Archives for posts with tag: cloud of witnesses

Sermon for Evensong at All Saints’ Day, 4th November 2018

Isaiah 65:17-25; Hebrews 11:32-12:2

As you can see, you’ve got some neighbours in church today. 17 silhouettes, each one representing a soldier from Stoke D’Abernon who died fighting in the First World War. There are little plaques in front of each one of the silhouettes which tell you the name of each of the soldiers and the regiment that he belonged to. There are two pairs of brothers, you will find. All over the country there are churches with these silhouettes in. They have been created by a new charity called ‘Remembered’ and our Vanessa Richards is a trustee of the charity. A number of us have subscribed to buy the silhouettes which are in the pews.

These soldiers are ‘there are but not there’, which is the name of the campaign, launched by this charity called Remembered, to remind people, and especially people like me who have never been in a war, to remind us of the great sacrifice and bravery of our soldiers – in what they had hoped would be the ‘war to end all wars’; and also to raise money for the relief of mental conditions caused by war such as PTSD, combat stress, which used to be called ‘shell shock’.

Our silhouettes were first installed in the pews on Friday, for the All Souls service, when we remembered the dead, our dear departed, and today is All Saints, when we remember and celebrate that ‘cloud of witnesses’ that was mentioned in our second lesson from Hebrews.

We will of course come back and make our main act of remembrance next Sunday. Today we are celebrating All Saints’ Day, which follows very closely after our celebration of All Souls. Using the word ‘souls’ reflects the idea that we are made up of a body and a soul and that in some sense our souls are immortal and eternal, carrying on after our bodies have died. So All Souls is the great commemoration of the dead.

Today we focus on the idea of saints and sainthood. Through both these festivals we may get a glimpse of heaven; this is a chance for us to reflect on what we can understand of heaven, at All Souls on life after death and today on the saints, the great ‘cloud of witnesses,’ in history – and perhaps nearer to home as well.

We can think of ‘saints’ in two ways. On one hand we can understand the expression ‘saint’ to cover all Christian people. St Paul’s letters refer to the ‘saints’ at Ephesus and in Rome and in Jerusalem, meaning the normal members of the congregation in each church. So in that sense we are all saints. We are the saints at Stoke d’Abernon.

The other sense, which is perhaps the one which we would normally think of when we use the word ‘saint’, is to identify people who lead exemplary and virtuous lives, who are witnesses to the gospel of Jesus through the self-denying love which they show.

We should notice that there is a difference between the beliefs of the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church where saints are concerned. Roman Catholics see the saints as being so close to God and to Jesus that they can intercede for us. In other words, Catholics address prayers to one or other of the saints and ask them to pass on their prayers to God. As Protestants we use the same language and perhaps adopt the same thought when we end our prayers with the words ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’, but this is as far as we go.

Praying through a saint, through a person who speaks for us to God, is a very old idea, a mediaeval idea, but it was one of the things which was attacked by Martin Luther and the Reformation theologians. If you look at the 39 Articles of Religion at the back of your little blue Prayer Book, if you look at article 22 on page 620 and article 31 on page 624, you will see what the reformers were objecting to.

Article 31 was against people saying masses for the dead – at first sight, against what we were doing on Thursday. Before the Reformation, people left money in their wills to pay for masses to be said for them after they had died, to help them to get to heaven and not be stuck in ‘Purgatory’, a kind of half-way house for those whose virtues were not clear enough for them to pass straight through the Pearly Gates. People built ‘chantries’, chapels where they could be remembered and prayed for.

Our Norbury Chapel is an example of a chantry. It was built for Sir John Norbury after the Battle of Bosworth which ended the Wars of the Roses in 1485. Sir John died in 1521, before the Reformation, or more particularly before Henry VIII. His original statue must have been destroyed in the Elizabethan purge on ‘monuments of superstition’, and now his monument is the little figure of a kneeling knight, whose armour is in the style of Charles I’s time, 100 years later.

I think that we can agree with Article 31 that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the only thing we need, in order to be reconciled with God and forgiven our sins. We don’t need to make a ritual sacrifice as well, in order to buy forgiveness for someone’s sins. But remembering our dear ones by reading out their names doesn’t go against this, I believe.

