Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 9 August 2015
Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie
Trinity 10 E&B
In our day of thanksgiving one psalm let us offer
For the saints who before us have found their reward;
When the shadow of death fell upon them, we sorrowed,
But now we rejoice that they rest in the Lord.
So we sing year by year at patronal festival, and others have taken up the hymn because we use it here. We like it, presumably, because it grounds the question of our dedication, All Saints, in our immediate community; it reminds us that the saints are not distant mythical people, but real flesh and blood sinners like us. It’s a bit passive though: ‘now we rejoice that they rest in the Lord...’
A potential pitfall of our dedication was brought home to me last week when someone came to make their confession for the first time. I wanted to establish what she understood by her request before we began, so we had a conversation about it. She was a member of the Celestial Church of Christ (a 20th century Nigerian church with many congregations in the UK) and had read in her King James Bible (which the Celestials insist is the only revealed word of God) that if she had a problem she should take it to the saints. She’d googled ‘saints’, and found us, ‘All Saints’: fantastic, a church made up entirely of saints. Not only did we have the right name, but we also provided the facility for confession. Job done. Well, not quite.
This evening we heard one of the most familiar biblical phrases applied to the communion of saints, the ‘great cloud of witnesses’. For several years while celebrating Mass I had before me above the altar an impressive stained glass window which depicted this: a massive throng of biblical and post biblical figures gathered around the crucified Christ (it was Sydney, so the diocese had insisted that the Virgin Mary should have a beard added to discourage Mariolatry, but that’s another story). Like many biblical images the ‘cloud of witnesses’ has become if not exactly a cliché, certainly over-familiar. Coming back to it this last week, it first suggested to me that stained-glass image. But the writer of Hebrews had never seen that type of Christian iconography: what did he mean by it?
I think perhaps it was the ‘cloud’ that had led me in the wrong direction. Images of the Ascension and other heavenly iconography have made much of clouds. But the word ‘cloud’, applied to a large group of people, has a long history in Greek – it was a standard conversational metaphor for a large army, for example. Here, it is part of a very concrete image, of the sort we know better from St Paul. Because the cloud of witnesses is, if you hadn’t noticed (and I hadn’t, really), the crowd of spectators at an athletics event. Hence the cover of your order of service this evening.
We are being asked to imagine the saints who surround us as spectators, more like a football crowd than an artistically-arranged and neatly-representative collection of the great and the good. Being the Greco-Roman ancient world, of course, this isn’t football but a running race – which would have ignited similar passions in 1st-century civic life. And this is a race in which we are all runners, being encouraged by the front-runner, Jesus, on whom we are to keep our eyes fixed as a point of aspiration.
This is important because faith, of which we heard a series of human and practical examples last Sunday evening, is being presented
… as a quality of persistent attachment to Christ, not acceptance of “the faith” in the sense of a series of catechetical propositions.
The life of faith, in other words, is precisely that, a ‘life’ lived, not a hobby, not a compartment of the mind, and emphatically not an instrument for controlling other people. Moreover it has anurgency about it. It is a race, not a stroll after a large Sunday lunch. It is gritty rather than elegant, suggesting sweat and overtired muscles; it requires training, perseverance, discipline and dogged determination. It attracts the noisy and fanatical devotion of, dare I suggest, an Arsenal supporter. And it appeals here, as no doubt it did to St Paul, because it speaks to the continuing challenges of life rather than the emotional high points of conversion, personal illumination, or that guru-worship which displaces the need for our own endeavour.
There was a good deal about discipline in the passage we heard this evening, including some defensive-sounding rhetoric about what happens when things don’t go our way. If that happens we are being chastened, the writer says, by a truly loving parent, whose love is demonstrated by the discipline he applies. This is no longer a fashionable view of parenting, and it probably isn’t very good PR for the faith either. But it expresses an unavoidable truth about our faith, that we will only mature in it if we persevere on bad and bored days as well as good and lively ones.
And ‘mature’ is the other key idea here. Jesus, whom we are to keep before us as our primary encouragement, backed up by this saintly barracking from the sidelines, is described as ‘the pioneer and perfecter of our faith’. Perfect in the New Testament means ‘mature’, fully realising the potential that is in someone or something. Perfection, as articulated by Jesus and the NT is not an impossible ideal, but the earthed aim of every grown-up Christian life. ‘Be perfect’ means be the best version of yourself that you can be, just as God is perfect divinity.
Hebrews was written as a text to encourage Christians for whom living the faith was proving not just unrewarding but dangerous; the persecution we hear of today is nothing new. But it also provides encouragement for every one of us as we struggle to keep Christ at the centre of our lives, always a challenge with so much to distract us.
One thing we can all do about that is to reconnect with regular church-going, prayer and biblical reading as a matter of discipline rather than choice (even confession, which is also available to those who are not members of the Celestial Church of Christ).
We are being reminded to look beyond ourselves and our struggles, large and small, first to Jesus, and the cross (and resurrection) but also to those who have displayed, and do display, heroic discipline in the faith and to remember that they are not just dispassionately looking on from stained-glass heaven, but actively barracking for us as we get it wrong and have to pick ourselves up and get back in the race. The real Celestial Church has a pint in its hand and a supporter’s strip on its back, and it sings to bring the roof down.