Homily on being placed with the saints

We must never forget, that the heart of our faith as Christians is that we meet God in and through Jesus. As he said “To have seen me, is to have seen the Father”. (John 14:9) This means that we can feel God the Father’s love and compassion for us in a very real way, as we hear Jesus speaking words of comfort and wise advice, and as we see him dying for us on the cross. But our danger is that this gives us such comfort that we fail to see the challenge in much of what Jesus says; and we fail to realise that the God whom he teaches us to call “Father”, is also the God who is, as we heard in the reading from Hebrews (12:18-24) “Nothing known to the senses”  – an immense and powerful force way beyond our understanding.

We need to remember all this as we hear Jesus’ parable today. He appears to be simply giving wise advice on how to be polite and modest at dinner parties, but actually, like all of Jesus’ teaching, this is more about our relationship with God. Yes, there are places where Jesus teaches us that when we are with God, it is he who will sit us down and serve us; but in this teaching that is certainly not the case. Instead, he is warning us not to take God’s welcoming love for granted, as if we could walk into heaven and say “Hello God”, and walk right up and sit down beside him as if we were the most important person in the room. Now I’m sure that you can see how wrong that attitude to God  is, yet we do meet people who do take God for granted like that, don’t we? And perhaps we sometimes can be a bit like that too. It’s one thing to know that God loves us and always hears our prayers, and quite another to take that closeness for granted, and forget who we are talking to.

Two things follow from this. The first is that we must be careful when we pray, not to spend all our time speaking to God, and never giving God time to speak to us. Of course there are times when we’ll want to pour out our story to God, especially when something upsetting or distressing has happened to us, or when we’re in pain or great sadness. God will always listen. But we also need to develop what our 1st Reading calls “An attentive ear”… maybe we should call it “A listening ear” .

This must apply to the whole of our life and not just to our times of prayer. Sadly, when we get busy with our life, or our work, or our problems, it is easy to forget to be sensitive to what God may be saying to us in and through everything that we experience, not just so-called religious things.  The reason why we are encouraged to have “times” of prayer each day, as I mentioned last week, is to help us to make all of our life more responsive to God’s presence, rather than limiting God to only one area of our lives. If we think it’s all right to rattle off a few prayers, and then forget about God and his will for us the rest of the time, then we have missed the point, haven’t we?

This leads on to the second thing I want to say, and that is the importance of developing an attitude of humility in all that we do. Now true humility is not getting agonised about our sins or our failings, instead it’s much more about having a sense of humour about ourselves – not taking ourselves too seriously. I love the story of the new Head Teacher of a very posh school for clever girls, who introduced the radical idea, that these clever girls should be taught the value of failure. She pointed out that instead of agonising about failure and getting steamed up about trying to get perfect results, the best way forward in life is to see our failures not as things to beat ourselves up about, but as some of our best learning experiences. That, you see, is true humility.

The kingdom of God, that we pray for every day when we say the Our Father, is a place where everyone has an equal place and is equally valued. Life with God is not about scrabbling to reach the top of the tree, but about realising that everyone is equally precious to God even, and perhaps especially, if they think of themselves as a failure. That is what the reading from Hebrews says, doesn’t it? “What you have come to is… the whole Church in which everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven…. You have come to God himself… and been placed with spirits of the saints who have been made perfect.”

 Notice that! Not, you have to make yourself perfect to be a saint; but you have been “placed” with the saints, and even they, the holiest of all people, have not made themselves perfect, but have been made perfect….. by God.  That is the kingdom we belong to, and it should affect every aspect of our lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Apocalypse means opening up the glory of heaven

The other day I was trying to encourage some young people to offer to pray for their friends, and was a little startled when they told me that if they did so, some of their friends would just laugh at them. I suppose I was startled, because I had the naive idea that even if people don’t believe, they quite like the idea of being prayed for. It certainly works for some people, but clearly not all. Sometimes all we get is mockery and scorn!

 

We don’t like being laughed at by people do we? Especially if they’re our friends! Deep within us we have a strong desire to be liked and accepted by those around us. Indeed it is why many people give up practising the faith publicly. Some may continue to believe in the privacy of their own home, but others will give up even that, just accepting and absorbing the common view around them – that faith is just a fairy tale from the past!

 

So what sprung out at me from all our readings today (Rev 7:2-14. 1 John 3:1-3. Matt 5:1-12) was that putting one’s faith in God, far from being a modern problem, has always been a struggle for believers. Some atheists and sceptics have the idea that they are “modern”, but this is just nonsense, for persecution and mockery of those with faith has occurred all through history.  This is particularly the case for those that we call saints. The first official saints of the Church were those who were prepared to face not just persecution but actual death for their faith. We heard about them today in our 1st Reading where John, in his vision of the glory of heaven, asks who the people dressed in white robes are, and is told, “These are the people who have been through the great persecution..”

