Sermon Sunday 3 November 2019
Lessons Ephesians 1: 11 – 23 St Luke 6: 20 – 36
Prayer of Illumination
Let us pray.
Sacred Spirit, Holy God, may we be at one with You, aware of Your warmth in the darkness of the soul, Your embrace of love, sustaining us. Amen.
November 1 is All Saints’ Day, the Feast of All Saints, the Solemnity of All Saints, All Hallows’ Day and Hallowmas. It is the day the Church on Earth explicitly acknowledges its sense of union with the Church in heaven: the Church militant at one with the Church triumphant. In the New Testament, every follower of Jesus, everyone who has hope in the resurrection of the dead, is a saint. Every recipient of Paul’s letters, however muddled and sinful was acknowledged by the apostle to be a saint of ecclesia, the church.
All Saints’ Day celebrates the spiritual bond between each of us and every follower of Jesus who has ever lived; every follower in every land since the call of the very first disciple. Spiritually, in meditation, it is a truly powerful belief to be aware that, in Christ, we are one with the 2.2 billion Christians on the planet today and one with the millions upon millions of Christians of every clime and culture for the last 20 centuries.
William Walsham How, bishop and hymn writer, penned these poetic words:
O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
In the 21st century, as the churches in the West become ever smaller, it is a source of immense strength to remind ourselves that we do not stand alone. It is no mere trick of the mind to be reminded that the Church on Earth is at one with the Church in heaven.
To my mind, ‘heaven’ is not a physical place. The word is a metaphor for greater union with God in what lies beyond death, in life beyond this life. When we think of heaven, of that ethereal union with the Eternal, do we think only of Christians? Does God embrace those who are not Christians?
Just over a year ago the world was shocked and deeply saddened by the terrible shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Described as a ‘traditional, progressive and egalitarian congregation’, over the course of twenty minutes, eleven worshippers were killed by a gunman who wanted to kill all Jews. In the days that followed the terrorist attack, lights were darkened across the world in an incredible show of solidarity. The Empire State Building darkened its lights and so too the Eiffel Tower. One year later, just last Sunday, women and men, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, crowded elbow to elbow at the Jewish Family and Community Services building to make blankets for refugees. The gunman had failed to fracture the wider community. One Jewish worshipper said, ‘In the earliest hours after the shooting, I thought it was an attack on the Jewish community. [Now I see that] everyone in Pittsburgh saw this as an attack on all of us’. In moments of greatest suffering, of trauma and violence, human beings stand together: Jewish, Christian and Muslim. Will it be any different in life beyond this life? What does it mean to talk of the Communion of Saints?
Last Tuesday I had the privilege of speaking to a group of Muslim students at the University of Edinburgh. Together with Imam Hassan Rabbani, we shared insights into God; perspectives from two Abrahamic faith traditions. Among other things, Hassan told the story of an eighth century Muslim mystic, a woman: Rabia of Basra. After the death of her father, famine spread across the land. Rabia left her sisters and went into the desert to pray; she became an ascetic, living in semi-seclusion. Rabia became known for her love for God and the whole of God’s creation. It was said that as a loving devotee she become one with God, with the Beloved. A woman of peace, Rabia prayed:
O Lord, if I worship You because of Fear of Hell,
then burn me in Hell;
If I worship You because I desire Paradise,
then exclude me from Paradise;
But if I worship You for Yourself alone,
then deny me not your Eternal Beauty.
In the Islamic tradition, mystic or saints are depicted in art with flames about their head and shoulders, not unlike a luminous halo in the Christian tradition. In one ancient manuscript (Mediaeval Persian) Mohammed is portrayed with Abraham, Moses and Jesus in prayer: each one is enveloped in flames. They are burning with their love and passion for God. If love and passion for God, if service of others, caring for others, is part of what it is to be a saint, does our belief in the Communion of Saints extend in some way to include those other than Christians?
On All Saints’ Day, we gaze upon the saints, those who are embraced by God in this life and for all eternity. In Scripture, we turn to the marks of saintliness. Jesus said:
Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.
Give to everyone who begs from you. Do to others as
you would have them do to you.
These are tough words but words which some of the most remarkable people in human history have used. After his home had been bombed, his young family almost killed, standing alongside white state officials on what was left of his front porch, Martin Luther King Jr. told a largely black crowd, ‘Love your enemies and let them know you love them.’
Jesus said, ‘If you love [only] those who love you, what credit is that to you? At the end of his life Mahatma Gandhi said:
Mine is not an exclusive love. I cannot love Moslems or Hindus
and hate Englishmen. For if I love merely Hindus and Moslems
because their ways are on the whole pleasing to me, I shall
soon begin to hate them when their ways displease me, as they
may well do any moment. A love that is based on the
goodness of those whom you love is a mercenary affair.
Jesus said, ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you.’ Shortly after his inauguration as President, Barak Obama spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast. The President cited the teaching of Jesus, ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself.’ The President said:
It is…the golden rule, the call to love one another; to
understand another; to treat with dignity and respect
those with whom we share a brief moment on this earth…….
It asks each of us to take some measure of responsibility
for the well-being of people we may not know or worship
with or agree with on every issue.
Sometimes, it asks us to reconcile with bitter enemies or
resolve ancient hatreds. And that requires a living, breathing,
active faith. It requires us not only to believe, but to do – to
give something of ourselves for the benefit of others and the
betterment of our world.
The Golden Rule, the mark of saintliness, is the law that God promised to write on the hearts of His people in the Book of Jeremiah. In Ephesians, this is the seal of the Holy Spirit. The Golden Rule describes the relationship between one human being and another as a relationship of equality, of reciprocity.
As we know, the Golden Rule is not unique to Christianity but is found in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and in the Zoroastrian and Jain Scriptures. For example, in Islam, we read:
None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother
what he wishes for himself.
Seek for [humankind] that of which you are desirous for
yourself, that you may be a believer.
In Judaism, we read:
Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the L-RD…..
That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.
That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation;
go and learn it.
Confucius, expounding on what it means to be humane, said, ‘Do not do to others what you would not like yourself.’ Taken together, living out the Golden Rule is the definition of saintliness. That suggests to me that heaven will be full of people of other faiths. Historically, the Church may have understood All Saints’ Day to be the union of the saints on Earth with the Saints in heaven in narrowly Christian terms. If saints are those who live as Jesus bid us to live, then in heaven – whatever that may be – we are united with Buddhists, Taoists, Muslims, Jews and all the others. Suddenly, ‘heaven’ has become more colourful and interesting.