Monday, 3 November 2014

All Saints Sunday 2 November 2014, Revelation 7:9-17, Acts 2:36-47, Bruce

A long time ago (31 August) we started a series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians by reading “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The question is how much we each see ourselves as one of God’s holy people.

Remember that this is not about what we have achieved as individuals.  When Moses led the Children of Israel out of Egypt, he did not hold talent contests and elimination rounds to select the special people who qualified.  Almost anyone was able to come, if they believed in the one true God.

Today at All Saints we remember and celebrate the group of people who have followed God through the ages.  Some are great and famous.  We mentioned some in the proclamation that we read together earlier: John, Michael, the desert fathers, Ninian and the rest.  Countless more were not so well known, and their names are lost to us.  Our reading from Revelation takes a look behind the curtain of time to the throne room where God is receiving the spirits of the martyrs who have gone ahead of us.

The word hagios is the Greek term for a person who has been set apart or recognised in a special way.  We normally translate it as saint.  This includes those special individuals whom we remember in history and sometimes name churches after or write books about.  It is much more than this though.  It is the correct term that we apply to anyone who is a follower of God’s anointed and set-apart Son.  It is saying that we are on the Team, that we are Members of the family.

It can take a while for the implications of all this to sink in. Let’s think about the members of the Air Cadet Corps.  It can take some time for a young person to move from being vaguely aware that the ATC exists, to having some idea of who they are and what they do, to becoming involved.  However they hear about the ATC, they start to attend and find out more.  Over a six week period they learn the history and organisation and learn the rudiments of drill.  They are then faced with a decision: do they want to join?  If they do, they parade in front of their new comrades and are officially enrolled as members.  As part of this they have to recite the oath, where they promise on their honour to serve their Unit loyally and to be faithful to their obligations as a member of the Air Training Corps. They further promise to be a good citizen and to do their duty to God and the Queen, their Country and their Flag.  As evidence of this, the squadron padre has to sign their record of service.  If they have not been properly enrolled, they may not take part in squadron events and parades, and they can be refused flying or gliding activities.  They are either in or they are out.

If they are in, they are fully in.  They are members.  They have all the privileges and rights of being a member.  They are also subject to all the disciplines and duties, irrespective of rank and age.  All who have been enrolled are called members of the ATC; they may be cadets or officers or civilian instructors, but we look at them all in the same way.  They are called the air cadets.

In the same way there is a word for us.  Our equivalent of enrolment is baptism.  If we have been baptised, we are one of the saints.  This is a word that has subtly changed its meaning.  If we call someone a saint today, we often mean they are an especially good person, out of the ordinary in their holiness.  We think of a Mother Teresa or a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or a Nelson Mandela. But I will let you into a little secret.  The New Testament does not call anyone a saint.  Not one.  It does not call Paul a saint, or John, or Peter, or James or anyone. 

In fact the word saint hardly occurs in the New Testament at all.

There are, however, 63 references to the saints.  It is a word which describes anyone who has been baptised, enrolled, as a member of God’s family, anyone who is a follower of Jesus.  To be called one of the saints is not to be singled out as special or different from everyone else.  The saints are all of us who belong.  We have heard and believed the message that Peter preached on that first day of Pentecost, that God has made this Jesus, who was crucified, both Lord and Messiah.

We are part of the family that goes back to the time of Abraham and that includes the cloud of witness who have gone before us and upon whom light perpetual shines.  The family of all the saints includes all our brothers and sisters in Africa and the near East, in Europe and Asia, all of us and our children and all who are far off; all who have that personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

The latest revision of the New International Version has tried to address the change of understanding of the word saints (hagios) by translating it as God’s people or God’s holy people.  I wonder if you find this helpful?  We have to think about the meaning of the word “holy”.  It means “set apart”, specially reserved.  If you are a member of the ATC, you are set apart on parade nights and you are not free to go to a disco.  If you are a member of Camberley Rugby Club, you are set apart on Sunday mornings and you are not free to go to church services.  If you are a member of Christ’s church, you are set apart to live for him; you are not free to tell lies, look at pornography, hold bitter grudges, or engage in any other self-motivated activities.

