This is an interesting time of the year; for some it’s quite difficult. The clocks changed last week and the evenings now draw in around us. The Church celebrates All Saints’ Day (technically last Wednesday, 1st November) and, the day after, All Souls’ Day. Next week we will watch the poignant Remembrance Day ceremonies and think of all those who have lost their lives due to violence, war and terror. Those who are bereaved find this time of year difficult and the run up to Christmas can heighten that sense of loss.
However, as Christians we believe that death is not the end and the twin festivals of All Saints’ and All Souls can play their part in reminding us of the hope of resurrection to a New Heaven and a New Earth that our first hymn described and which we cling to in the face of loss and bereavement.
Since the earliest days of the Church we’ve had to wrestle with the reality of death and the hope of resurrection to the New Heaven and New Earth described in the book of Revelation.
We discussed and thought, a little earlier, about the concept of saints and said that in the earliest Church martyrs were automatically recognised as saints. Our first reading, from Revelation, is clearly where the Earliest Church received this idea from – here the great multitude of saints from every nation are those who were the persecuted and martyred ones who now sing praise to God.
Revelation is a rather challenging book and one that we often shy away from reading or trying to interpret because:
- it addresses a reality that those of us in the West don’t face – persecution. The book was written when Christians faced the reality of oppression and martyrdom – at least sporadically because of their beliefs.
- it uses imagery and a style of writing which is rather uncomfortable to read and many of those who have tried to interpret this book often end up teaching rather odd doctrines.
- it critiques Empire. The Roman Empire was a mixed blessing for the Church. Its internal communications, peace and order made it easy to travel to spread the Gospel, but the Empire was, as all Empires are, unjust.
So, let’s look at each of these areas of discomfort to see what progress we can make in our reading of the passage.
Thankfully we live in safety and security in the UK. No one is bothered by our ethnicity, religion, political opinion, sexuality or gender. From the perspective of history, we’re living in an unusual time; our forebears in the churches that led to the formation of the URC experienced discrimination and persecution because of their understanding of Christianity.
We’re also unusual in terms of our world. In the West, we live in security with the rule of law, liberal democracies and wealth which insulates us from the cruel realities of the world. People are persecuted for their faith, their political opinions, their gender, and how they love in many parts of the world; a tiny number of these people manage to flee here for sanctuary. So perhaps this passage can give hope to those who live with persecution. Perhaps its promise of a future of freedom is one they can hold on to and perhaps this vision is one we can work to bring about.
There is a paradox in the Book of Revelation. Most Christians are rather wary of it, many non-Christians are fascinated by it! There is a wealth of material on the internet and in films which seek to interpret this or that passage in Revelation and to find some meaning or prophecy for how our world will go. Most Christians – possibly because of some very strange interpretations that are around – tend to shy away from the book. I think we make a mistake to do this – especially when many in wider society are fascinated by it. What we need to bear in mind, and communicate, is that this book relies heavily on the writer’s imagination. We’re drawn into his world and his world was dangerous. He uses imagery to obscure his meaning but much of what he meant is crystal clear.
The writer sketches an image, in this passage, of the saints being safe with the Lord – safe to love, safe to worship. Later in the Book he casts the image of the New Heaven and the New Earth which will come where all will live with the Lord without fear and where death and sickness and mourning and crying will be no more. The saints have the privilege of being the forerunners of what we will all experience in due course. It’s a book of comfort.
It’s easy to be critical of empires when we live in a country which no longer has one! The Jewish people at the time of the New Testament were precarious citizens of the Roman Empire. They were, just about, tolerated but they were the only religious group that were tolerated. Everyone else had to be part of the Imperial polytheistic cult. Christians at first managed to stay under the radar and to be yet another Jewish sect but as gentiles came into the Church and didn’t want to take on the Jewish identity of the Church and as the Synagogue became more and more wary of the Church there was a parting of the ways. The Church was persecuted for two reasons. First it didn’t take part in the Imperial cult and was seen as anti-social but more vitally, it was persecuted because it made some surprising claims. The Roman Empire found its stability and identity in the person of the Emperor. Caesar was Lord. All prosperity, health and safety was bound up, in Roman thinking with the Emperor who was, often, declared to be a god after he died – a process not unlike the contemporary declarations that someone has been judged to be a saint!
