Preached 2 November 2003 at St James Bolton, Bradford.
So … did you get any unwelcome visitors on Thursday evening? Children in lurid face-masks, posing as devils or Draculas or skeletons and demanding money with menaces … “Trick or treat!” For Thursday evening was, of course, 31 October … Halloween … which is short for All Hallows Evening and which precedes 1 November, All Hallows Day or “All Saints Day” as we now call it. To “hallow” is simply to saint-ify or sanctify something … to make something holy, or to keep something holy. Which is why we say to God in the old version of the Lord’s Prayer, “Hallowed be thy name” … “May your name be kept holy.” Well more of that in a moment, but first let me say a word or two about the Festival itself. Why do we have an All Saints Day which is celebrated throughout the church on the nearest Sunday to 1 November?
Well simply because, in the first 300 years of the life of the church, so many Christians were put to the sword, or thrown to the lions, or used as human torches, by a succession of Roman Emperors, that from the third century onward the Church set aside special days to honour them. Our first reading was about the “great multitude” of martyrs in heaven “that no man could number” who had come out of “the great tribulation”. Well, in the seventh century, Pope Gregory the Third decreed that one fixed day should be set apart to remember that great multitude of martyrs … 1 November … All Saints Day. But then, in the 10th Century, Odela, the abbot of Cluny monastery, muddied the waters somewhat. He argued that because All Saints Day was, strictly-speaking, only for the commemoration of those who had died for their faith, the church needed another Festival to honour those who, though Christians, had not died for their faith. So he invented All Souls Day as a festival for 2 November, the day after All Saints Day.
We shall draw no such distinction this morning. Rather we shall concentrate on this one word “saints” and what it might mean and what encouragement we might draw from it.
The first thing to say, of course, is that the word “saint” is one that is in quite common use … even by those who have no particular religious beliefs. How many times have you done someone a favour and had them turn round and tell you: “Oh, you are a saint”? How many times have you mentioned someone who is well-known for their goodness and heard the stock-response: “Oh, she’s a real saint, isn’t she?”? People call a well-behaved child “a little saint”. And often they’ll call a mild-mannered old person a “saintly soul”. And it’s commonly agreed that a woman who stands by her slob of a husband is a “saint for putting up with him.” But what does the New Testament mean by the word? Does it use it in the way that Joe Ordinary uses it, to mark-out someone as special in terms of their goodness, patience, gentleness or whatever?
Well, no it doesn’t. And now prepare to be surprised, for although the terms “saints” is to be found 57 times in the New Testament, the word “saint”, in the singular, is never, ever found there. In other words, New Testament usage is quite the opposite of our usage. We use the singular word “saint” to single out a particular person as being exceptionally good — more godly or more holy or more virtuous than the rest of us. But the New Testament uses only the plural word “saints” to stress the sameness of all those who belong to Christ. When it talks about any bunch of believers anywhere, it calls them just one of two things … “the church” or “the saints”.
“As Peter travelled about the country, he went to visit the saints in Lydda” (Acts 9.32). “Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem” (Romans 15.26). “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia” (2 Cor 1.1). “Greet all the saints in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me send greetings. All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household” (Phil 4.21-22). And perhaps most importantly this in 1 Corinthians 6.2: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases?”
Here, Paul is calling the Christians in Corinth “saints” yet the very people he is describing in that way were, by Paul’s own account, some of the very worst Christians you were ever likely to meet. They had orgies, they fought, they took each other to court, they committed incest, they turned holy communion into a booze-up. And yet Paul calls them “saints”. Amazing! But no, not really … because, for them as for all other Christians, he is simply using the term he normally uses to describe people who belong to Jesus.
Alright … but, given that the Corinthians were such a bad lot, and given that Christians in general, even in Paul’s day, tended to get things wrong just as often as they got them right, and tended to spend just as much time falling from grace as walking in it, why use the term “saints” to describe believers in the first place? Why not call them “flunkers, floppers, blobbers”? “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the blobbers in Ephesus.”
Very simply … because even if stumbling and falling and failing is what Christians do, the term “saints” describes what all Christians truly are … even Christians of the Corinthian sort.
The word translated “saints” is hagioi and its root-meaning is simply “a people set apart”. And for Paul, who uses this term more than any other New Testament writer, that setting apart is always for something rather than from something. And the something for which all Christians are “set apart” is in fact the great Someone who is God. “Saints” are people set apart for God.