 

Of course this vision of heaven is just that, a vision, for remember there is no space or time with God. So we are given images to evoke something that is beyond our imagining. Sadly some people have taken such images literally, so that “Apocalypse” instead of meaning the opening up of heaven, the revealing of the full glory of God, an image of beauty beyond words, has become some cataclysmic event on earth. Likewise, John, in order to show that the land and sea are material things that will one day be no more, uses the image of 4 angels destroying them. Again we must not take this literally and think of God as a puppet master sending out destruction when he feels like it. These are images given to those facing dreadful fear, and John hypes up these images to show such people that the in the end it is only spiritual things that will last, the things of God – whilst all that is physical, material, will one day be no more.

 

He goes on to say that the saints are a “huge number, impossible to count”. This was important for those facing persecution then, but is also important to us, precisely because we are part of that great number. They, like us, were ordinary people who tried to be faithful to Jesus, and found that what they did made them unpopular with others ; ordinary people who were given the grace to stand out against the mockery of the world.  No wonder we ask them to pray for us! But, don’t think that they all succeeded easily. St Peter ran away from Rome when death threatened him, and only turned back when he had a vision of Jesus on the road asking him where he was going. Others crumbled in the face of persecution and, like many today, gave up practising the faith publicly, even if they maintained it privately.

 

Jesus knew that this would happen, just as he knew that eventually he too would be killed. We know this from the very end of our Gospel today when he says, “Blessed are you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of false and evil things against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward will be great in heaven.”

 

So All Saints Day is not really about those saints we can name. The named saints each have their special day throughout the year, whereas today’s Festival is principally about the unknown saints. The ones who are just like you and me, ordinary people who were never famous but were faithful Christians. Many, long before our time, have names that now only God and his angels know; but there are others we may know. People who helped us and are now with God?  Priests?  Teachers?  Family members? Today is the day to give thanks for them as well, and to try as best we can, aided by the grace of God, to live the same kind of life they lived… quietly but persistently – despite the mockery of some around us – to love for the glory of God and for the good of our fellow men and women, whether they appreciate us or not!

Life after death

The academic presenting Medieval Lives on the TV recently had me shouting at the screen when she said “People used to believe in life after death”, implying that nowadays they don’t. Statistics show a very different picture; because although many more people nowadays say they are not sure God exists, and are not religious, vast numbers of such people believe in some kind of life after death, and quite a few such people also pray! Now don’t ask me how they can do either of those things without believing in God, because to us, there can be no eternal life unless God gives it, and so if God doesn’t exist there is nothing at all once we have died. My guess is that many who say they do not believe in God, when asked what kind of God they do not believe in, come up with some childish idea of God,  that we Christians do not believe in either.

Actually belief in life after death is quite modern. The People of Israel that we read of in the Old Testament didn’t believe that such a thing was possible. For them, the only eternal life you were given was through your children and grandchildren which is why it was such a tragedy, in those days, for those who did not have them.

The first glimmerings of belief in life beyond death appears in the Prophets of the 6th C BC. Some of you may remember from Readings at Easter, the great passage in Ezekiel where he has a vision of dry bones being given new life. (Ezek 37). It was the sadness and desperation of their exile in Babylon at that time that began to teach the people of Israel to think about God in a new way, and to believe that God can be at work in the most desperate situations, even death itself. A fuller belief is then not found until about 200 years before Christ when one of seven brothers being tortured to death for being a Jew says to his torturers:  “For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of everflowing life under God’s covenant; but you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance.” (2 Maccabees 7:36)

Even in the time of Jesus and the early Church, some Jews believed there was new life beyond the grave, as Jesus taught, whilst others still thought there was nothing, even though they believed in God. So the full Christian teaching that we express in our Creed, when we say we believe in “the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting” is a startlingly new idea for many at that time ; but it is still misunderstood. This is because many good Christians cannot get their head round the idea that nothing we say about life beyond death can be absolutely true. I remember one very devout old man asking me a number of times how there would be room for him in heaven if there were millions there already. I had to try and explain that we are using words formed in space and time to describe something outside space and time, and this means that in a way nothing we say can really literally be true.

Dante, whose famous book on life after death from the 13th C gives us all the medieval pictures of people enduring torture and fire and being eaten by dragons, actually explains in one place that the pictures are there to explain something that cannot actually be pictured! So it’s sad in a way that the medieval painters took him literally, and led many simple people astray. All we can do, is believe that once we die we will be with God, nay that we will be drawn into union with God, or as our St Peter says:- we will “participate in his divine nature.”

Now that’s another problem for us, because if we are to be drawn into union with God, it sounds like the Buddhist idea of Nirvana, where our individual personalities disappear, or as the word implies are blown out like a candle is blown out. But we believe that our God is so wonderful that, in a way beyond our understanding, we are both one with him and yet still have our individual personalities, so that we can pray for our loved ones by name, and also can believe that they, and all the great saints down the ages, can and do pray for us, and that their prayers are a great surge of love for us especially when we are desperate.

Speaking of being desperate, did you notice how everyone was mentioning St Jude last Monday as a real person after whom that storm could be named? So not only is the  idea that people no longer believe in life after death nonsense, but they clearly also believe in the saints, especially one that deals in lost causes like St Jude. May all the saints and angels pray for us!.