In a few minutes we’ll stand to proclaim the faith we share.
We do this week by week, and perhaps the individual clauses begin to blur and run into one another, so that we find ourselves happy to assent to the whole, without focussing unduly on the details. So today, because I really want you to think about what you are saying, we’ll use not the Nicene Creed, as we do most Sundays, but the shorter Apostles’ Creed, familiar at the very least from Evensong.
It’s a good statement of our basic tenets, - more concise and straightforward in some ways than the fulminations of the council of Nicea…and of course it ends with the triumphant declaration
We believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
The communion of saints…that’s our focus today.
The communion of saints, the glorious company of the faithful who stand around God’s throne and cry glory…
We probably think we know what they look like.
They come in two gothic varieties, male, with a page boy hair cut, or female with long flowing tresses. They wear long white robes, carry some incongruous object or other – a wheel, a gridiron, - and can be recognised above all by their haloes.
They are, after all, simply two-dimensional characters, bright in their stained glass shrines…Men and women frozen in perfection, finished products from the beginning of their lives…
If that sounds just a little unlikely to you, I’m profoundly relieved.
If the saints were like that, you see, they’d be no use at all, either to us, or to God. Rather than remembering them with delight, we’d forget them with relief as their only effect would be to discourage us from ever trying to be holy.
The truth is something quite different.
The saints are real, utterly real…Women and men who tried and failed, and tried again. People whose life experience was the same mix of faith and doubt, of despair and hope that we all recognise.
Ordinary people, in fact.
People just like you.
The communion of saints.
They seem to be extraordinary…and have been adopted as role models by Christians for many generations because they seem to be somehow different, set apart by some distinctive feature of their lives or their faith...
So, what then makes a saint?
A saint is someone who shows God to others.
It’s as simple as that.
We look at the lives of the saints and see God in them
There’s a well worn and apocryphal story of a small boy who was called out from his Sunday school class to explain to an All Age service just what a saint might be.
Casting about desperately for an answer, he caught sight of the stained glass that surrounded him as he stood at the front of the church and blurted out
“A saint is someone that the light shines through”
It might be a funny story, except that it is profoundly true.
A saint IS someone the light shines through…
A flawed, imperfect human being whose life is made beautiful by the presence of God.
On that evaluation, you may not have to think too hard before you realise that you know a few saints yourself…though if you told them, they’d surely be horrified, or amused.
You see, I very much doubt if saints are sufficiently self-conscious to notice their own holiness.
My suspicion is that most real saints struggle day after day with a sense of their own unworthiness.
They would laugh outright to hear themselves described in these terms…
Even the greatest saints struggled constantly with their own failures.
Think of Peter, the founding saint of the church…commissioned by Jesus to be the rock, the firm foundation on which the Church would stand.
Peter the impulsive “have a go hero” who dived in where angels fear to tred, and shed blood among the olives in dark Gethsemane.
Peter, the frightened man who was quick to deny his friend and master.
Peter, who ran headlong to the tomb but couldn’t believe the evidence of his eyes on the morning of the Resurrection.
I very much doubt if he thought he was specially holy!
Or there’s Mary of Bethany…so emotional that she dared even to lay into Jesus for his neglect of her family
“lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died”
and perhaps so blinded by her tears that she didn’t recognise her risen Lord until he called her by name.
Do you think she believed that she might become an example to us, someone to follow, an inspiration through the centuries?
But I see I’m in danger of suggesting that REAL saints lived long go and far away…and that’s far from the case
Let’s reflect on one of the most famous Christians of our time, Mother Theresa of Calcutta.
Recently her diaries have suggested that she had all but lost her faith, that the light of God’s presence was almost obliterated by the troubles and tragedies of the world.
But despite this, there are so many who already revere her as a saint…for though she may have struggled with an overwhelming sense of God’s absence from her life, those around her saw God’s light shining through all that she did and said in his name.
So…that’s the role of the saints alive…People who share our struggles but through them all show us the Father. I know many saints like that, - indeed, I’d rarely make it from one Sunday to the next without their love and their encouragement
But today above all we celebrate the saints in glory…the multitude without number whose hope was in the Word made flesh, those who join with us whenever we sing together
“Holy, holy, holy Lord”
That shining circle who stands around the throne of God is still very much part of our story…for we worship together, our prayers and praises connecting with theirs across time and eternity.
When I first presided at the Eucharist, the day after my ordination as priest, I was completely bowled over by the overwhelming presence of that heavenly company….MY saints. - the people whom I’d known and loved, who had shaped my journey…and those who had died long before I was born, but whose words or deeds had inspired me. They were all there, standing beside me at the altar – and when I’m properly attentive, they are there still, week on week, singing with us, lending power and life to our song. Pause to listen for their voices yourself, this morning, and be thankful….
So, where does this leave us…the people who gather here week after week [under the patronage of All Saints]? Again and again in his letters Paul talks to “the saints in” a particular place…and those saints are neither more nor less than the ordinary body of believers in that place.
You are the saints in Cainscross, the saints in Selsley.
You may not think of yourself as holy in any way…but actually, by virtue of your baptism, holiness IS your calling.
We are, every one of us, set apart for God…called to be saints, just as we are.
Flawed, imperfect people, but people through whom the Light of the World is content to shine.
I believe in the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. AMEN.