Ephesians 1. 11 – 23
Luke 6. 20 – 31
All Saints’ Sunday
Members of the CofE often have a slightly complicated relationship with All Saints’ Day, and especially on a Sunday.
Although it’s become common to celebrate the Feast on the nearest Sunday – as good Anglicans we might be slightly concerned that it’s the one Sunday of the year when we don’t actually celebrate Jesus.
Instead we celebrate these people called ‘saints’ – and if we’re honest, we might not really be sure what they are, or what they’re for.
Well, I’d like to suggest that in fact the opposite is true. Our celebration today of these holy men and women is, at its heart, a celebration of Christ and the truth of his resurrection.
Because what is given to us in Christ is not given simply to be spoken about – it’s not a pious ‘FYI’ to those we happen to meet. What is given is to be embodied – to be enfleshed.
As we heard in our first reading, the Church on earth is the “body of Christ.” Our goal as Christians is to be conformed to Christ. From our baptism to the day of our death, we strive not just to emulate Christ in his doings, but to become like he is, as far as we’re able this side of heaven.
And so today we celebrate those who have been so conformed to Christ that they have become his images – revealing him in the world through their own lives.
And the truth is that we’re not celebrating extraordinary or super-human people – though some of what they did might seem impossible to us. We are all called to the same holiness, in our own way and in our own time.
He’s not writing to super-holy people – often he’s just trying simply to stop them being so naughty, and to get along with each other!
But he still calls these ordinary Christians ‘saints.’ I wonder what we might think if we received a letter addressed to ‘the saints in St Margaret’s church, Ilkley.’ Do we think of our own Christian vocation as a journey to sainthood?
On hearing our Gospel this morning, we might be discouraged. We’ve just heard Luke’s version of the Beatitudes – they’re not read as often as Matthew’s well-known ones, partly because Luke includes with the blessings a set of equivalent ‘woes.’
And Luke makes them explicitly material – no stuff like ‘blessed are the poor in spirit’ – this is about the poor, and the hungry. And they make difficult reading in our prosperous part of the world.
They read like a set of awful instructions – that if we seek out poverty for ourselves, or go hungry, or sit about weeping and mourning, then we’ll be alright with God. Is that really why Christ came to us, to make us all suffer?
Well, remember what I said about today’s Feast not really being about humans, but rather about Christ. And if we read this passage again with Christ at the front of our minds, then we see that it’s not really about us at all – but rather about him.
Christ was the one who made himself poor, so that we might be made rich. Christ was the one who wept at the tomb of Lazarus and in the Garden of Gethsemane; Christ was the one who was hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed, all that we might be able to rejoice with him in the joy of eternal life.
Christ is the one who gives himself for bread, so that we might never be hungry again. He’s the one who sat at table with the outcast and shunned.
And the last few verses read as an account of Christ in his Passion. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.”
This Gospel is showing us how Christ looks at the world. As he looks on the creation he came to redeem, his eyes are drawn to those who suffer and starve – and he blesses them.
If we take seriously our baptismal commitment to conform ourselves to Christ, then as we look with his eyes on the world, our gaze is drawn to those places of suffering too.
If we really want to become his body in the world, then we must take on the same characteristics of Christ that we see in this reading. We must become a people who love our enemies, do good even to those who hate us, who pray for those we disagree with, who give more than is asked of us. And our community must become a place where the poor and hungry and weeping can find welcome and relief. We’ll need that this winter, more than ever.
I realise I’ve probably made you all thoroughly miserable on what should be a happy Feast – but I think we need to acknowledge that our faith can be a great challenge. As C S Lewis once said, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
In fact, what is asked of us would be impossible – if we were asked to do it on our own.
But that’s why this Feast is such an encouragement, because the saints we celebrate today didn’t achieve such holiness by themselves and for themselves – but for all of us – as a gift to the Church, as a foundation on which to build, as a cloud of witnesses to inspire us and pray for us as we strive to conform ourselves to Christ.
Through our baptism we are no longer individuals but members of a body that stretches around the world and through the ages. We have proof through the lives of the saints that we can prevail in this challenging faith, as they did. And more than prevail, we can flourish – because they show us that even in our own small search for holiness: thanks to the “immeasurable greatness of the power of God” within us, we too can change the world. Amen.