Scripture: Matthew 5: 1-12
What makes a saint? A cynic might say that they are all dead, and most of them are Roman Catholic. Roman Catholicism continues to declare sainthood, with a particular predilection for sanctifying former popes! Briefly, Roman Catholic canonization requires that the candidate to have lived a specially holy life. As well, he or she either suffered martyrdom or was responsible for two (normally) miracles. Today, these miracles are usually inexplicable cures of illness. The most recently declared saints are Oscar Romero (Archbishop of San Salvador, martyred) and Pope Paul VI (two miraculous cures involving unborn children).
The saints of Lowville (or of your congregation)
The idea of an “aristocracy” of Christians goes counter to St. Paul. He attracted people to his churches on the basis of equality. His message was clear. “Now there is no male or female, servant or free-born, Jew or foreign born.” Paul also expressed this idea in his first letter to his Corinthian church. It begins with these words. “To the Church of God in Corinth, to all those who have been called to be saints and sanctified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ …” Although Paul went on to correct problems in his Corinthian church, he began by calling his congregation saints. If he were writing to us here today, he would begin his letter with these words. “To the Church of God in Lowville, to all those who are called upon to be saints …”
Down the centuries people became very hung up on the idea that saints are only specially holy people. That certainly wasn’t the case for Paul’s congregation in Corinth. One of my teachers at the University of Toronto – a Presbyterian – said that if a church in his presbytery had been so dysfunctional, they would have closed it down. But for all their faults, Paul began his letter by calling them “saints”. Why? I believe that God does not require us to be perfect, but to try our best towards that goal.
Sainthood is not just a remembrance of super-holy people – Gospel writers and early Church martyrs; the Mother Teresa’s and Oscar Romero’s of the modern world, though it surely includes them. Paul’s words remind us that every one of us, all we who turn out Sunday by Sunday – or as many Sundays as we can – is a saint. We come here to worship God and give thanks for all the blessings of our lives. Paul’s saints in Corinth had their faults, just like the saints in the Milton and Burlington areas. But they were, and we are, saints none the less.
Who are the “official” saints of the Anglican Church?
The 16th century Reformers cleaned up an enormous calendar of minor saints. The Anglican Church recognizes the four Gospel writers, the twelve apostles, two Marys, and Paul. Incongruously, the Church of England also made (in 1660) the executed King Charles I a martyred saint. If the Anglican Church followed that rule strictly, we could not call our parish St. George’s! But a typical Anglican compromise permitted existing churches to keep the names of their saints. We could even to continue to use those names for new parishes — like St. George’s, Lowville!
The Beatitudes and ‘future blessedness”
Today’s Scripture is known as the Beatitudes, or blessings. It is one of the best loved of Jesus’ sayings from the Sermon on the Mount. It always reminds me of a 19th century sermon by John Henry Newman entitled, “Holiness as a route to future blessedness.” Newman’s point was that can practise good habits, just as easily as we can fall into bad ones. We try to pray regularly, to love God and love our neighbours. We try to respect the dignity of every human being, and to care for Creation, as we pray in our baptismal covenant. And like St. Paul’s congregation in Corinth, we often fail. But it is the trying that makes us holy (saints).
Both John Henry Newman’s sermon and the Beatitudes look towards the future. Jesus’ statements about what makes a person blessed turn everything in our ordinary experience upside down. One sense of “future blessedness.” might be that if things are going badly in your life, don’t worry, they will get better in the future. That’s possibly why families in mourning often choose to read the Beatitudes at a funeral. The poor in spirit become rich. The mourners find a way to laugh. The meek and the shy – kids who are bullied in school and workers oppressed by tyrannical bosses – get to inherit the earth.
Do the Beatitudes refer only to life in heaven when we die?
Was Matthew living in some kind of La-la Land when he reported these words of Jesus? The cynic says instead, “The poor and the meek don’t inherit the earth; they only get what’s left over.” The even more cynical say that Jesus was referring to a future reward for the sad and oppressed in heaven – what’s often called “pi in the sky when you die”. That interpretation implies that the rich can safely ignore the troubles of the poor while they are here on earth. After all, they will get their reward later.
I do not agree with the preceding argument. My own theology is that the Gospel message relates at least as much to the here and now as to the afterlife. Jesus was not speaking about a future in eternity – i.e., after we die. He was a 1st century Jew speaking to 1st century Jewish people. They imagined that the Messiah would bring God’s righteous reign into this earthly world. They thought that the Messiah would recreate the earthly paradise.
The Beatitudes imagine the present world being brought to perfection
That idea interprets the Beatitudes as the timeless dream of a world in which heaven comes to earth, not the other way round. In that world — God’s world — people treat one another with kindness, love, and respect. They share the earth’s resources so that everyone has enough. Even the very last verse of the Beatitudes (Rejoice; for your reward will be great in heaven) need not be seen in terms of the afterlife. It can just as easily be Jesus’ vision that the heavenly hosts will look on with joy when the eternal dream becomes reality.
What might that look like in 21st century Ontario? No more homeless people. No-one going to bed hungry. No bullying or discrimination. The sad and grieving will be comforted by their friends and neighbours. It’s not God’s job! Politicians will cooperate. They will show one another respect, even when they hold different ideas. Hateful comments will disappear from social media. To our south, ‘Medicare for all’ will become a reality, and political leaders will refrain from trash-talking (yes, you know who I mean). Do we really think that these goals are impossible?
We therefore ask what we, the Saints of Saint George’s, can do to bring the Kingdom of God a little closer. On the one hand, we can practise our holy good habits as a route to future blessedness. Actually, I’d like to rethink that as ‘present blessedness’. There’s nothing new in all this. The prophet Micah wrote that God asks of us only that we should love justice, kindness and humility. Jesus reminded (not told) his hearers to love God and love their neighbours. This, he said, summarizes the laws of Moses. He commanded his disciples to love one another. In that beautiful essay on love in his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul explained that love is kind, not selfish or arrogant, or rude.
On this All Saints Day, let us remember that we are all saints, that is, people trying to be holy, trying to achieve future blessedness. In this congregation here, ordinary people get to be saints – holy people. May God’s grace help each of us to see the world through God’s eyes, so that the earthly and the heavenly realms may become united. The old Prayer Book puts it wonderfully well, in one of the Collects from Morning Prayer. “May all our doings may be ordered by thy governance, to do always that is righteous in thy sight, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”