1 John 3.1–3
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Those of you who have suffered my sermons for a few years will know that I always look forward to All Saint’s Day. It gives me an opportunity to rehearse my list of funny and quirky saints – most of which I have culled from a book by the priest and broadcaster, Richard Coles, called ‘Lives of the Improbable Saints’.
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 St Theophilus the Myrrh-Gusher. It’s a great name isn't it? It refers to the belief that the bodies of certain martyred saints secrete a sweet smelling liquid from their wounds. Apparently, St Theophilus’ body did just that, in copious amounts!
Then there's St Isodore, who in the 1980s was designated the patron saint of the Internet –because he was a scholar and compiler of information. I like to imagine the scene in Heaven when God told Isodore that the Church has just designated him as the patron of the internet? "I'm the Patron Saint of WHAT?!"
And then there's the number one weird saint of all time...the Patron Saint of finding a parking place - Saint Mother Cabrini. 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."
All these Saints are jolly good fun, but there is more than 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. And let’s not forget our own St Faith... roasted alive on a griddle-iron, for refusing to give up her Lord. I could tell you a lot more horror stories...but it’s a bit early in the morning for that!
So, All Saints is a good time to be reminded of extraordinary lives of the Saints who now ’from their labours rest’ - as we shall sing at the end of our service today. But are there saints among us now?
The Bible refers to all true believers as ‘saints’. So the answer to my question must be ‘yes…there are saints among us today’. There are, and must be, those who in the words of John’s first letter which we heard just now, are ‘children of God’. They are those who yearn and hope for the final revelation of Christ, so that they can become more and more like him. They are those who constantly seek to purify themselves, because Christ is pure.
Or, if you prefer, from Jesus’ lips in the Sermon on the Mount, the saints – the blessed ones - are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. They are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, the pure in heart.
But is that me? Is that you?
Our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox church have an insight to offer. They teach that all Christians have the potential to become so like Christ that they can become kinds of gods themselves. Orthodox theology calls that process ‘deification’ – and it’s a goal for which all of us are encouraged to strive.
But what does it look like, in practice? Much has been made recently of the sainthood of the medical profession, tirelessly exerting themselves on behalf of the COVID-suffering population. Other saints have been recognised by awards and honours – like Captain Sir Tom Moore, and Marcus Rashford MBE. And locally, our own wonderful Sandra Haggan, recently recognised by the Spring’s awards programme. Hmm…St Sandra. I like that!
But are saints measured by what they do? Yes, of course…to an extent. The true nature of our heart is often demonstrated by our actions. But what about those who cannot do anything? Is it possible to be a saint who is tied by illness to the hospital bed, or trapped at home by being shielded from COVID? Well, I want to say ‘yes’ to them too. Being a living saint is not just about what we do. It’s about who we are. To be a saint is to become more and more like God.
Well, here’s a way of thinking about an answer to that question. There’s been a thought winging its way around social media recently. It’s one of those ‘feel good’ sayings that we all encounter from time to time, which gets lots of people clicking ‘Like’. This particular one goes something like…
“I don’t care if you are black or white, gay or straight, rich or poor. If you are good to me, I’ll be good to you”. On the face of it, it’s a nice thing to have said – essentially ‘all that matters is how we treat each other’.
But it’s not a particularly Christian thing to have said. Being nice is not an exclusively Christian virtue. Jesus calls his followers beyond human nice-ness. He calls us to extraordinary love, in the pursuit of holiness. If Jesus had written that ’meme’, he might have added – “It doesn’t even matter how you treat me. Even when you insult me, or beat me, or kill me...I will still love you”.
Christian love is the kind that says ‘Father forgive them’, even when ‘they’ are nailing you to a cross. Christian love is unconditional – like the love of Jesus, who we strive to be like. It is a love which does not stop even when, like St Faith, we are being tied to a roasting griddle iron. Or as Christians in Nice encountered this week, being knifed by a religious extremist. It’s a love which sees beyond the poor behaviour and poor choices of failing human beings, and which begins to see all humanity as God sees us – children - who often fall down, and constantly need picking up and hugging from time to time.
Now of course, I realise what a challenge it would be to continue to offer love to a knife-wielding madman, or an abuser of children, or a corrupt politician. Simple common sense says that, of course, society needs protecting from this kind of behaviour. But hate is never the right response. Hate only produces more hate. The ONLY possible remedy against hate, is love. It won’t always work – but it’s the only path worth even trying. And it’s the path of Jesus. It’s the path of holiness. It’s the path of saint-hood.
Of course, that kind of holiness is beyond human norms. It’s super-human, in fact. It’s not something I would find easy to do, on my own. But, with God’s help, and by God’s grace, maybe I could love someone that much. Maybe I too could be considered a saint. Hmm...St Thomas of Havant....has a bit of ring to it….
And if we are open to it, we can all take up the challenge to become Holy ones, deified ones, Saints, ourselves.