All Saints Sunday

Where were you on the eleventh of September? I don’t mean on 9/11 (or, as I maintain it should be, 11/9) – I mean the eleventh of September 2011 (11/11/11)? 

If you were in church here on that day you would have heard these words, not once but twice: “ The re are different kinds of gifts but the same spirit. There are different kinds of service but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working but the same God works all of them in all men”.

Why do I repeat those words now? Well, when I was asked to speak this morning I wasn’t just given, as is usual, the date; I was also given a subject. That subject was All Saints, because today is All Saints Sunday, a precursor to All Saints Day on Tuesday. I thought those words - which come from 1 Corinthians 12 - are particularly apt when thinking about the Saints. Why and what actually is a Saint?

There seem to be two quite distinct definitions of the word Saint. One of them, rather straightforwardly, defines a Saint as “a person who has died and gone to heaven”. Well OK but when we think of a Saint I suspect most of us tend to think, as the other definition states, of “a person officially recognised, especially by Canonisation, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding for people on earth”.

We could be here a long time discussing the theology and idea behind those quite different definitions so, instead, I turned to help to a website for a definition of All Saints Day and it said this: “All Saints Day is the day Christians give thanks for all the good people God has placed in their lives, especially those who are already with God in heaven”. It went on to say “It is not because people are special in and of themselves that we call them Saints but it is because they are ordinary, everyday people who allow the Holy Spirit to work through them, doing the mighty deeds of the Lord”.

I think that helps us get straight to the heart of the business of Saints and what they are all about: ordinary, everyday people. If we allow the Holy Spirit to work through us to do the Lord’s deeds, that means you and me; we are Saints!

I don’t know about you but I don’t go around particularly thinking of myself as a Saint. If somebody said “Saint” to me, I think of the likes of St Peter or St Paul; major disciples or followers of Christ and his teachings; evangelisers; apostles; doers, recognised across the nations or across time.

Yet let’s not forget that first definition - “a person who has died and gone to heaven” - because what pinpoints Sainthood isn’t only, or even necessarily, about doing great deeds for the whole world or becoming exalted globally. It really is about letting the Holy Spirit work through us: turning our skills or talents, or learning new ones, to do God’s will here on earth.

That work doesn’t necessarily have to be recognised publicly or even seen publicly. If, for example, we are praying for a sick relative or friend, that probably goes totally unseen or unknown - but not by God. We are on the path to Sainthood. If we are using the gifts God has given us to serve the Lord, again we are on the path to Sainthood.

Of course, we are all different. “There are different kinds of gifts but the same spirit. There are different kinds of service but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working but the same God works all of them in all men”. Do you see now why I thought those words were so apt for this Sunday? They describe the millions of faithful Christians who have gone before us; who have died and gone to heaven. Humble folk, doing necessary tasks; people, perhaps, subjected to appalling suffering yet who retain the grace of Christian witness. We heard about them in the reading from Revelation this morning: “They are before the throne of God and serve Him day and night. Never again will they hunger or thirst”.

We heard it in our Gospel reading too: Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are those who mourn; blessed are the meek; those who hunger; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; those who are persecuted, for they will - all - see God. If we are like them, we are Saints.

Fr Benson once wrote “The Saints are not those who have done the most for Jesus but those who have suffered Jesus to do the most for them”. Martin Luther once said “ The Holy Scriptures call Christians Saints and people of God. To forget that we are Saints is to forget Christ and to forget our Baptism”.

Incidentally, there are no less than 98 references to Saints in the Bible and two similar ones in 2 Corinthians and Philippians which say “All the Saints salute you”. So it is not all one-way traffic!

What about that second definition: “a person officially recognised as being entitled to public veneration”? How can we ever aspire to be somebody like that? Can we aspire to be somebody like that? How can the person who says “I am a sinner” even get on the threshold of Sainthood? How can we, with all our faults, ever compare ourselves to the likes of those great, revered Saints like St Peter and St Paul?

Well, let us look at a few Saints:

Ordinary people, doing ordinary things; sometimes not very nice things.  

The point is, all of them were transformed by Jesus; by his presence, his teachings, his legacy. Whatever happened in the past is wiped clean. That same kind of transformation can come to anybody who follows Jesus. What did John say in the second reading? “Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself”  

So, on this All Saints Sunday, let us remember all those countless Christians who have persevered; kept the faith and have died and gone to heaven. Let us remember too those officially recognised and venerated and let us remember what some of them once were or once did and how they were transformed by Jesus. Let us also remember this:   

    Every Saint has a past

    Every sinner has a future.

© Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire June 2016

This sermon was originally delivered in the church of St Mary the Virgin, Maulden, Bedfordshire on 30 October, 2011