Martin Luther, who started the objections to ‘masses for the dead’, was aiming at what he thought was a racket run by the Roman church, getting money for saying masses and building chantries, although there was no theological justification for it. We should remember that Jesus’ salvation is for all, not just for the ones whose names we read out in church – but that’s not a reason for us not to remember our dear departed ones.

Article 22 is even more specific about the worship, or ‘veneration’, as it was called, of saints, their statues and pictures. It reads:

‘The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God’.

The reformers thought that there was an element of idolatry, that people were worshipping the saints rather than God, and that there was really no need to use an agent in order to be able to say your prayers to God. There is a reflection of John Calvin’s idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ here. Again, in the Jewish faith, only the High Priest could enter the the Holy of Holies, in the Temple, to come close to God, once a year only, without being consumed (cf Moses in Exodus 33:20). This is one place where the idea, that God needs to be approached through somebody, comes from. In our first lesson from Isaiah there is also the example of prophecy, where God speaks through the mouth of a human, a prophet.

Because St Mary’s is so old – its origins are 7th century Saxon – if you look around, it shows you signs of all this historical theology. You will see some images of saints in some of the windows, but the only statue of a saint is the statue of Mary, the Madonna and Child, at the front. Actually pretty well all the images of saints, the windows and the statue, although they are often of mediaeval origin, were imported during Revd John Waterson’s time (1949-1983), because whatever was here before the Reformation was removed or smashed up. In the Baptistry some of the windows contain bits of the remains of pre-Reformation windows, but I think that is all.

The Church of England is often called ‘catholic and reformed’. Henry VIII was a faithful Roman Catholic, except for his little difficulty with the Pope! The question of how we look at saints today is a good example of how our church’s theology and history are combined in a rich mixture. The greatest of the saints is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was always closest to him, even at the end; his mother stood grieving at the foot of the cross. Who better, who closer, to intercede, if you feel you need someone to do it? The words of the ‘Hail Mary’, which Roman Catholics use almost as much as the Lord’s Prayer, end with

‘Holy Mary, Mother of God,

Pray for us sinners now,

And at the hour of death’.

Indeed Mary is the saint preferred by more people than any other to pray through, in the Roman Catholic Church, where veneration of the saints and praying through them still thrives – they still create saints, for instance recently Archbishop Romero, the Bishop of San Salvador, who was martyred on the steps of his cathedral in 1980, and who was renowned as a liberation theologian, concerned to minister to the poor.

So I have taken you through the story of what it could mean to be a saint. We can be one of the saints at Stoke d’Abernon, one of the people who turn up faithfully in the pews, contribute to good causes and are happy to let people know that this is what we do on a Sunday and indeed, perhaps, what we do on other days. Church saints are involved, involved in church activities.

Or you could be a witness. You could stand up and say to other people what it means to be a Christian in today’s society. You could do things, things which actually take a little bit longer than signing a cheque or turning up to a meeting. You would have to show commitment. The touchstone for being this kind of saint is selfless giving.

Or you might even be a martyr. ‘Martyr’, after all, is just the Greek word for a ‘witness’. Your being a witness may have a price. People may not approve of what you have to say. You may be put to the test as a result. Being a saint, being a witness to the gospel of Christ, may be tough.

There have been occasions when some of you have said to me that my interpretation of what it is to be a practical Christian, to be a practical witness, shades over into politics. Well, on this occasion, I leave it to you. You work out what it would be for you to be a saint. All I would say to you is that I think we all have it in us to be some kind of a saint. Which one are you?

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Sermon for All Saints, Sunday 1st November 2015
Rev. 21:1-6, John 11:32-44

Why do you come to church? I’m sorry; I’ll put it a bit less abruptly. Why does one come? I used to know a lovely old lady, Mrs Ryder, who said, ‘I go to church to think about dead people.’ To some extent, I think that’s how I came in, too. What does happen when we die? What is heaven like? ‘Behold, I make all things new. … A new heaven – and a new earth’. Is that where Mrs Ryder’s people have gone?

And then there’s Lazarus. Too much detail: his corpse was beginning to go off, to get smelly. He hadn’t gone anywhere, apparently. Then out he came, blinking, into the light. Not smelly.

In a way, those two pieces encapsulate where I came in; where I started to think about things outside the realm of what I could see and feel and touch. How I started the the process in which I eventually came into being a Christian.

‘Am I going to die?’ I asked my mother one day when I was a boy. ‘No’, she said. Well, not imminently, anyway, she might have added. But even so, I had started to think about it.

Actually, it’s tomorrow that we really think about dead people – All Souls, the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, will be our service at 10.30 tomorrow morning. Today we are doing what Christians have done at least from the third century, and that is to celebrate the special people who have been, from the earliest time, witnesses to Jesus’ mission, the saints. I Sancti, the holy ones, set apart from ordinary people. St Paul mentions ‘saints’ thirty times in his letters. We may think of them as being somehow almost superhuman, but St Paul simply used that name for the ordinary members of the church.

But clearly in many instances the term ‘saint’ does describe someone very special. In the Roman Catholic Church saints are priests, in the sense that they pray for us, they intercede for us with God. ‘Sancta Maria – ora pro nobis’: holy Mary, saintly Mary – pray for us. So in Catholicism the idea grew up that you pray to God through a saint, you ‘invoked’ that saint.

This was all part of the system of purgatory and indulgences which Martin Luther opposed. Thomas Cranmer, following Luther, wrote in our 39 Articles of Religion, Article XXII, ‘The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is it fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.’According to the Reformers, invocation of saints, praying through the saints, has no scriptural basis – you can come to God direct: you don’t need a priest to intercede for you. There is a ‘priesthood of all believers.’

Just like a lot of the controversies from the Reformation, the antithesis between the Catholic idea of the saints as being people whom we can call upon to intercede for us with God, and the Reformation idea of the Priesthood of all Believers, is a question which we don’t now look at in such a black-and-white way. We do say prayers by ourselves; we do dare to speak directly to God, wherever we might be: but we also come to church and have the minister say prayers for us.

In the Apostles’ Creed in the Prayer Book (the one we say at Mattins or Evensong), we say,
‘I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the Forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.’ The Communion of Saints is right up there with all the other really important parts of our faith.

Today we pray in the Collect, “O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy son Christ our Lord…” Being in ‘Communion with the Saints’ means being in the same body with them, in the church down the ages. There is something very powerful about that. All those wonderful men and women, beginning with the apostles and the earliest Christians – Peter and James and John, the Twelve, then Paul, then Dorcas and Phoebe; then the early martyrs, St Stephen and all those who were eaten by lions in the arena: and then all the great figures in the church down the ages.

Martin Luther, certainly: Thomas Cranmer: but also St Francis Xavier, and Pope John XXIII. John Wesley and John Henry Newman. Dietrich Bonhöffer. This is the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that we read about in the Letter to the Hebrews.

These saints were willing to sacrifice everything for their faith. Read the list of faith heroes in Hebrews 11. It might be rather daunting. How could we match up to some of the things they did? But at least we don’t have to face being thrown to the lions.

Whom would you think of as a saint today? This is where we can recognise the force of St Paul’s idea that everyone in the churches was, is, a saint. I’m sure it’s still true. Just look around you, and think how nice we are – think how we have cared for each other and for those in need. In a real sense everyone in the congregation is a saint.

It doesn’t mean that we have to be perfect in order to qualify to be saints. St Paul, when he wrote to the ‘saints’ at Corinth, or in Ephesus, or in Colossae, or even in Rome, wasn’t writing to eulogise their virtues: instead the purpose of his letters was often to correct their errors and put them back on the track of the true faith. Saints are normal people with normal faults and weaknesses. People like us can be saints.

So what is it that calls us, still calls us, to be people apart, holy people – (because that is what Άγιος , Sanctus, sacred, saintly, means)? This is where poor old Lazarus comes in. We are ‘members of one another in Christ, members of a company of saints, whose mutual belonging transcends death’. Jesus conquered death. He raised Lazarus from the dead, and He himself rose resurrected in glory. This is our faith.

This faith is the mark of a saint. A saint – a saint like us – has the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.

‘Behold, I make all things new’. That includes us. Us saints.

Sermon for the Time to Remember Service at St Andrew’s, 3rd November 2013
Revelation 21:1-6

We are here, because they are not here. In a few minutes we will read out their names, the names of our loved ones, which we have written down, and whom we will remember together, here in God’s house. We will make an act of remembrance by lighting candles in their memory.

We will remember our mothers, our fathers, our wives, our husbands, our sons and daughters; our friends. They are not here. It makes us sad to think of all those people who have died, all those whose company we have lost.

Some of those who have died have left us after a full life, when perhaps they themselves would even have said that they were ready. You will remember Jesus’ saying, that in his Father’s house there are many rooms, many ‘mansions’. Some people, when they reach the end of their lives, are quite happy, quite happy to pass from one room to the next. My late father-in-law surprised many of his friends, days before he died, by ringing them up, and announcing that, as he wasn’t going to be around much longer, he wanted to say goodbye properly. He was quite relaxed about his future. He was truly blessed.

But some people are taken from us too soon, before they are ready and before we are ready. It is a great challenge to us to understand it, when people die suddenly or accidentally or unexpectedly. We are struck with the unfairness of it. We protest. We ‘rail against heaven’. Why them? Why should we lose the ones we love? There is no easy answer.

At the heart of the Christian gospel is Jesus’ promise of eternal life. We believe that Christ Jesus was raised from the dead. In the Bible, Jesus assures us that there will be a resurrection for everyone; there will be eternal life.

You will remember that wonderful aria in Handel’s Messiah: ‘The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised, incorruptible’. How it works, is surely a mystery. But we have the assurance that it will happen, because of the good news that it happened to Jesus himself.

When Jesus said, ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms,’ [John 14:1-6], he said that those rooms are for everyone who follows Him. So whenever one of our loved ones is taken from us, Jesus says that there will be room for them in God’s house.

How it works, St Paul explains in his first letter to the Corinthians, where he reminds us that we all have a body and a soul. Two separate things. Although the body may die, may perish, the soul does not. This is what St Paul says. ‘There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies; and the splendour of the heavenly bodies is one thing, the splendour of the earthly, another. The sun has a splendour of its own, the moon another splendour, and the stars another, for star differs from star in brightness. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown in the earth as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown as an animal body, it is raised as a spiritual body.’ [1 Cor. 15:40f, NEB]

There is now scientific work which bears out the possibility of the life after death. There is a well-known book, ‘Proof of Heaven’, by Dr Eben Alexander, who is a neurosurgeon, and that book, together with the work of other scientists who have analysed near-death experiences, strongly supports the conclusion that there is a life after death.

Now other leading academics, such as Prof. Richard Swinburne in Oxford, have examined the latest neuroscience findings on the way in which our brains work, how they control our movements, and have concluded that the only way to explain how our bodies are actually controlled involves the existence of something separate from our bodies, something which corresponds which our idea of a mind or a soul. There is no reason, as Prof. Swinburne says, that that soul should not survive the death of the body. [Swinburne, R., 2013, Mind, Brain & Free Will, Oxford, OUP]

Or, you can be simply blessed with faith, as the saints were blessed according to the letter to the Hebrews; in chapter 11, there is a wonderful catalogue of faith shown by the leaders of the Israelites all through the Old Testament. Hebrews says, ‘Since we are ‘surrounded by … so great a cloud of witnesses, … let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.’ A great cloud of witnesses.

If we have run that race, as we heard in our lesson from the Book of Revelation, the vision is that there will be a new heaven and as new earth, ‘where God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’

We are here because they are not here. But the Gospel message is that that separation, that loneliness, will not last for ever. So in our act of remembrance, we need not be without hope. We can have the Gospel hope, the ‘sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.’ [The Book of Common Prayer: At the Burial of the Dead]

Of course we do feel sadness. We do feel the pain of loss, the pain of separation. But we can also feel joy. We can rejoice in hope, in the Christian hope of eternal life, that we will not be separated for ever.

Sometimes when I look at old family pictures I do feel rather sad. But then, I look again at those pictures, and remember the happy times, the achievements we celebrated, the love. It was real. It is real. It is still good.

So therefore, in our memories we can feel happiness as well as pain. We can celebrate as much as we regret. We can understand that it is not enough, simply to say that we are here because they are not. ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?’ We are here because we remember them. Let us remember them with joy.