Readings: Daniel 7:1-3,15-18, Ephesians 1: 11- end Luke 6:20 -31
Today we keep the Feast of All Saints. Week by week in the Creed we say that we believe in the Communion of Saints - the Communio Sanctorum. This is a great comfort to us, that we are surrounded by the saints who pray with us constantly. That's part of the reason why we make a " big deal" about the saints liturgically- in a sense we are recognizing what is already there, and sometimes take for granted, like family. This is something shared by all the mainstream traditions of the Christian Church. I'm fortunate, in that in addition to my parish work here, I am exposed to different traditions of the Church through the ecumenical work I am asked to do. And this year has been a fantastic encouragement as our ecumenical work has jumped forward in leaps and bounds - this Autumn alone, major new initiatives have been launched between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, with the Serbian and Russian Orthodox Churches, and a major new agreement launched only this week between the Anglican Communion and the Oriental Orthodox Churches – Copts, Armenians, Ethiopians, Indians, and Syrians. Before Christmas, there will be an opportunity to hear of these new things in more detail. A basic principal of ecumenical work is working first on the things that unite, building up friendships, and only then focusing on that which divides. And one of the things we have been able to focus on in recent work is the shared traditions of the Saints. So I want to focus today on just two aspects of what the saints might mean for us - the saints are those who form our common identity, and the saints are those who enable us to endure. Common Inheritance and Endurance.
Firstly, Common Inheritance. Our whole landscape is shaped and formed by the common inheritance of the saints; take our geography and place names - whether you are visiting St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, St Paul's School, or Magdalen Colllege. Our place names often refer to this common inheritance of the saints. If you are in a church by the sea, it is more than likely that that Church will be dedicated to St Nicholas, the Patron Saints of sailors. Hospitals, are often dedicated to St Luke, or Bartholomew, as in our Barts, as Bartholomew was traditionally associated with lepers. The list is endless. And when Patraiarch Kyrill of Moscow was here a few days ago, the icon he gave out to the hundreds who went to see him was the icon of the saints of the British Isles as these are common to all of us - Columba, Iona, Alban and so on. But this is more than historical antiquarianism. We are shaped and formed by the inheritance of the saints as they are also a living presence now, with their different qualities and traditions - be they 21st century saints like St Theresa of Calcutta from the Albanian and Indian traditions, or Nicolai Velimirovich from the 20th century Serbian tradition, or the more than a million martyrs of the Armenian genocide of 1915/16, all of whom were canonized last year. They pray with and for us, and the more spiritually open we are, the more we will feel and experience this. In Rome, a few weeks ago, it was no fantasy or illusion to feel the palpable presence of the saints as The Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis prayed together in the Church from which St Gregory sent St Augustine and his monks to England in the 6th century. If the religious antennae are working at all, we will always be aware of entering places where, as T S Eliot put it, “prayer has been valid.” And it is this prayer which unites us into the communion of the saints. Communion is different from communication as communion has an inescapably organic quality. One of the lectures I gave to young seminarians in the Theological Academy in Tbilisi Georgia last year was on the distinction between communion and communication, and I will never forget the look of terror on most of their faces when I asked them to locate the off button on their mobiles and switch them off. Being out of communication, we could enjoy communion.
And now endurance. Scripture tells us that the saints are those who have come "out of the great tribulation" and have endured. The saints invariably have a gritty, often uncomfortable quality, as they are not shaped and formed by focus groups. And we need this quality right now, especially in societies such as our own, and possibly across the Atlantic, where we see the death of political optimism and principle, with nothing to raise the sights and the soul. How sad and fallen for us as a society that we now find ourselves needing a designated person in every Borough to report hate crimes, one of the boom industries of post-Brexit Britain. But endurance in the English language is an ambiguous word, and I am reminded of the Church in which I was a curate by Oxford Circus, where someone once asked why Father so and so was preaching twice in two weeks, and the response came, quoting Scripture, " Endure hardship as a good soldier." But it isn't that sort of endurance I am talking about but the quality of faith, being rooted in communion, which inspires and uplifts - like the Beatitudes which we hear again today. Here is our manifesto, " Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh." This, the manifesto of the saints, speaks directly into our times, be it to the children of Calais now beginning their new lives here, to the citizens of Aleppo or Mosul, experiencing their own fiery ordeal, or to anyone who is conventionally on the margins. These words were ringing through my head in the last week as I listened to a man from Homs in Syria, all of whose family had been killed, and he was left alone waiting to start a new life in the generous country of Canada. The saints are those who endure, and they surround and uphold us. In the communion of saints, therefore, we are not separate from each other, and we are certainly not separate from those who experience war, famine, and persecution, some of whom bless us with their presence in this Church as we are now. Speak to any of our Farsi speakers, if you want to hear firsthand.
So, on this Feast of All Saints, we give thanks for all the saints of God, past and present, near and far, known and unknown. We are in communion with them and they with us, and they give us the strength of purpose to endure and carry on in The Way. This is our shared inheritance, and it gives us our identity, just as the Beatitudes which we hear today, gives us the manifesto of the saints, who surround us as we pray. Thanks be to God.