Those who are known as saints know that we are far from perfect, and we make mistakes and get things wrong.  We are, however, completely sure where our allegiance lies and whom we seek to obey; we are centred on Jesus Christ.

How can we make progress as part of the saints?

First, we devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching.  We study the bible.  The few thoughts contained in a sermon on Sunday are no substitute for exploring and delighting in God’s word.  We can read it, listen to a recording of it, visit websites and study books about it.  We can join in small groups to discuss it and ask questions.

Second, we devote ourselves to the fellowship, the koinonia that we have mentioned before.  To be one of the saints is to have a personal relationship with God our Father through his Son Jesus Christ.  It is more than following a code of morality and ethics.  It is more than attending worship services in a special building.  It is more than serving in the church and undertaking tasks in the community.  These are all good things, but ultimately they will drain us of life and joy unless we have the life of God in our soul.  But if I have the life of God in my soul, and you have the life of God in your soul, we share the same life.  We have a connection.  We act this out when we share the Peace and we live it out when we share our lives.  As in even the closest family, we do not always get on with each other perfectly, but there is a bond of love, of fellowship, that marks us collectively as the saints of God.  Jesus said that outsiders, who are not saints, will know that we are his disciples if we love one another.

Third, we devote ourselves to the breaking of bread.  The simple act of sharing a meal symbolises our shared lives.  As we gather at a table where Jesus is our host, we take bread and wine as Jesus has commanded.  As we eat these every day food items with faith, it is as if we are feeding on Christ, and we strengthened in our inner lives.

Fourth, we devote ourselves to prayer.  We pray when we are on our own and we pray when we are together.  We pray reading words from a book and we pray making it up as we go.  We pray in silence and we pray listening to music.  We pray as we do art and as we undertake simple tasks.  We breathe in God as we inhabit the air around us.  This is for each of us alone, and it is for all of us to share as the saints of God.

The fellowship and “set-apartness” flows over into the way that believers share their goods and belongings.  As well as praying and bible reading and eating together, the early church had all their goods in common together.  This was not communism but a practical expression of shared belonging, that they were saints together.  Today we do this by our offerings.  The plate by the door is primarily there for those who consider themselves members.  It is a delight and very welcome if visitors feel that they would like to contribute to the work of God that goes on here and we are very grateful.  The vast amount of our income, though, comes from the regular generous and often sacrificial giving of the members, the saints, who either have standing orders or give through the numbered envelopes scheme.  We are profoundly grateful for that as well.

It is no secret that we are budgeting for a financial shortfall this year.  This can be avoided if 20 more folk were to become members of the Planned Giving Scheme.  The challenge is greater than that.  We should be budgeting to employ a youth worker, and that would enable us to do a much better job of serving not just our own young people, but also those in the uniformed organisations and in the schools of our town.

The Collect for All Saints is a prayer that we all may live as one of God’s holy people.  It picks up the thought that we can learn from the saints who have gone before us, so that we can live those lives that are set apart, to bring glory to God and to bring us to our new lives in the age to come.

Almighty God,
you have knit together your elect
in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord:
grant us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living
that we may come to those inexpressible joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord …..

Discussion Starters
1.     Henry Scougal (1650-1678) wrote the book “The Life of God in the Soul of Man”.  What does this book title suggest to you about what makes someone to be one of the saints?
2.     “Saint”, “Holy”, “Set apart”.  Has this sermon changed the way that you think about these words, and if so, how?
3.     What were the practical ways that being one of the saints was seen in the life of the early church?  How do we live them out today?
4.     In what way does being baptised and sharing communion help us think about being one of the saints?
5.     How would you answer someone who expressed the view that “there are no real saints around today”?

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