A Sermon preached at Keble College, Oxford on the Feast of All Saints, 2010
Readings: Daniel vii.1-3 & 15-18, Ephesians i.11-23, Luke vi.20-31
It’s a great joy to be here with you this evening. Thank you for this invitation to be with you, and to explore with you for a little while the riches of the inheritance of the saints in this wonderful setting, and on this special day.
The call of the Christian life is a call to holiness, to self-renunciation, and to the rule of love. Saints do not theorise about sanctity, but rather live it, expound upon it, proclaim it. Often the sacrifices they are called to make are as a result of doing these things well. Those who have undergone martyrdom have in some sense experienced the same consequence of gospel-centred living that Christ did – words, thoughts and actions considered too dangerous, too subversive, for the places and times in which they occurred. This was particularly so in the last century, when it was believed that more Christians were martyred than in any other.
The danger with saints is that we can lionize them to the extent that we fail to appreciate the need for saintly living in this age as well as any other. It is becoming fashionable in a lot of places to mount an attack upon what is perceived as a new and militant atheist apologetic sweeping the land. Now – I don’t doubt that such things are happening, and that humanists have much that is critical to say about people of faith. But perhaps this is a wake-up call – a call to repentance in the church, a call to all people of faith to bring the lofty ideals of faith and belief to bear in practical situations. Very often nationally broadcast criticisms of faith and the faithful frustrate because the Christian response is not all we feel it might be, and there goes up a cry for a renewed Christian apologia to counter such arguments. We know, perhaps, of local churches and faith groups doing good, wholesome and holy things for the good of the kingdom of God and for the care of his precious people – but it’s all very local, and not at all ‘newsworthy’. Still, I remain convinced that there is a lot of Good News out there, wonderful stories of human transformation brought about through the grace-filled witness of the church, and a great many people who are gently wearing the mantle of sanctity in the service of others. But if we are honest, do we sufficient attention to the virtue of humility, the joyful tasks of service, the ‘holy chores’ of grace? Can we honestly say that our lives contribute all they might to the coming of the kingdom? It’s a question we need to ask constantly, and one which our meditation upon the lives of the saints helps to bring to the surface.
It has been said that what distinguishes the saintly is not the capacity to perform the huge, Herculean task, but rather to perform the small and the mundane task with beauty and with grace – to live as in a world invested and charged with the grandeur of God, and so to reveal that grace to the less focused eye. If we would counter the arguments and criticisms of others – some of them well founded – then we must labour to ensure that change is brought about through love, prayer, word and action.
But saints do not merely perform tasks with grace. They live in ways which provide evidence of the divine in human endeavour and being. Faithfulness to the Christ of the Gospels makes clear to us that saintly living is possible in any age, including our own. To offer ourselves to God for this way of life, definite acts of will are required – acts of renunciation of the things which stand on our way, acts of ascesis and mortification, which serve to remind us that it is not we ourselves, but Christ in us, who guides, inspires and makes possible the things we undertake. To that end, St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote that ‘Christian perfection has but one limit, that of having none ’.<1>
I enjoy the thought, from time to time, that Heaven will be a state of endless meetings between saints of different eras. What fun that will be! It will take an eternity to meet them all. I wonder, for example, what St. Stephen, the first martyr, will have to say to St. Paul, who assisted at his execution. I imagine that there will be quite a queue to meet St. Augustine of Hippo, for good or ill, and that one or two friendly discussions will take place between Calvinists and Catholics during the queuing. Then the apostles, of course, meeting their Episcopal successors with a mixture of joy and bewilderment – and one could go on. But one thing is for sure. There is a glorious diversity within the company of the saints – people of all shapes and sizes, some who wielded temporal power and others who shunned it, those who were passionate and argumentative, those who were serene and irenic, those of amazing and intense learning, those of pure and joyful simplicity, those of contemplation, those of action. At some point people who we think of as saints have committed every sin in the book, but their lives were transformed not by their own efforts, but through God’s wonderful and redeeming grace in their lives, so great and strong that they couldn’t help but respond in exciting and radical ways. There are those we know, and celebrate, and those we do not – those whose saintliness has been known only to God. All responded to their time, their circumstances and the events which surrounded them with the light of the gospel – well received in some times and places, rejected in others. What matters is that they sought to be vessels of God’s grace, not only for those around them but for successive generations. It is part of the deepest Christian vocation to cherish our sense of communion, not only with one another but with all who have gone before us, marked with the sign of faith. May the Saints, our brothers and sisters in eternity continue to urge us on, to renewed and fervent holiness, until we are blessed to be among their number, and Christ is all in all.
Vice Principal, St. Stephen’s House
Given at Keble College, Oxford, on 31st October 2010
<1> De vita Mos.: PG 44, 300 D