Ephesians 1.11-23, Luke 6.20-31
For one of the great feasts of the church year, I can’t help but think this is not the most celebratory of gospel passages! From ‘blessed are you…’ to ‘woe to you…’ and even among the blessings there is hunger and weeping.
How do we read these blessings and woes? Not, I think, as a matter of reward or punishment: ‘if you’re good you’ll get this’, ‘if you’re bad this will happen’. No, that doesn’t stand up: hunger is not a virtue; laughter is not a vice. These statements, I want to suggest, are less about consequences, less about future outcomes in the here or hereafter, and more about the very nature of what it means to be blessed.
In these beatitudes, these statements of blessing, Jesus reveals something about what blessing is. This is not the picture-perfect, Instagram-ready, #SoBlessed life of edited highlights and neat happy endings. That, God knows, is not the world we live in. This is an altogether deeper and more complex sort of blessing. This is not the blessing of everything turning out ok, but the blessing of God being with us in the struggle.
And that’s what makes it such an apt reading for All Saints Day. The lives of the saints too are about the blessing of knowing God with us in the struggle, of living with and for God in strange and challenging times, of wrestling for a blessing, and finding it in the mess and muddle of ordinary and extraordinary lives.
Saints are not heroes. Saintliness is not the same as heroism. Heroes are those self-sufficient super-people who can conquer the baddies and make sure good triumphs every time. Saints are not like that. Saints are those who know themselves utterly reliant on God, who know they can do nothing in their own strength, who faithfully persist in the pursuit of justice and peace, and in their longing for a closer walk with God, all for love’s sake.
Some saints have their own day in the calendar, and a raft of stories that have grown up around them. But today we celebrate all saints, the saints known only to a few or only to God. We might like to think of those who have been saints in our own lives, who have shown, us what it looks like to live a life pointing towards Jesus.
My favourite description of what it means to be a saint comes from a child who had been on a school trip to a church. She had seen the stained glass windows and been told by the vicar about some of the saints depicted in them. Some weeks later, that same vicar was in school for an assembly and asked the children if they knew what a saint is. That little girl remembered the stained glass and put up her hand to answer: “saints are the people the light shines through”.
So what about us? We are not, by and large, particularly heroic. Few of us will be called on to fight dragons (literal or metaphorical). Most of us, most of the time, are muddling through our ordinary lives as best we can. And that is where, in the ordinary places of our lives, we too can be saints: “the people the light shines through”, the people who point to Jesus, the people who speak Good News.
And what is that Good News? Not that everything is going to be ok if only we follow Jesus. Not that happiness or an easy life is what it looks like to walk with God. The lives of the saints tell us for sure that that is not true, and so too do our own lives. We know that bad things happen to good people. We know that we and the people we love will grieve deeply and painfully, and that there will be things we cannot have which we long for with a hunger which cannot be satisfied.
“Blessed are you who are hungry.” “Blessed are you weep.” Blessed are we when we allow ourselves to engage with the full range of what it means to be human, the full breadth and depth of human experience and emotion – life in all its fullness – and find that God is in it with us. Sometime elusively, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes in ways we can hardly describe and barely cling onto, and sometimes in ways so powerful and obvious they take our breath away, God is with us.
In all our doubt and pain and grief and joy, God is with us, as God has been with saints of every generation, those forebears in faith through whom the light has shone so we can see it. That is Good News, that is blessing indeed. And now it is our turn to be the ones through whom the light shines in a world which sometimes seems to be growing ever darker.
But we do not do it alone. We are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” We are among the communion of saints, enfolded together with everyone in every age and place who has dared to follow Jesus, and everyone who ever will. We are, together with them, as St Paul writes to the church at Ephesus, “the church, which is [Christ’s] body, the fullness of him who fills all in all”.
Every time we come to the table to eat and drink holy things, to be filled with the fullness of God, to remind ourselves that we are what we eat, the body of Christ, we do so in the company of all the saints. Here we join with the eternal worship of heaven, as we speak and hear the words eternally spoken. Here, by the grace and power of God’s holy spirit, this ordinary stuff of bread and wine becomes for us the presence of Jesus. Here for a moment time collapses into eternity as we are called to share in the banquet of God’s beloved with all saints in every time and place.
Perhaps in this season of remembrance we may feel that connection especially acutely with those we have loved and lost, who are held safe forever in God’s love which enfolds us too.
We, with the whole company of saints, are fed at God’s table, and sent out from that table to shine as lights in the world, to live as those through whom the light shines. We may not feel up to the task. And for that reason, my favourite lines in that great hymn ‘For All the Saints’ are: “O blessed communion, fellowship divine, we feebly struggle, they in glory shine, yet all are one in thee for all are thine”. Our feeble struggles, our inadequacies and uncertainties, with all that we are and all that we do, are held in the same light and love as the lives of the saints in glory.
We do not have to be up to the task. We do not have to – indeed we cannot – live saintly lives in our own strength. But by the grace and blessing of God from whom all blessings flow we may become more and more “the people the light shines through”. That is what we celebrate on All Saints Day: our calling to “share in the inheritance of the saints in light”. As we follow that call, may we hear the gentle voice of Jesus say: “blessed are you…” and know the grace of God’s blessing in the depths of our being.