Summary: From the readings appointed for Feast of All Saints (Ecclesiasticus, Hebrews, the Beatitudes), this sermon develops the meaning and value of saints in the lives of ordinary Christians.
What Is A Saint? (Feats of All Saints)
Last Tuesday was the Feast of All Saints, which we are observing this Sunday. It is our first observance of this feast here at Saint Athanasius Anglican Church, and it is my fervent hope that we shall observe it for many years into the future.
Did you know that there is at least one web-site devoted to the Feast of All Saints? It’s found at feastofsaints.com. Go there and have a look around some time. You’ll find some edifying things there. In one of the pages of that web site that discusses the meaning of the word saint, we find these words:
“Many people upon hearing this curious word "saint" cringe. To them, saints are one-dimensional, sometimes even vaguely creepy people who are uncomfortable to be around. They have one track minds and are other than human. They exist on a different plane where they have no real appreciation of how ordinary folk live.
Saints are rigid creatures who don’t know the agonies and eccentricities of life. Those who feel this way about sainthood are likely to say, with a hint of disdain – and pride – "I’m NO saint!"
Then there are people who think the saints exist in a type of rosy glow. They exude sentiment from holy cards and would be quite at home with sweet Hallmark greetings. To this audience the saints are always kind and gentle and never have a rotten thought. Supermen, but elevated even higher, the saints are miraculous figures whose feet never really touched the ground.
People who have this image probably also think of our Lord in rosy glows – eerily androgynous, with stylized features and a perfect complexion. This is the Jesus whom Dorothy Sayers describes … as someone whom we have declared and "certified ’meek and mild’…a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies." [http://feastofsaints.com/whatsaint.htm]
May I suggest to you on this, our first observance of All Saints, that one of the most complete profiles of the kind of person who is a saint is found in the words of the Gospel appointed for this feast day: The Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Those beatitudes begin and end with this phrase: “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And in the closing words of this section of Jesus’ sermon, Jesus says “12 Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, …”
For centuries, the lectionaries of the Church have looked to the Beatitudes as an appropriate reading from the Gospels for this feast day are pointing to something important about saints. This may seem odd, for Jesus doesn’t use the word “saint” in this passage. Nevertheless, I think it is the saints who are the subject of Jesus’ words here. Why?
First of all saints are, by and large, not at all famous. To be sure, there are those whom we own as Saints – Saint Athanasius, for example, or St. Paul, or any of the Apostles – who are rightly famous. But, when we look at what they are famous for, it is something that I do not think any of us would chose for our selves or for our families. For the Apostles, their sainthood is invariably connected with their suffering for the gospel, for their martyrdom. And, a great many of the saints whose names are known to us have just that feature in their spiritual resumes: they suffered greatly for the name of Christ or for the sake of the gospel.
That is why I think Jesus is talking about these kinds of people in the beatitudes: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. The roster of faith in Hebrews Chapter 11 contains much of the same thing: “Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. 36 Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.”
Many commentators on this passage of Hebrews try to identify who the author had in mind as he penned these verses of Hebrews. There is a legend that the Prophet Isaiah was martyred by being sawn into two pieces. But the Author of Hebrews doesn’t give their names, and I think this is for the same reason that Jesus does not speak in terms of individuals, but of characteristics of otherwise unknown saints.
The truth of the matter seems to be this: that the vast majority of saints, the vast majority of those of whom Jesus was speaking in the Beatitudes, the vast majority of those whom the Author of Hebrews was speaking about – the vast majority of such folks are – to us – anonymous. In the Old Testament reading from Ecclesiasticus, we find him speaking of the saints of earlier times with these words: