The Communion of Saints
Hebrews, 12:18-24 & Matthew 5:1-12
Ripon Cathedral, 3rd Nov 2014
ABM Selection Conference
What do you understand when, in saying the Apostles’ Creed, you say that you believe in ‘The Communion of Saints’?
My questioner was a Selector for those offering for Ordained Ministry. It was the day that the church remembers St Athanasius and, as a good Evangelical, I had just admitted that I had no idea who Athanasius was or what he had done! Hence that question about the ‘Communion of Saints’.
So, there is the question I want to think about today. Who or what is the Communion of Saints?
All Saints Day
Today is the day when the church remembers and celebrates that communion. It is the day when we should be most aware of what the writer to the Hebrews described as ‘innumerable angels in festal gathering and the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven’.
Today we celebrate our joining with all those men and women who for over 2,000 years have been examples of faith – in the way they have lived, in their service of others, in their preaching and teaching, in their prayerfulness.
And it’s not just those who have the title ‘Saint’. Saint (there’s another one!) Paul describes all Christians as Saints, so there are all the others whose examples we could follow. People like Elizabeth Garnet, the Navvie’s Friend, and many others like her who are commemorated all around us this morning.
But even that is not enough. If I asked you how many Saints you know personally, many of you might struggle to name even one. If we tried for ‘saints in living memory’ we might get a bit further – Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Nelson Mandela could be some of the first choices.
But let’s go back to that question about the saints we each know personally, for there are loads of them. The writer to the Hebrews describes the saintly gathering in heaven as ‘the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven’ and the spirits of ‘the righteous made perfect’. In this communion service we each come into that assembly. We are those ‘made perfect’ – note the wording there – ‘made perfect’ – it’s not anything I do that overcomes my many imperfections – it is that I am ‘made perfect’ by accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour
Later in this service we will welcome Sophie, Ryley, Millie, Elijah, Amelia, William and Georgina. Each of them have been baptised here recently and so we welcome them into the ‘Communion of Saints’. Not because they are perfect babies and children (though I’m sure they each are, in the eyes of their parents at least) but because their Parents and Godparents have affirmed in the Baptism service that they turn to Christ. That they will follow the example of how to live that Jesus set in his own life and to which he calls his followers. The way that Saints live.
It’s a way of life summarised by Jesus in the passage we know as the Beatitudes, which Paul read as the Gospel reading this morning. It is quite a well-known passage but still bears careful study and thought, especially if we are to take it seriously.
This is not, as some have suggested just ‘the greatest moral teaching ever’. Nor ‘a code to live by’. Rather, if taken seriously it is a terrifying challenge to the standards and expectations of our society (and when Jesus says blessed he means NOW, not in the future when you’ve survived this time!)
Let’s think about the implication of the words for a moment:
Why are those who mourn blessed now? And how do I say that to the newly widowed mother or the parent of the dead child?
Why are the Meek blessed – in a society which values material success yet forces many of its most vulnerable families to depend upon Food Banks?
HOW are those who Hunger and thirst after righteousness blessed- in a society which claims there are no eternal truths, no absolute righteousness.
How are the Pure in heart blessed when it is the scandalous, the adulterer and the paedophile who are given media coverage.
Or Peace-makers – when the murderers gain the bargaining tool of publicity
And just how merciful can we claim to be – in a society which has watched IS tear Syria apart and fails to offer a realistic response to the appeals for aid to help fight Ebola.
Today, we celebrate those who, throughout the ages have lived up to the standards of those whom God calls blessed. Ordinary men and women who lived extraordinary lives. Real flesh and blood people who took seriously the demands and challenges of God’s teaching.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus offered his disciples challenging standards. Standards as relevant today as they were on the flower decked grass of the hills above Galilee. So, lets listen again to the Beatitudes but this time as a 21st century Jesus might have said them:
Beatitudes from ‘The Message’
When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being careful, you find yourselves cared for.
You’re blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
In celebrating All Saints we remember the example set by all who God calls blessed. As the Communion of Saints in this place we should be living to the standards that Jesus sets.
So, we’re going to take a moment to celebrate those people we know who are God’s Saints. Tucked into your service sheet, you have a cloud like this. Reflect on the Saints you want to celebrate: the unrecognised every day saints, who give to the Food Bank, watch out for elderly neighbours or support a family with a disabled child. The person sitting beside or in front of you. The people who welcomed you to worship or will work as volunteers here in the Cathedral this afternoon. Let’s recognise our everyday, common-place Saints.
Then write their name on your cloud and when you come up to receive at the rail bring the cloud with you. We will have some youngsters collecting them and putting them on these display boards so that as we join in the communion of saints at the table we are surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses to God’s love and action in the world today.
We believe in the Communion of Saints. Amen.