And who does the setting apart? Why, God himself, of course. That is where the main thrust of this word “saints” lies. It is a word that underlines God’s sovereign choice of each one of us to be part of his people. In common parlance, “saints” puts all the emphasis on man … on the virtues of the people being described, but in the New Testament, “saints” puts all the emphasis on God, the one who sets aside a people for himself. Can you remember the old fashioned cameras where you had to set the focus by hand? Turn the ring one way and the person in the front is clear but the one in the background is a blur. Turn the ring the other way and the person in the background is clear while the person in the foreground is fuzzy. Well, when the New Testament says “saints” the focus is always on the one in the background … the God who makes the saints.
Before we were born he knew us. He chose us (says Paul) before the foundation of the world. He looked down through the centuries and saw us as babies, children, teenagers, adults … laughing, crying, learning to assert ourselves, to manipulate and control the world around us, following our sinful desires, ignoring him, failing to be what he made us to be. But he did not give up on us. While here, in the future, we were yet sinners, there in the past, 2000 years ago, Christ died for us. God so loved us that he sent his only son into the world and that only son stretched out his arms on a cross for us … to claim us as God’s own.
And throughout the centuries God has sent his messengers. And now, through this person and that, in this way and that, he speaks to us. He guides our paths. He brings us to hear his good news. He whispers his words of love to us. And we respond in faith … itself a gift from God … and then, as heaven rejoices, our setting apart for God becomes a reality. From now on we are his. We are part of “all the saints” … all the “set-apart ones” that this day commemorates and celebrates.
But though the central thrust of the word “saints” is God’s activity in choosing us, saving us, and binding us to himself, the word does contain a challenge which we cannot ignore. For anything that is set apart for God (even if God himself does the setting apart) must necessarily be as special as it can possibly be. Look at the care lavished on this church every week by the little army of people who so faithfully dust and polish and scrub and hoover and flower arrange and garden and so on. Did you ever see brass gleam like this? Carpets be as clean? And why? It is because the brass and the carpets, the pews, the flowers are “holy” things … things set apart for God. And just the fact that that is what they are carries within it the demand that they will “live up” to their high calling. Be the best that they can be.
And so, belatedly, I come to our Gospel for today. The beatitudes. For if “saints” are what we are, then here surely is a description of what we shall be … as we “live up to” our high calling. Poor in spirit … knowing the true depth of our own inadequacy, knowing our great need, our utter dependence on God. Mourners … grieving over the absence of God in our own lives, in our street, our city, our land, our world. Meek … refusing to assert ourselves, demand our rights, being ready to leave our case and our cause in the hands of God.
Hungering and thirsting for righteousness … longing to be totally free from selfishness and sin, wanting justice for the oppressed. Merciful … treating with leniency and compassion and generosity those we feel inclined to punish and hurt. Pure in heart … single-minded in our devotion to God, free from all dirtiness and deceit, all posturing and pretence. Peacemakers … bringing reconciliation and harmony between man and God and man and man in every place, in every situation. And being persecuted for the sake of righteousness … taking whatever flack comes for being “saintly” in character, “saintly” in word and deed.
Have I just described you? No? I mean, I know I haven’t just described me. But maybe I’ve described what you would like to be. Yes? And I’ve certainly described what I would like to be. But I’ll tell you what else I have described. I have described Jesus himself. He and he alone is the only one ever to have been truly poor in spirit, a mourner, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker, persecuted for righteousness sake. And because a saint is, by definition, someone set apart for God who has Jesus in his heart and life. So we have within us, by his Spirit, one who, as we surrender more and more of our lives to him, can cause us to “live up” to our sainthood … to become what we are.
Someone has said that we identify saints in stained glass windows only because the light shines through them. And the great theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich has said much the same thing. “The saint is a saint, not because he is ‘good’ but because he is transparent for something that is more than he himself is.” In other words, we are most truly on our way to becoming the saints that we are when we become transparent enough for the Jesus within us to shine through in all his beatitude-perfection.
The beatitudes are frequently misunderstood. They are not laws to be obeyed. They are not an eight-rung ladder to salvation. They are a portrait of Jesus himself, and a portrait too of how his people will be when he has finished with them. You and me both. Saints in name, saints in nature.
And it is that kind of sainthood that we celebrate today — what the Apostle’s Creed (not the one we shall use today) calls the “communion of saints”. That blessed oneness in Christ of all those set apart by God and for God, living and dead, perfect and not yet perfect. And that communion of saints is part of the great holy communion that we participate in this morning at the Lord’s table. Here, wonder of wonders, saints on earth meet with saints in heaven as Jesus, the one who is head over all, presides at the heavenly feast and extends to each of us the cup of his salvation and the bread of his glorious grace … that salvation and grace on which the sainthood of everyone of us depends.