Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 6:20-31
All Saints Day
St Barbara’s 30.10.2022
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Today we begin a short series on the church. Next week we will be thinking about the church today; two weeks after that, we will be thinking about the church of the future; and today, on the day on which we celebrate All Saints Day, we are thinking about the church of the past, about all those Christians who have gone before us in faith.
A saint is literally someone who is “in Christ”, a Christian. That is how Paul used the word in his letters. He writes to “the saints in Ephesus”, he commends them as we heard in our reading for their “love for all the saints”. So saints was a term for ordinary Christians very much alive. And he also uses it to describe those who have died “in Christ”, those with whom we will share the glorious inheritance of eternal life in God’s presence.
Over the centuries parts of the church have chosen to take a narrower definition of saint – someone who is recognised as living a particularly holy life or dying a particularly holy death. In the Catholic tradition they would be officially canonised – the reward for getting the Christian living equivalent of getting an outstanding first in one’s degree or an A star in a GCSE. The problem with this is that we end up with a hierarchy of Christian, some placed on pedestals, and the rest of us feeling rather inadequate.
The Church of England has tried to plot a slightly different course, recognising that there are Christians throughout the ages, including in more modern times, who have lived lives worth remembering, lives from whom we can learn and be inspired. Some of them are drawn from the early centuries and may have been canonised by other traditions; and others are simply those whose inspirational lives are worth recalling. Most days of the year, on the date of their death rather than birth, there is someone to be remembered. Today, I thought we would look at those who have been remembered in the last few days.
We start with Crispin and Crispianus who died on 25th October in the late 3rd century. As is the case with many of the early saints, including the saint after whom this church is named, Barbara, legend and fact intermingle, and we don’t know a huge amount about them. Shakespeare made Crispin famous by making Henry V talk about St Crispin’s Day on the eve of the battle of Agincourt, but who they were and what they did is lost to us. And yet what we do know is that other Christians were inspired by their willingness to die for their Christian faith, willing to stand up to the brutality and persecution of a tyrannical regime. For them, the Christian faith was worth living for and dying for. Remembering them challenges us to ask what sacrifices we are willing to make to live holy lives – lives that express the love and compassion and justice and truth of God.
Our next inspiring Christians were remembered on Wednesday. First, Cedd, a 7th century monk. He lived for many years on Holy Island, Lindisfarne. Those of you who have been there will know the remarkable place it is. It is often described as a “thin place”, a place where heaven feels close. 1400 years ago, Cedd was one of the earliest Christians to live there, praying in the monastery, caring for the poor, and helping to illustrate and write the extraordinary illuminated manuscripts that began to emerge from there. Moved and touched by God in that place, he then came down to the midlands with his brother Chad, and helped to establish the church here in this area, before moving on to Essex. He also helped out at one of the most important conferences in English church history, the Synod of Whitby, helping to translate from Anglo-Saxon into Gaelic. He was someone who used his gifts, whether of art and calligraphy, or speaking and sharing the good news, or of languages, in the service of God.
Remembering Cedd helps us to think about all those other Christians who through the years have used their gifts in the service of God and to ask: what gifts do I have that I can use to make a difference?
Also on Wednesday the church remembered Alfred the Great, not a bad leader to reflect upon during this time of huge political turmoil. Alfred is one of those remarkable leaders who despite his mistakes and failings managed to shine with integrity and genuine compassion for the people he led. He is best remembered for burning cakes, an act that just highlights how bad things had got, Alfred’s kingdom reduced to a small marsh land in Somerset, his rule reduced to minding some baking. And yet from there, he brought about a remarkable turnaround in the nation’s fortunes, bringing peace and stability to a land devastated by war and encouraging a cultural and economic renewal. The viking threat which had posed a threat to the English people greater than anything we’ve known in our own lifetimes, was overcome.
And all of this was underpinned by a deep Christian faith. He oversaw the writing of the Psalms into English, the first ever English translation of Scripture. He encouraged the rebuilding of churches and monasteries so devastated by viking raids. He encouraged people to learn to read, and he personally translated books on prayer and Christian living into English. He was a man of prayer as well as action.
Alfred was, like all the Christians we think about, a person of his times, and some of his actions we would not want to repeat now, but as an example of someone who lived out his faith with integrity and found strength in prayer and worship, in the midst of extraordinary challenges, he can be an inspiration. And in an era when people of faith tended to go and work in the church or monastery, Alfred’s choice to live out his faith in the nitty-gritty of politics and nation building, also serves as an encouragement to us all. We too may feel that personally or as a nation that we are facing enormous challenges at this time, but we too, living out our faith with integrity and boldness in school, in the workplace, in our community can make a significant difference. Alfred is a shining encouragement to serve God in whatever sphere of life we find ourselves in. We can live out our faith, wherever we are, whatever our circumstances.
Our final saint for the week was remembered yesterday – James Hannington. He, like my great-grandfather, was a missionary in East Africa in the 1880s. The African king of Buganda (modern-day Uganda) had been sympathetic to the Christian faith but when he died, his much more hostile son began a persecution of Christians. Hannington, against all advice and counsel, immediately went to see the new king, and on route, was detained and put to death. His death was one of many. Six months later, 32 African Christians were burned at the stake. As other Christians had done throughout the centuries they walked to their deaths singing hymns and praying for their persecutors, living out today’s gospel reading of loving your enemies, blessing those who curse you, praying for those who ill-treat you. And from their deaths a truly indigenous, African church grew, a church of many millions. But that is not the end of the Ugandan martyrs. Just 45 years ago, countless Christians died including Janani Luwum (who is remembered in February), standing up to the genocide orchestrated by General Idi Amin.
The story of the Ugandan churches is one that reminds us of the worldwide nature of the church, of the gospel’s relevance to any culture and any people. And it reminds us that, just as with Crispin and Crispianus, standing up for all that our faith holds important, love, compassion, justice, freedom to believe, can come at a cost. I wonder what sacrifices, no matter how small in comparison, we may be called to make.
Well, those are the Christians the Church of England has chosen to remember in the last few days. But all of us could add many more to that list. We all know saints. Some are very much still alive, some we are sitting alongside right now, and others are no longer with us.
During this coming month, our month of remembrance, it is good to take time to remember those who are no longer with us, and to think about what they have taught us about faith. No one is perfect, and certainly all these we have briefly thought about today were very human in their failings, but each one of those who has gone before us has been touched and used by God in some way. I wonder, as we think to the saints we have known, who are now in glory, what do we learn from them.
May God inspire us by the example of those who have gone before us that we may be an inspiration to those who come after us.