Tuesday, November 09, 2021

The Feast of All Saints

Here is the transcript of my latest podcast for All Saints'.

The Feast of All Saints

This podcast is for All Saints’. All Saints’ Day proper is on November 1 each year, but it has become the practice in the Church to celebrate All Saints’ on the Sunday nearest to it. Ironically, this year the Sunday nearest to it was October 31. As Facebook Group members will know, in some churches, October 31 is also celebrated as Reformation Sunday.

This is because the European Reformation of the 16th century is traditionally seen as having officially had its beginning on All Saints’ Eve in 1517 when a monk called Martin Luther, as it is commonly believed, nailed 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Luther’s protest set in motion a series of events that has resulted in the present division amongst the churches.

The irony of celebrating Reformation Sunday and All Saints’ on the same day lies in the fact that the Protestant reformers, such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, were all in their day somewhat negative about honouring the saints. Their descendants today are even more so!

It is common in many Protestant churches to hear sermons explaining how, biblically, all believers are saints and that it is wrong for us to apply this title to only a select group of people.

Today, Catholic believers certainly accept that all believers are saints, in the biblical sense of the word, but they also believe that it is right to use the word in a special sense to refer to those who are recognised as having lived lives of exemplary faithfulness, service, and holiness.

For example, the English word ‘sir’ can be used to address all males as well as serving as a title for a select group of them. So too with the word saint. It can refer to all God’s people and as a title for those who are part of a distinct group within them. This dual meaning of the word is surely something it should be possible for us all to accept.

It is interesting that, while they are suspicious of Catholic attitudes to the saints, many Protestant believers, are, nevertheless, generally willing, even keen, to acknowledge those followers of Christ whose life and witness has been outstanding. Again, as I said in the Facebook Group, there is an irony in the way some of those most opposed to honouring the saints substitute their own heroes for them instead. Protestants, for example, often give far more attention to the Protestant reformers of the 16th century than many Catholics give to the saints.

For most of us, however, I imagine that our attitude to the saints is neither one of opposition nor of enthusiasm, but of indifference. We don't much care one way or the other. The saints play very little part in our lives. We have more than enough to worry about already. This attitude, I think, is a mistake. I want, then, to try to explain why I think we should take the saints more seriously than perhaps we do.

To begin I would like to make some observations on being a follower of Jesus.

St Teresa of Avila likened being a follower of Jesus in this world to spending a ‘bad night in a bad hotel’ (The Way of Perfection, chapter 40). Now St Teresa has much more to say about following Jesus than a sound bite taken from her writing. She is, however, reminding us that being a follower of Jesus in this world is hard and difficult, and that we should not expect it to be easy.

Firstly, for us as individuals, being a follower of Jesus is certainly not easy. It is not easy because it doesn't come naturally. We have doubts about God and about our faith. We have struggles against our weakness and sin. We find it hard to find time to pray and study God’s word, and then, even when we do, we don't know where to begin.

Secondly, not only is being a follower of Jesus not easy in and of itself, it is made all the more difficult because of the opposition we often encounter from the world around us. Jesus warned his disciples that they would experience trouble in the world (John 16:33). They would, Jesus said, be unpopular. They would be rejected. They would be persecuted. They would even be killed. While we personally may not experience the physical persecution that people have faced in the past, and indeed still do in parts of our world, we certainly do face hostility to our faith and often ridicule for believing in it. Many church members are as a result embarrassed to be known as followers of Christ.

Thirdly, knowing what to believe and how to apply our faith in our lives and to the issues we face on a daily basis can be both difficult and confusing. The temptation simply to conform to the world’s way of thinking is very great. Knowing what to think and how to think as a follower of Christ is itself a challenge. How are we to know what is right in the different moral decisions we have to make? How does God wants us to live and raise our families in a world that does not share our faith?

Now sometimes we are told by other believers that we have the example of Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so what more do we want? At first this sounds a very spiritual attitude to take; it is, in fact, both mistaken and arrogant. Christ has made us members of his body, the Church, and the Church is there to give us the support we need to follow Christ. St Paul, in 1 Corinthians, describes how we are baptized into one body and as one body in Christ are all members together (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). We need one another.

Now there is much that we can learn from each other and from our leaders and teachers in the Church. We can support and pray for one another, but we all, church leaders and teachers included, have our own struggles and difficulties too.

This is where the saints come marching in!

Those the Church recognises in a special way as saints are believers who had the same struggles and difficulties as us, but who through the grace of God found a way through them and learned how to overcome them. The saints have been there before and know what it is like. They can now serve as our teachers and guides.

For example, if you are visiting a new place (when we were able to do such things), you can, of course, just go and hope for the best. You can find your own way around, enjoying the sights as you come across them. Alternatively, you can buy a guidebook or register for a guided tour. This doesn't prevent you from making your own discoveries, but it can help prevent you getting lost or missing something that you wouldn't otherwise have seen. What is more, it enables you to go deeper and understand more about the place you are visiting and the sights you are seeing.

