The feast which we celebrate today is something of an historical accident, it began as the dedication of a chapel to All Saints in St Peter’s in Rome by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century, as a way of commemorating all the members of the Church triumphant, thousands and thousands of them. It reminds us that our worship on earth is joined that of heaven, and we are one church together, joined in the worship of Almighty God The feast gives us a chance to consider saints, who and what they are, and what it means to be one. In short there are two things which we need to know about all the saints: that there are many of them and that they are all on our side.
Though, at first glance, the example of the saints and their number can also appear unnerving, even off-putting: when we consider the example of the saints, of lives lived in unity with God’s will and purpose we can begin to feel that we humble Christians with our ordinary hum-drum lives and simple faith cannot live up to the example set by the saints and that heaven has no place for us.
But on this feast of All Saints, I would like to begin by considering the saints themselves. Many people, if you were to ask them what they thought about a Saint would probably reply that they are better than the rest of us, but they somehow earned their reward amongst the church triumphant, but this is quite wrong. No one can earn their way into heaven, and the church has never subscribed to a doctrine of salvation through works. This is not to say that a Saint is simply a sinner, revised and edited. The lives and examples of the saints show us the way to Heaven because they reflect the Good News and the person of Jesus Christ.
All of us, in our baptism, receive the grace of God, his free gift whereby our souls are infused with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. We ALL of us receive the same grace as all the Saints Triumphant, we are given, through our baptism all that we need to get to heaven, through the free gift of God.
In this morning’s Gospel Jesus goes up a mountain, just like Moses to teach people how God wants them to live their lives. In what He teaches them, Jesus is always the first and greatest example. and that there are saints in Heaven is because they have lived Christ-like lives, they have lived the life of the Kingdom of God among us, and now enjoy eternity in God’s presence, caught up in the outpouring of love and worship. Heaven is not so much a place, but much more about a relationship with God, made possible by Jesus Christ.
Jesus says many things in the Gospel passage this morning which should strike us as odd if we look at them in worldly terms. That’s the point! Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God, and about Himself.
What greater example could there be of humility than the fact that Jesus Christ was born among us, and shared our human life. The simple fact of the Incarnation, which we will prepare to celebrate at Christmas, changes everything. He comes to share our humanity so that we might share His Divinity. It is an act of such generosity that the only proper response is worship. We honour a God who is characterised by generosity and humility. To be poor in spirit is to lack a sense of one’s own importance, it is the exact opposite of feeling self-satisfied or rejoicing in the fact that we have attained wealth or status or anything that is seen as important in the eyes of the world. The meek will inherit the earth. Because in God’s eyes their gentleness and kindness is what really matters.
We are used nowadays to a ‘go-getting’ world where you are deemed to have succeeded by possessing a confidence bordering on arrogance, where all that matters is your own success. Whereas, in the kingdom of heaven those who are meek, and gentle and kind, those who think about others before themselves will be rewarded in a way which exceeds their expectations – Jesus’ vision of the world lived in accordance with the will of God does turn our understanding upside down.
To be poor in spirit is to be humble, to know that you’re a sinner, that you are no better than anyone else, and that you need God’s love and mercy. It is the exact opposite of pride, that first and foundational sin, whereby humanity thinks it knows better than God, and wants to go its own way. Humility is not masochism or self-pity, but instead a recognition of our reliance upon God and God alone. If the way to salvation is narrow then the door itself is low down, and only through humility may we stoop to enter. That is why Jesus says this first, because those who are poor in spirit, those who are humble and know their need of God, can live out lives in accordance with God’s will. They can live out their baptism, and share in Christ’s death and new life.
The most surprising Beatitude is the last one: ‘Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.’ (Mt 5:11-12 ESV) Jesus is talking to His disciples, who are following Him. He looks to their future and tells them what it will be like, it mirrors His own coming rejection and death in the Gospel. It looks to the Cross as the place of Love, Humility , and Reconciliation, where Christ will restore humanity, and inaugurate the Kingdom, in a New Covenant, in His Blood, and after three days rise again to show us that our destiny is to be with God in Heaven. God keeps his promises and loves us. If we want to be saints, then we have to be like Christ, share in His suffering and death, be prepared to be rejected by the world, and dismissed as irrelevant.
We may not face imprisonment, torture and death in this country, but many Christians do. Instead we are scorned and ignored, or put in a corner and given a patronising pat on the head. What do we do? We are loving, and generous, and forgiving, because that is what Jesus showed us. We can confront the world around us because we belong to a new community, the community of faith, built on our relationship with Jesus Christ, who came to save humanity from itself. He came that we might have life and have it to the full, and that is what the Beatitudes mean. We live the life of God’s Kingdom here and now. We live the life of heaven here and now, because of who Christ is, and what he has done for us, to transform the world around us one soul at a time. It may sound crazy, but it is what God wants us to do, and what Jesus showed us to do, and how to do it.
If we are courageous, kind, and humble, then we can give the world an example to follow, as opposed to the violence, greed, corruption, and a shallow cult of celebrity, which seem to characterise our modern world. We can truly offer an alternative, which shows that we are in the world but not of it, and in which the light of the Gospel will shine.
Thus when we consider what constitutes proper behaviour for human beings and how we should live out our faith in our lives the picture of the saints in heaven becomes a far less off-putting one. What God requires of us, and what the saints have demonstrated was their willingness to do what God asks of us, no more and no less.
So let us, on this feast of All Saints, be filled with courage, ready to conform our lives to God’s will and live out our baptism and our faith in the world — as this is what we are called to do, and our reward will be great in heaven.