Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass, All Saints Sunday 2016

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

What does it mean to be a saint? The word “saint” means “holy”, and God is holy, so saints are people who are like God, or who reflect something of God. And to reflect God we need to be focused on God and not on ourselves.
So saints reflect God. But they do that in the world as it is, which so often fails to reflect God. To be a saint, then, is to be a light in the darkened world. It is to be someone who makes a difference. Holiness lights up and transforms the world.
In today’s Gospel Jesus describes what it is like to be holy, and the darkened world that holiness illuminates and transforms. The oppressive power of the world seems to have the upper hand. But transformation is coming. Those who are rich have received their consolation, those who are full will be hungry, those who laugh will mourn and weep.
Whereas those who are hungry will be filled, as Mary proclaimed in her Magnificat at the beginning of Luke’s story. Those who mourn will laugh. And those who are hated, excluded and reviled are great in heaven – which doesn’t mean pie in the sky when you die, it means the reality of God’s kingdom lived out and enacted. It means the world transformed.
This is Luke’s “great reversal”, one of the great themes of his Gospel, an upside down world being turned the right way up at last.
Who are the saints, then? Who are the people who are to change the world? We might think of the well-known ones, Saint Peter, Our Lady, and so many others ancient and modern, whose feast days we celebrate through the year.
But today is the feast of all the saints. This not only means all those who are now in heaven, known to us and unknown. It also means the Church on earth. St Paul describes all ordinary Christians as “saints”. He regularly uses that word when writing to the church at Corinth, for example, and he doesn’t mean that they great examples of heroic virtue. In fact, he often criticizes them for their faults – in doctrine, discipline, and morals. But he still calls them saints.
Why? To be a saint means to be holy. And the whole Church is objectively holy, as we confess in the Creed: “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”. We are adopted in Christ by the grace of baptism, and so we are holy, children of God.
But we also need to grow into that grace of adoption throughout our lives. We are both objectively saints in Christ and called to become saints in our lives.
If that seems contradictory, think of an analogy.  Imagine a car, a clapped out old banger chugging along the road, with rusty body panels, a missing wing mirror, the engine keeps cutting out, and there are squirrels nesting under the bonnet. But it is undoubtedly a car. It is not a cake or a tree or a shade of purple. And by a process of repair and renewal it can become more fully the car that it already really is.
So it is with us. We are objectively saints, adopted in Christ, we are children of God. And by a process of repentance and the renewal of grace we can become more fully the saints that we are meant to be, and that we already are by God’s gift.
Objectively saints in Christ, we are being made saints in our lives as we are transformed into his image. And that transformation is also the seed, the catalyst, for the transformation of the world. The world is to become holy – that is, it is to reflect what God is like more and more – by means of people becoming holy as they live in the world.
Our reading from the book of Daniel speaks of this transformation. Daniel was written at a time when the Jewish people were threatened and persecuted. The four “beasts” that Daniel sees in his vision are four kingdoms that had oppressed the Jewish nation at various points in history. But the promise that Daniel receives is that the holy ones of the Most High – that is, the saints – “shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom for ever”.
And Paul writing in Ephesians sees that promise fulfilled in Christ. Christ has been raised from the dead by the power of God who, “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places” – and again “heaven” is God’s rule lived out and enacted. Because of this Christ is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.”
God’s rule is perfectly enacted and lived in Christ, raised from the dead. The oppressive power of the world is conquered and overturned. This is an objective fact, in Christ. But as with our own transformation by grace, this objective truth has to become real as the world, too, is transformed.
What is the means of that transformation? Paul tells us, it is the Church. Christ is “head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all”.
Now the Church, of course, is both human and divine. And sometimes the human element is all too obvious, not yet transformed into the image of Christ that it is called to reflect. Part of the mystery of the Church is that it is holy with sinning members. Tomorrow marks the 499th anniversary of Martin Luther initiating the Protestant Reformation, a reminder of how far the Church can stray from what it is called to be.
But the Church is nonetheless human society in the process of transformation, on the way to the Kingdom of God. We are knit together in one communion and fellowship, as the collect for All Saints Day says. It is the communion and fellowship of all who are poor and oppressed, of all who mourn and are excluded, of all who are holy because they reflect what God is like. It is all those who are being transformed by his grace, as they transform the world.
This vision of the Church is greater than the just visible Christian institution. Last week I was at a meeting of faith leaders at Muswell Hill Synagogue, and there was a Muslim woman there from the Bravanese community, wearing full hijab. We were discussing incidents of abuse and hatred; she said that, if someone were to abuse her for her race or religion, “I would pray for him; that might make him good, and it would then make me good, too”. What does Jesus say? “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
Holiness has nothing to do with the self-absorbed self-realisation that the world pursues. It is nothing to do with being rich, or full, or powerful. Holiness is, rather, about finding our true selves by forgetting ourselves in Christ. By being absorbed in his gaze, and transformed into his image, we become who we truly are.

And our poverty will then be blessed by his riches, our mourning transformed into resurrection, the outsiders brought into the centre, the humble lifted high. Because All Saints Day is about us being made holy, and therefore about everything being made holy, and the world being transformed into the Kingdom of God.

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