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Sunday, 31 October 2010

We Feebly Struggle

Today, as we have already mentioned*, is Hallowe'en. And tomorrow will be All Saints' Day. In some countries, tomorrow will be a Bank Holiday, and if you are that sort of person, you might buy chrysanthemums and put them on a loved one’s grave – when I lived in France, back in the early 1970s, you only ever saw chrysanths on sale around this time of year. But recently I've noticed they focus on Hallowe’en far more than they used to - American influence, no doubt.

In this country, though, we never have gone in much for All Saints, except in church names, like All Saints Lyham Road. We’ve tended to go straight from Hallowe’en to Guy Fawkes’ Night with nothing in between. But if the Church suggests, as it does, that we should celebrate All Saints’ Day, then maybe we should do so. And there is a long tradition, in the Church, of celebrating a festival on the previous day, the eve. So it is all right to celebrate it today, instead.

What, I wonder, springs to mind when you think of the word “Saint”? We Protestants don't tend to think of them all that much, really. I suppose we think of New Testament people, like St Paul, and some of us might fly the St George cross during the World Cup, but by and large, they don't really impinge on our consciousness. We don't have a formal category of “Saint” in which to put people, as we believe that all who trusted in Jesus during their lifetime have eternal life. We don't have the concept of Purgatory, of a time of working off our sins, as we believe that we have already passed from death into life. We are all saints!

Then why celebrate All Saints? What's the point? Well, in a way that is just the point – all Christians are saints! This isn't the day, by the way, for commemorating those who have died – that happens on All Souls' Day, which is on Tuesday. Many churches will hold special services around this time of year to commemorate those who have died during the course of the year, and invite those with whom they have contact – Railton Road Church is having just such a service next Sunday afternoon. I think that's rather nice. But today is about those who are living, those who are part of the great Church Triumphant, as we call it. We, here on earth, are the Church Militant, still fighting the world, the flesh and the devil, as the old prayer-book has it. “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine” says the hymn we'll be singing at the end of the service.

We don't tend to think too much about what happens after we die. But if our faith is real, if what we believe is true, then what happens next is something even greater than we can imagine. It is our great Christian hope, as St Paul reminded us in our first reading, from his Letter to the Ephesians:

“I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.”

We have that glorious inheritance.

But it doesn't always seem like it! As C S Lewis once put it: “The Cross comes before the Crown, and tomorrow is a Monday morning!” We feebly struggle, they in glory shine!

But Jesus reminds us that it's okay, a lot of the time, to feebly struggle. Our second reading was taken from Luke's version of the collection of Jesus' teachings known as the Sermon on the Mount – actually, I think Luke's version is commonly called the “Sermon on the Plain”, but never mind that now. The point is that both Matthew and Luke start off their collections with a proclamation of people who are blessed. Luke says it is the poor, the hungry, and people who are hated, which he contrasts explicitly with those who are rich, well-fed and of who people speak well of!

I don't know what was preached on here last week, but at Railton I listened to a sermon about the Pharisee and the sinner, and was reminded that our values and opinions are not necessarily God's. And that is certainly the case here – in the Jewish world, prosperity was seen as a sign of God's blessing, and poverty was thought rather disgraceful. Jesus is turning the accepted wisdom upside-down. No, he says, you are blessed if you're poor, if you're hungry, if you're hurting...

Matthew, who was Jewish, couldn't quite bring himself to write that down, and has people being blessed if they hunger and thirst after righteousness, or if they are poor in spirit, but in many ways the principle is the same, I think.

Of course, we in the First World aren't really poor, only by comparison; we have food, shelter and clothing, we have health care and education, and a general standard of living that our ancestors could only dream of. So is it woe unto us?

I think it's the same issue that the Pharisee had, who, you may remember, was so pleased that he fulfilled the criteria for an upright, religious member of the community that he forgot his need of God, and it was the tax-collector, the hated quisling, who remembered that he was a sinner, and that he had need of God's mercy. Again, Jesus is turning this world's values upside-down; it is the despised outcast who went home justified, and the professionally religious man who, that day at least, did not.

Jesus' teachings, as collected by Matthew and Luke, give a terrific picture of what God's people, the saints, are going to be like. They'll be people who don't judge others, who don't get angry with others in a destructive way, who don't use other people simply as bodies. Basically, they treat other people with the greatest possible respect for who they are. And they trust God. They don't get stressed out making a living – they do their absolute best at whatever their job is, of course, but they don't scrabble round getting involved in office politics in order to get a promotion. They trust God to provide the basic necessities of life, but they don't make a parade of being ever so holy, they just get on with it quietly.

Jesus' values turned the world upside-down. We are almost – dare I say used to them. They don't shock us, or strike us as strange – until, that is, we try to live them! Then we discover just how far off they are from the values that most people live by. And what we say we believe comes smack up against what we really believe – and what we really believe usually wins! Truly, we feebly struggle!

But the saints in glory shine! They found the secret of living the way Jesus suggested. And it wasn't striving and struggling and trying to do it all by themselves. Remember what St Paul wrote, again. He prays that we might be given the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that we may know God better. And he prays “that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.”

We don’t have to strive to know this in our own strength; we can allow God to put this knowledge in us and make it part of us. The saints in glory have done this. We feebly struggle, but we don't have to, we can relax and allow God to do it for us.

As we are, we would never inherit the Kingdom of God, whether on this earth or in the world to come. But transformed by God’s Spirit, then, in the words of St John, “We shall be like him”. And yet, paradoxically, we shall still be ourselves.

St Paul addresses some of his letters to “The saints in such-and-such a town”. He knew, and they knew, that it was possible to be a saint in this life. The letter to the Corinthians, for example, begins: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

The word “sanctified” means “Being made saint-like”, and it’s one of the things that happens to Christians who are truly intent on being God’s person. You can’t help it; the Holy Spirit who dwells in you does sanctify you, makes you more the person that God created you to be. We feebly struggle, but the Holy Spirit always wins!

Jesus taught that the values and opinions of God's kingdom are radically different to those of this world. The saints, those who trust in Christ, all have one thing in common, and I hope and pray that it's a feature that I share, that you share: They all knew, and know, that of themselves they are doomed to feebly struggle. It is only through recognising our own weakness, our own utter inability to live anything like the sort of life Jesus expects of his followers, that we can be enabled to live that life. And one day, one day, we will be among the number of those who “in glory shine”. Amen.

* In earlier children's talk