A Sermon Preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields,
on Sunday 3 November 2019
So, today, on this the Sunday closest to 1st November, we are celebrating the theme or festival of “All Saints” … so let’s begin with what we think about the clergy.
Some decades ago a Congregationalist writer, C. J. Cadoux, was criticised for a book he wrote. According to his critics, Cadoux had an insufficiently high view of ordination; the “setting aside” of some within the church for specific roles and offices such as priest or minister. Cadoux’s response to this has stayed with me ever since I read it, and I have used it as a “rule of thumb” in my understanding of such matters.
“Actually,” he replied, “I think I do have a high view of ordination. I’m also happy for others to have an even higher view of ordination … as long as their view of the Church is higher than their view of ordination. And also, I’m happy for people to have as high a view of the Church as they like, as long as they have a higher view of Christ.” I like that: as high a view of the ordained – priests and clergy – as you like as long as your view of the Church is higher; as high a view of the Church as you like as long as your view of Christ is higher still. To me, that seems to get things in the right order: ministers are there for the Church (not the other way around), and the Church is there for Jesus Christ.
So now that we’ve dealt with those pesky ordained ministers, let’s get on with the important stuff and talk about the God, the Church and Jesus Christ, or as Paul puts it in this letter to the Ephesians, ‘your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and your love towards all the saints.’ (1:18)
‘All the saints.’ Did you see that Prince Charles was at the Vatican last month? The occasion was the canonisation of John Henry Newman, the first English person born since the 1600s to be declared a saint (canonised) by the Roman Catholic Church. Newman was a nineteenth century Anglican priest who converted to Roman Catholicism. Working in Birmingham (and somewhat unhappily in Ireland for a spell) he was a thinker and writer whose ideas anticipated some of the positions subsequently adopted by the Roman Catholic Church in the second half of the twentieth century. Well, now he’s officially Saint John Henry Newman, according to the Roman Catholic Church.
Of course, there’s a lot to be said for having prominent, widely recognised saints; people whose faith provides outstanding examples of the varieties of Christian faith lived well in this world. And that variety was displayed by the Vatican back in October. In the ceremony where the English John Henry Newman was canonised so were an Indian, a Swiss, an Italian, and a Brazilian – and all of them were women. And, of course, we’re happy to talk about Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, to say nothing of Irish saints like Saint Kevin and Saint Columba.
On the other hand, there’s a danger in focusing on outstanding individuals in a way that obscures an important truth – that we’re all saints too. This letter to the Ephesians begins, ‘Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus.’ (1:1) Then, as he puts it in today’s reading, ‘I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and your love towards all the saints,’ and ‘I pray … you may know … what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among all the saints.’ (1:15, 17, 18)
As far as I know, as yet, there is no officially Church-recognised Saint Trevor. I’m not going to let that play on my mind, however, because I’m already a saint, whatever else the wider Church wants to say about me. Years back, a Roman Catholic friend informed me that there was a movement within the Church to have me canonised, and once they found a cannon big enough, they’d get on with the job forthwith!
If I was ever proposed for sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church I would be appalled. This would not be because of theological differences but because their process involves a thorough investigation of the life of the one so proposed to make sure that they had lived their life in in such a saintly manner so as to be an example to other Christians. How many of us would sign up to have our lives investigated in such a way and the results published for all to see? As the movie mogul, Sam Goldwyn once said, “include me out”!
But my many various failings in life, which I am not going to share with you in this sermon, don’t disqualify me from being one of the saints. The proof of this is that Paul could write to the members of this Ephesian congregation on the basis that they were all saints, even though, at times, their behaviour was less than saintly. Later in the letter he has to tell them to (4:25-32) to ‘put away’ a whole series of poor behaviours – telling falsehoods, uncontrolled anger, thieving, evil talk, bitterness, wrangling, slander, and malice. What a charming picture of church life! If these Ephesian Christians were all saints, then so are you and me.
So, if being a saint doesn’t depend on being well-behaved all the time, what does it take to be a saint? Well, the simple answer to that is, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ: ‘I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus,’ writes Paul, ‘and your love towards all the saints’ (1:15); ‘In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things.’ (1:11) Remember, though, it’s not that saints’ behaviour does not matter. Alongside listing their many failings, Paul also commends the positive alternatives: ‘be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you.’ (4:32)
So, saints, whether we are constantly well-behaved or not, are saints because we focus upon Jesus Christ. And why should we focus on Jesus Christ? We focus on Jesus Christ because in and through him we have received what Paul describes as ‘the word of truth’. (1:13) This is the good news of our salvation, that God chooses to redeem us from the consequences of all those bad actions, attitudes and lifestyle that are inappropriate for God’s people; for God’s saints. Jesus, in his teaching, and through his lifestyle, and his life and death and resurrection points to and accomplishes what Paul calls ‘the riches of his [God’s] glorious inheritance among the saints.’ (1:18) In and through Jesus Christ, God accomplishes God’s desire to share abundant life with all people. This is the good news, and that’s why we saints focus on Jesus Christ.
So, we saints focus on Jesus Christ because that’s the best way to understand and respond to God’s love for us, which leads us to a second aspect of being a saint: we also point others to Jesus Christ: ‘I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints,’ Paul writes to the Ephesians. (1:15) Gaining an understanding of the nature of God’s love for us by focusing on Jesus, impels us to love others; it’s the saintly thing to do. It’s the saints’ job to make as much of a reality as possible of Jesus’s declaration that the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the reviled, and the excluded are the ones who will know God’s love.’ (7:22) Imperfect people, like you and me, inspired by Jesus to help vulnerable, downtrodden people today, are being saintly.
Note something, however. We saints point others towards Jesus as the source of the good news, not just towards the Church. I’m not against bringing people to church. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but it’s not a substitute for pointing them towards Jesus. After all, however high our view of the Church, a saint’s view of Jesus must be higher still; he who is, ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come,’ as the Letter to the Ephesians puts it. (1:21)
And I think that this is a big challenge for us today. In general, we are much more comfortable in asking, “how can we get people to come to church?” than we are asking, “how can we point people to Jesus so that they too may come to focus their lives upon him?” If we want this church to flourish, we’re going to have to get better at asking (and answering) the question, “how can we point people to Jesus?”
Maybe you feel under qualified or even unqualified for this task. Perhaps you feel that the strength of your belief, or the imperfections of your personal lifestyle, disqualify you. If so, you’re wrong! As long as you are here and as long as you have some interest in Jesus Christ, then you’re a saint. Maybe, like me, you are an imperfect one. In fact there isn’t any other sort, as I’m sure John Henry Newman and the whole host of saints would agree. What matters is that, by virtue of knowing Jesus, we realise how fortunate we are to be included in God’s love and to be able to share that love with others.
For we are all saints.