Yet Christianity offers a very different view of the world order. Salvation belongs to God not Caesar; all other imperial claimants have been dethroned – or at least spiritually defeated. In our context that means the powers and dominions that seek to rule our world for their own ends, the people who seek to enrich themselves at the expense of others, the social systems that seek only to increase the division between rich and poor will be dethroned, judged and found wanting. The saints, the persecuted ones, understood this and their loyalty to Jesus, not Caesar, cost them their lives.
There is, however, a pitfall we need to avoid in looking at Revelation and its promise of resurrection into the New Heaven and the New Earth. Revelation offers hope of a better world but that better world seems to be the next one. It seems to be a new realm far beyond the cruel realities of our world so we might conceive of salvation to mean an escape from this life, from this world in all its despair, degradation, injustice and oppression. Many people who are poor and marginalised often think like this. Yet this otherworldliness is rather good news for those in power. It legitimizes the status quo. It’s easy for the powerful to buy into the pie-in-the-sky promise of a new world as they keep their power and their wealth in the here-and-now. It isn’t a sign of sainthood to opt out of the struggle for a better world. It isn’t holy to ignore the needs of those around us. As Fred Pratt Green, in the hymn we sung earlier, while reminds us that some saints are those “who march with events to turn them God’s way.” True sanctity calls the world to judgement. True holiness reminds people that Jesus is Lord and that means there is a judgement and accounting to come. True sainthood reminds the world who is in charge.
Everyday Sainthood – St Matthew 5
In his marvellous book, the Power and the Glory, Graham Greene followed the progress of the last priest in a particular state in Mexico during a period of persecution. The priest was a whisky priest – in other words he was an alcoholic. He also had a daughter from an illicit relationship. Despite his frailty and foibles, he travelled around from place to place, hearing confessions, celebrating mass, and baptising children. Eventually he was caught by the authorities. He refused to renounce his faith and, unlike another priest, Padre Jose, refuses to marry, accept a state pension, and settle down as a tame example of a reformed priest. So, towards the end of the book he was executed. As he approached his execution it occurred to the priest that it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. He realised (paradoxically as he’s being martyred and so will be declared a saint anyway) that it’s the little things in life that mark our holiness.
This surely is the point behind our Gospel reading from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus takes the everyday things of life – being poor, mourning, being meek, thirsting for justice, being merciful, being pure, being a peacemaker, suffering persecution, and being reviled and turning these into places of holiness. We are blessed when we realise we can encounter God in the everyday things of life – even the awful things like persecution and derision.
My problem with how much of the Church recognises saints is that it cleans them up and holds them up as heroic examples of faith. The whisky priest, it is implied, will become a saint but the version of his life the Church will promulgate won’t bear much resemblance to his reality. The Church must make people safe and, in so doing, makes them very different to us. Yet the saints are just like you and me; they were grumpy, they struggled to follow Jesus in the everyday things of life and many of them we probably wouldn’t like very much. Those who were truly revolutionary – like the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero – disturb the Church almost as much as the elite who had him killed.
Revelation urges us to look for a better world but, Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, shows how to make that better world in the here and now.
Our hope of resurrection, however, does not mean that we need to glorify the suffering in our world. Those who are persecuted, beaten, raped and despised need to find the strength in God to resist their oppression and to find salvation and wholeness now. This is to be found not in the glorification of their suffering but in finding the grace to put suffering to an end. The saints were, I think edgy people who disturbed the status quo. The saints of the earliest Church, and the Reformation, were so edgy that they were killed. Others, pushed the boundaries of what the Church was about and found ways to interpret the Gospel in their own contexts. Biblical sanctity will always disturb the status quo, will always look to the better world which is to come, and will view the struggles in our world for freedom and justice as part of the coming of the kingdom.
We know that our struggles for sanctity, our yearning for justice and righteousness, our desire for the New Heaven and the New Earth won’t come to fruition in our own life times. That promise is to come when we, and all God’s saints, will be raised to live a new life. This promise of resurrection, however, needs to spur us on now as we seek God’s face in our world, as we work to make His coming Kingdom of love and justice real. Surrounded by the saints as a great crowd of witnesses we can draw our inspiration from them as we obey Jesus’ command to follow him – just as they did.