The Rev'd Richard Coles is a parish priest and public broadcaster whom you may have heard on my favourite Radio Station...good old Radio 4 (or what some people still call 'The Home Service!'. He has published a book called 'The Loves of the Improbable Saints', in which he has written up stories about some of the strange people who have been made Saints by the Catholic Church.
For example, have you ever heard of St Ronald of Buckingham? Apparently, he was born into the world like any normal baby, and immediately preached an amazing sermon....before promptly dying. Then there's a favourite of mine - St Theophilus the Myrrh-Gusher. Its a great name isn't it? It refers to the belief that the bodies of certain martyred saints have the ability to ooze a sweet smelling liquid from their wounds.
I've got a few other favourites...there is St Drogo, the patron saint of unattractive people. There's St Isodore, who in the 1980s was designated the patron saint of the Internet, because he was well known as a scholar and compiler of information. Can you imagine the scene in Heaven when God tells a particular saints that the Catholic Church has just designated him as the patron of something or other? "I'm the Patron Saint of WHAT?!"
Personally, I'm particularly drawn to St Anthony of Padua...who is the patron saint of lost causes! And then there's the number one weird saint of all time...the Patron Saint of finding a parking place. Apparently, in New York, car drivers circling a block can be heard muttering this prayer: "Mother Cabrini, Mother Cabrini - find me a space for my driving machiny."
Richard Coles says that whilst all these Saints might be jolly good fun for us, there is a grain of truth in many of them. Sometimes, saints become patron saints because of the terrible things they were made to suffer for their faith in Christ. So, for example, St Apollonia is the patron saint of Dentists, because she had all her teeth extracted as a punishment for believing in Jesus. I could tell you a lot more horror stories...but its a bit early in the morning for that!
So, why do we celebrate All Saints? Is it perhaps a feast in honour Southampton Football Club...which, as some of you may know started life as the All Saints Church Soccer Team? No of course not. Besides, I don't get football at all. I've never really understood the attraction of watching 22 people run up and down a field with the sole object of getting a ball between two sticks. And what's all that business with protesting against the decision of referees? Have you ever seen a referee, with a frustrated player up in his face about a red card suddenly change his mind at put the card away again? Why do they bother?
No, the festival of All Saints is nothing about football, and very little about silly or funny patron saints. Rather it is a reminder to us that we are members of a church which is both here on earth, and also in heaven. The Bible refers to all Christian believers as Saints. It's a term which we can all own, if we are followers of Christ. Hmm...St Tom of Portsmouth....has a bit of ring to it?
The Church has always taught that we are members of not just a world-wide church, but a Universal one. We, here on earth are known as the Church Militant, and those Saints who have died and now live with God are called the Church Triumphant. In the same way that we pray for each other here on earth, the Church teaches that we should also pray for those who have died, and that they pray for us. That is why many churches have icons...pictures of Saints in heaven, whom we can ask to pray for us, as we continue to pray for them.
Our two readings today remind us that, as the Bible says, God is the God of the living, and of the dead. The dead are held by him, in his love, until the great end of days that we all hope for. Our first reading, from the book of Revelation, paints a picture of the end of the world, when the whole of humanity, living and dead will be united before God...when God fashions a new heaven and new earth...where death is no more, and where there will be no more crying or pain. Its a wonderful vision, isn't it? Some people take the underlying theme of Revelation quite literally - they believe it to be a sure and certain prophesy that the world will end, and that God will intervene to stop all the slaughter and the hatred. And why not? Personally, I'm not quite so sure...I tend to see the visions of Revelation as poetry which points us towards a spiritual reality that we can claim today. God is already with us. In Jesus, God has already made his home with mortals. For those who truly trust in him, whether they be alive or dead, there need be no more mourning, or crying or pain.
But I am not here to tell you how to interpret Revelation. That's a task that you must take on for yourself, as part of your own discipleship. Incidentally, it's something that our Thursday night Bible Study will be thinking about in due course...and there are still some spaces available for those who would like to join us!
Our Gospel reading reminds us of the story of Lazarus, rising from his tomb at the command of Jesus. This is given to us, on All Saints Sunday, to remind us that God, in Jesus, has power over death itself. Strictly speaking, Lazarus was not 'resurrected'. Rather, he was re-vivified. He came back to life...but he would one day die again, at the end of his life. Resurrection is rather what happened first to Jesus. The Bible talks of Jesus as 'the first-born from the Dead'...and describes resurrection as a sort of new birth. Jesus' body was transformed by his resurrection. It was different, unrecognisable by those who knew him on earth, until they heard his voice, or recognised him in the Breaking of Bread. It was a new, eternal body...a body which will last for ever....and a body which the bible promises that we will also be given one day. We Saints. We who trust in Jesus.
And that's the crucial point. It is our trust in, and love for Jesus which makes us, and those who have died, Saints. It's nothing to do with what we have done in life; how much we've given or sacrificed. You don't have to be a martyr to be considered a Saint. All that is asked, by God, is that we trust in God...in his grace, and his mercy, and his love. You see, Jesus is the kind of referee to whom you can go and appeal. He might metaphorically hold up a red card, and there might be a real danger of being 'sent off'....but if we appeal to Jesus, telling him we are sorry, he is the one referee who would gladly put his card away, and say 'Play On'. He does that because of his Grace. He does it because of his mercy.
And because of Jesus, we are All Saints.
Russell is now going to sing a song that he has written for us. It's dedicated to St Mark's, and the words chime really well with what we've been thinking about.
Not by the Sword, not by the arm that Justice is begun,
but by His hand and by His light that Victory is won.
Not by our bows, not by are guns that hate is overcome,
But by His love and by His Truth that terror is over-run.
O Jesus' Vict'ry is won,
With Power and Truth is was done,
Our God is Lord of all,
His enemies they will fall.
Not by our words, not by our deeds that salvation is to come,
But by the grace and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God's Son.