One of the questions I often get from newcomers to the Episcopal Church, especially if they are coming from more Protestant backgrounds, has to do with the meaning of the saints. There’s a view among some Protestants, and it goes back to the Protestant Reformation, that devotion to or commemoration of the saints, is not quite biblical. Often these questions turn to whether, if someone joins the Episcopal Church, they need to start praying to the saints. Other times, though, there’s a bit of an edge to such questions, not unlike the time a former student once blurted out during a discussion on the Virgin Mary’s significance in the Christian tradition, “What’s so special about Mary?” My response? “She’s the Mother of God.”
Our calendar is interspersed with Saints’ Days. We occasionally observe them at a Sunday service, as we did last month with St. Francis. More often, the saint of the day is acknowledged during our weekday services. But at the services we do much more than commemorate the saints of the church—the apostles, martyrs, theologians, and other heroes of the universal church. We also remember a much broader group of people, men and women who have done great things for the Church and the world. Often those people are completely unfamiliar to me, but their presence on our calendar is a reminder of an important point. The saints are not just famous Christians, past and present. The saints include perfectly ordinary Christians, like you and me.
Today is All Saints’ Sunday, a day when we pause to remember all of those who have gone before us. It is a day we acknowledge that the community of the faithful, the body of Christ, consists not only of those who are living now. Today we will read off the names of those who have died in the last year or more. The names will be familiar to some of us and hearing them may bring back fond memories of loved ones and friends with whom we shared laughter and tears, and much more. Some of them are even saints, in the sense that we use the term today, models of faith, who helped bring us to faith or who we saw reaching out to those in need.
But All Saints is not just about the departed. It is also a reminder that in one sense of the term, in the sense used in the early church, all of the baptized are saints. For the author of Ephesians for example, the saints are no more than God’s people. So All Saints is not simply a time to remember those who have died in the past year or before. It is also a time when we think about what it means to be a community of the faithful, the body of Christ.
In today’s Gospel we hear Luke’s version of the beatitudes. Most of you are probably more familiar with the version Matthew records in the Sermon on the Mount. Luke’s version is notable for several differences from Matthew. In addition to the set of blessings, Luke adds a parallel set of woes, or curses—Blessed are you poor, woe to you who are rich. In addition, he uses the second person pronoun—Blessed are you, while Matthew reads, “blessed are the.” But perhaps most important, the tone is quite different. Where Matthew reads Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God, Luke has Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Luke’s version is much more dramatic, more immediate. It is also confrontational. Jesus’ hearers know where they stand, they know to which group they belong. In fact, this is something of an uncomfortable reading for a day like the commemoration of all saints. Jesus draws sharp distinctions between rich and poor, those who are hungry and the well-fed; those who laugh and those who mourn. Later in the reading he gives what seem to be a set of rules for his followers. Love your enemies. If anyone takes your coat, give him your shirt also; give to everyone who begs from you; if someone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
No doubt we read this text on this date because of the “Blesseds” because they seem to refer to the saints, those models of the faith to whom we look—St. Francis, the Virgin Mary, even Mother Teresa in our own day. But the translation “blessed” is somewhat misleading. A better translation might be “Happy are you poor” Jesus is not simply complimenting the behavior of a few; he is saying something about what the Kingdom of God is like. What he says challenges everything we hold most dear. Those Jesus says are blessed, or happy, are neither of those things. They are suffering, oppressed. He is saying that whatever we may think, the Kingdom of God will bring about their vindication, their triumph.
Jesus’ message is clear. Whatever we think matters here and now, in this life, is of little or no value in the eyes of God. The kingdom of God, the rule of God, operates by a different set of values. Indeed, the language that Jesus uses is not just about concrete matters of economics or a full stomach. There is a strong connotation of honor and shame as well. To be poor, hungry, and mourning, in the world of first-century Palestine also meant having no status, being dishonored. Jesus is announcing that the reign of God brings honor and repute to those who are the least valued by society.
The connection between today’s gospel and our commemoration of All Saints’ may not be completely obvious. But if we take a somewhat broader perspective, we may begin to understand what is going on here. The Feast of All Saints is a celebration, not just of the great heroes of our faith. It is an opportunity for us to remember those we love but see no longer; all of those people who are now in the nearer presence of God. The community of the faithful, the body of Christ does not consist only of our brothers and sisters who sit next to us in the pews or even those who belong to other churches in Madison or around the world. The Body of Christ includes all of those, yes, saints, who have gone before. We belong to one single community of the faithful, one body in Christ.
That is what we celebrate today, and our Gospel is a forceful reminder that the body of Christ exists because of and through God’s reign. It’s not enough that we will enjoy God’s reign when we pass over into the larger life. Jesus proclaims that the reign of God exists here and now around us, whether we see it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is unsettling, challenging us in our very core. Blessed are you poor, for you will … Blessed are you who hunger now. These “blesseds” are not something we can reinterpret and take the edge off. They challenge us where we are, at the very core of our being and values.. They are hard words to hear in the midst of all of our wealth and bounty. Their very concreteness and immediacy shock us out of our complacency.
And complacent we are. We recite the Lord’s Prayer with the familiar petitions to “Give us this day our daily bread,” and “your kingdom come, your will be done.” The words come out easily whether we mean them or not. But this prayer is the heart of what Jesus means by the Reign of God. The poor and hungry will be filled, they will have their daily bread, when God’s reign comes.
But the important thing to remember is that God’s Reign is real, whether or not we see it. Yes there are poor and hungry people now, but they will be vindicated by God’s justice and righteousness. It’s real, even if it is not yet visible.
And that’s true of the saints as well. In earlier centuries, it was fairly common among Protestants at least, to refer to themselves as the saints. We find that term somewhat quaint and it might even seem presumptuous. The truth of the matter is that it’s a perfectly appropriate term, both for those who have gone before and for ourselves. It’s not that we have somehow achieved some level of holiness or sanctification. We know better than that. We are familiar with all of our sins and shortcomings. Rather, to call ourselves saints, and to call our congregation, the body of Christ the communion of Saints, is to remind us that through God’s grace, we already are what we hope to be; that we are members of God’s kingdom, participants in God’s reign, in spite of all of our weaknesses and shortcomings. Thanks be to God!