusion of the report says: “What this study reveals is that people are far more open than we might realise. After we’ve had conversations with non-Christians about Jesus, one in five of them is open to finding out more about him. The majority of people in this country still identify themselves as Christian, although they are not practising. The people who know us like us. They think we are caring, good-humoured and friendly. They are open to us and they’re open to Jesus. So we need to talk about him: to more people, more often, and more relevantly. The research shows that so many of us are already talking about Jesus. We are not ashamed of the gospel, despite some of us feeling ill-equipped to talk to our not-yet Christian friends and family members about Jesus. Let’s encourage our congregations to prioritise talking about Jesus to our friends and family – one in five of them is open to him.”
Saints are there to be made – they just need help to get started. And to return to that question of what is a saint, here are two final definitions to think about: “Saint: a dead sinner revised and edited,” and “A saint is one who makes goodness attractive.”