The writer to the Hebrews speaks of the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that we are surrounded by, whom we can look to for encouragement and whom we can learn from (Hebrews 12:1). St Paul in Ephesians describes how Christ when he ascended gave gifts. His gifts were that some would be ‘apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers’ (Ephesians 4:4-12). Christ's gifts to us are not simply the gifts of the Spirit that we normally think of when we talk of spiritual gifts; the people who receive spiritual gifts are themselves also God’s gifts to us.

St Paul wrote to believers that they should imitate him and follow his example (1 Corinthians 4:16, 11:1; Philippians 3:17). The saints too are a gift from God to the church. Not only can we learn from their life and their teaching, they also serve as role models for us to imitate and follow in the same way St Paul himself was an example for those who knew him to imitate and follow.

In the Book of Revelation, St John has a vision of heaven and sees there those who have died in the faith of Christ. The saints in heaven are described by St John, so that those he is writing to in the seven churches of Asia can know what God looks for in the life of believers. St John wants to offer encouragement to the believers in their life and witness for the Gospel. St John writes of the victory over the devil of the saints now in heaven:

‘And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.’ (Revelation 12:11)

Those the Church recognises as saints often faced great obstacles and opposition as they followed Christ, and many suffered martyrdom. The saints show us how we can overcome obstacles and opposition as we too seek to be faithful to Christ. The saints encourage us to see that we are not alone and that even in the darkest moments when the opposition to the Church and to our faith seems to be at its strongest, victory is possible by trusting in Christ.

As I have said many times now, the constant message of the world we live in is that we should focus on ‘self’. This means, firstly, discovering our own identity and being true to ourself. It is, we are told, for us to decide who we are and who we want to be, and it is up to us to realize our potential. Secondly, it means getting the most out of this life and following our dreams. And thirdly, it means demonstrating we matter by ‘making a difference’ and leaving something of ourselves for people to remember us by when we die.

This is a message which we are bombarded with. You find it everywhere: from the seats of power to places of learning; it is all over social media and intrinsic to every form of entertainment. It finds expression in many ways, but it is easily summarized: ‘It’s all about me and I can do it.’

The saints, however, tell us another story. The saints tell us, ‘It’s all about God and we can't do it.’ Instead of the way that we are urged to take by the world around us, the saints direct us to a different way.

Firstly, by their life and example, the saints teach us that we are not put here to be ourself, but to be who God wants us to be. God has shown us what that looks like in Christ, and the saints show us how to become more Christ-like. Secondly, the saints teach us that the Gospel is not about getting all we can out of this life and following our dreams, but doing God’s will and following Christ in the hope of sharing hereafter in his life. Thirdly, the saints teach us it is not about demonstrating we matter by trying to leave something of ourselves behind for people to remember us by when we die, but sharing God's love through lives lived in the service of others whether we are remembered for doing so or not.

There is a great scene in the film: ‘A Man for All Seasons’. In it an ambitious man, Richard Rich, asks Sir Thomas Moore to help get him promoted to an influential position.

Sir Thomas Moore asks him, ‘Why not be a teacher? You'd be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.’ Richard Rich answers, ‘If I was, who would know it?’ Sir Thomas Moore replies, ‘You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.’

Richard Rich refuses to listen and finds preferment another way.

We long for fame, power, and glory; the saints encourage us to pursue faithfulness, service, and holiness.

As we celebrate All Saints’, I would like to think that what I have said about the saints is something all believers can share and believe in. Many believers, however, also believe that while the saints may have left this world, they are very much alive in Christ and are praying with Christ for us and for God’s Kingdom to come.

What is more, many also believe we can ask the saints in heaven to pray for us and that we can bring our prayer requests to them. For those who believe this, the saints offer us more than their teaching and an example of faithfulness, service, and holiness. They are partners with us as we seek to follow Christ.

St Catherine of Siena said to those who were close to her that she could do more for them by dying and going to be with Christ than she could by remaining with them.

Now I realise that the idea of the saints praying for us, and even more of asking them to pray for us, is for many believers quite simply a step too far. And if you don't want to take that step then don't worry. You can, of course, ask me and other believers to pray for you.

But let me ask: if it is OK to ask me or other believers to pray for you, why not ask the saints? As a Church, when we say the Apostles’ Creed, we say we believe in the ‘communion of saints’. The word ‘saint’ here is used in the sense of everyone who has faith in Christ, including, but not limited to, those we refer to as saints in a special way. However, it does refer to all the saints, both those in this world and those who are now with Christ.

Whether we ask the saints to pray for us or not is not something that we should divide and fall out over. That would not be honouring the saints. The way we should all unite in honouring the saints is by making sure that we don't miss out on what we can learn from their lives and teaching.

So let us honour God by honouring those in whom he is glorified and who gained the victory by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony.

And we do that most when we follow their example and seek to glorify Christ in our own lives.