Monday, 4 November 2013

For all the saints

Paul starts his letter to the Ephesians like this;
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God. To the Saints, the faithful in Ephesus in Christ Jesus”
The worshipping community in Ephesus were all termed Saints for a very good reason. The word saint is a translation of a Greek word which means a witness.(Greek stem – Martyr)
To be a saint is to be a witness to the Christian way, so all Christians were witnesses, all are saints.
Contrast that earlier meaning with what the church did with it. Through historical reasons due to terrible persecution in the early years, the term started to be used more exclusively for those Christians who were killed for their faith. Eventually the original meaning was sidelined and the term was used exclusively for those Christians who were dead, and then only those who were reckoned to be special enough to be definitely “in heaven” as determined by Rome.
So historically the term has progressively narrowed from including all Christians who were alive and worshipping and witnessing in the manner of their life – then restricted to those who had died and subsequently then those who had died who were definitely in heaven.
But if you want to be faithful to the Bible and understand what St. Paul was saying then his letters are addressed to “all the saints” – that is US! We are the witnesses to the Christian revelation.
Paul then goes on in that piece we heard today from Ephesians to describe in soaring language the special gift we have been entrusted with – the gift of salvation made known (revealed) to us and the universal scope of the church (that would be us – his witnesses – his saints) who are Christ’s body. Cue Teresa of Avila again....He has no hands, or feet or eyes in this world except ours.  We are a body that consciously recognises God’s universal presence, as Paul puts it “the fullness of him who fills all in all”
To be a witness for Christ, who revealed the way of God is an enormous responsibility. That may explain the gradual narrowing down of the meaning of the word “saint”. People don’t like responsibility. Far better to abdicate our responsibility to be a witness ourselves and to transfer that responsibility to others, a small band of “super Christians” who can be a Christian for us, or perhaps instead of us.
It is understandable. Because when you read things like Luke’s beatitudes we heard in our gospel reading today, living up to what Jesus would like from us is bound to make any of us shrink from our responsibility.
Luke’s beatitudes are far less well known than Matthew’s sermon on the mount. In fact in Luke, Jesus comes down from the mountain to preach the sermon so is known as “the sermon on the plain” and it is much shorter than Matthew’s beatitudes.
Luke has four blessings that reflect his concern for the poor and marginalised. Blessed are the poor, those who are hungry, those who weep and those who are hated for being Christians.
They are balanced by four woes, those who are rich, those who are full, those who are laughing, and all who are spoken well of.
That last one is particularly interesting. Popularity is not the be all and end all for a church. To have a prophetic ministry the church will upset people.
Then Luke writes some instructions that make most of us recoil a bit and want to abdicate our responsibilities, because it is just so hard.
Love our enemies, do good to those that hate us, bless those that curse us, pray for those that abuse you, offer your other cheek to someone who hits you, give away even more than was asked from you, give to everyone that asks. My God, it is little wonder that we shrink from it and look for someone else to do those things instead of us.
But there is some solace here. Alone we haven’t got much of a chance. But you might remember that last week I also stressed the communitarian nature of both the people of Israel and the new Israel – the church.
Alone we haven’t a chance. Together well at least we will stand or fall together. And when we fall we can console each other that we are still forgiven and accepted. Of course we are all individuals, but part of a much greater whole. We need the support and encouragement of our church community, we need to act as a church community to even begin to follow such high and noble ideals. You might look as those instructions in Luke and want to run a mile. But we all do. We need to stick together in these things and get strength from each other’s practical, moral and spiritual support. We have a much better chance of walking that difficult path together than we do alone. And we are not alone.

We believe in the communion of saints don’t we? That is the word “saints” still retaining its original unadulterated meaning. We are surrounded by saints both alive and dead – a cloud of witnesses. Death cannot separate us from our loved ones because everything is held together in Christ who is all in all as Paul says. So in our prayers today we will pray for the living and for the dead and know that in Spirit we are all connected in God.

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