All Saints – 2019

Luke 6:20-31

Marian Free

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, God our strength and redeemer. Amen.

The concept of saint is a complex one. As I pointed out in pew sheet there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to defining sainthood. Those who have been identified as saints by the church have ranged from political to apolitical, from academics to those with no education, from cloistered to engaged with the world. They may have experienced torture and violent deaths, or they may have lived quietly till the end. Even the history of the word ‘saint can be problematic. In the New Testament αγιος (‘holy’) was used by Paul to describe anyone who had come to believe in Jesus as the Christ. He addresses four of his letters to ‘those called to be saints’ (Rom 1:7, 1 Cor 1:2, 2 Cor 1:1, Phil 1:1).

This does not mean that the communities to whom Paul wrote provided examples of holiness for successive generations of Christians to emulate – far from it. According to Paul’s criteria, any baptized person was holy (άγιος – a saint). Included under this umbrella were the believers in Corinth. His first letter to that community reveals that their behaviour was both divisive and immoral – not at all consistent with the image of ‘saint’ with which we are familiar. Paul has to chide members of this congregation for competing with each other, taking each other to court and celebrating the eucharist in ways that discriminated against the poor. One of their number is said to have been sleeping with his father’s wife (a behaviour apparently condoned by the remainder of the community!) and yet Paul writes: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called saints.” In Paul’s world, simply being “in Jesus” made a person holy.

As time passed, and the early flush of enthusiasm disappeared and the founders – the apostles and their followers – passed into memory, the church became increasingly institutionalised and the fire and the passion of the early days settled into more of a routine. Acts of courage and steadfastness were no longer the day to day experience of those who believed and behaving in a “Christian” way came to be second nature. Despite this, there were faithful people who continued to behave in extraordinary ways, to do extraordinary things and to act with extraordinary courage – whether they took themselves off to the desert to pray in solitude or had an ability to teach or to heal or had faced violence against them. These individuals stood apart from the run-of -the-mill Christian. They were sought out for their wisdom, their teaching, or their ability to heal and they were admired for their courage and their fortitude. In the absence of the apostles, such people became the heroes of the faith and they were venerated by those whose faith and the practice of it, did not aspire to such great heights. The title ‘saint’ was no longer applied to everyone, but only to these few whose lives had been an example to all.

Not only were these saints revered in their lifetime, when they died their memory was honoured each year on the day of their death. Over time the number of people revered as saints proliferated to the point that a more formal way of identifying people as such was developed. We know process this as canonization (something we have observed in recent times in the case of Mary McKillop and Mother Teresa among others). The practice of remembering saints on the day of their death continued, but now the number was limited to those recognized by Rome. Despite the Reformation, the Anglican Church continues to honour a somewhat smaller number of saints but, unlike our Roman sisters and brothers, we have not added to that number since King Charles the 1st was identified as a saint in 1660. Instead, every province has the authority to name as “holy” those who lives stand out as an example to us but who would be unknown to people in other parts of the communion.

In Australia we remember Eliza Hassal, a pioneer of the Church Missionary Society, William Broughton, the first Bishop of Australia, Sister Emma SSA, the superior of the Sisters of the Sacred Advent here in Brisbane, Frederic Barker, bishop and pioneer of Moore Theological College, Georgian Molloy, pioneer church leader and botanist and Sydney Kirkby, pioneer of outback ministry and founder of the Bush Church Aid Society.  Our Calendar also includes women and men whose impact has been felt here, even if they have lived in other countries or belonged to other denominations. These include the martyrs of Uganda, Evelyn Underhill, spiritual writer, William Wilberforce, social reformer, Mary Summer founder of the Mother’s Union and the twentieth century martyrs including Archbishop Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

All of these are remembered on the day of their death so why, you might ask, do we celebrate today as All Saints Day? According to Denis Hamm All Saints Day began as a commemoration of early martyrs who names were unrecorded and who therefore could not be remembered on the day of their martyrdom.

Whatever its origins, today provides an occasion for each of us to reflect on the lives of all those who have gone before us, especially those whose faithfulness, courage and witness have thrown a light on our tentativeness, our timidity and our silence. It is an opportunity to examine our own faith (or lack of it) and to allow ourselves to be challenged and inspired by those who allowed nothing to stand between them and Christ, who faced danger and privation, endured solitude and misunderstanding, who stood up for what is right and who were not afraid to confront injustice and oppression.

Today we thank God for the lives of all the saints – known and unknown. We pray that their lives may influence our own and that our own will not be found wanting.

 

 

 

 

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