Reading Hebrews 11.32-12.2
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
O ALMIGHTY God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord; Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Collect for All Saints Day
As you kick you way through fallen leaves, the Summer seems long past, along with all the delights it brought for those who love sport. And even for those who don’t, there were wonders of other kinds, such as the way London’s transport system handled the period of the Games. Until recently there were still some of those jaunty adverts on the tube showing weightlifters jamming through train doors or a show jumper and horse descending an escalator, warning travellers, ‘Plan your journey’ during London 2012. London Underground has long had a reputation for top-level advertising. A campaign a few years ago focussed on how their staff improved lie for passengers. One advert went like this:
(non-) Event: Priscilla Williams the newest member of our station cleaning team picked up a beer can on the platform which stopped it rolling on to the track and getting caught under a train and causing a delay that would have held up lots of passengers’ journeys into work. We just thought you’d like to know.
Now, leading to this uplifting little story there was probably a mirror-image, depressing story. The beer can was dropped by someone too thoughtless to think what trouble it could cause (or too drunk to care), but they couldn’t have put it in a bin anyway, because the bins had been removed because of the bombs that the IRA might have put in them because of the Troubles in Northern Ireland that had been going on since 1968 – or really since the Easter Rising of 1916 and, in fact, long before that… And even when the Good Friday Agreement might have permitted the return of the bins, there was July 7th which followed September 11th, which was because of the first Gulf War and before that the rather artificial creation of the state of Iraq. And so on.
All of this is proves what we affirm in this month of November each year. Tonight’s collect, for the feast of All Saints, prays to God ‘who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship’. But that is only half of it. God has allowed a world to exist in which the whole human race is knit together. So on Friday 2nd, All Souls’ Day, we remembered in prayer those close to us – saintly or not – who had died. And next week, on Remembrance Sunday, we shall do the same for those who have died in war. These annual exercises in remembering show how we weave the fabric of each other’s existence. Whether it is Northern Ireland or the Northern Line, we live in each other’s lives. You are present in another person’s history; what you have said and done has helped to make them what they are, and will go on shaping them in the future. And in just the same way other people’s lives live in yours. Each one of us can point to a remark, made perhaps many years ago, that has shone a light on us or cast a shadow over us ever since, a shadow that might now stretch even across the gulf between the living and the dead. You know this is true. The only question is whether all this is a blessing or a curse.
It does feel like a curse sometimes. I don’t know what chords I touch if I talk to you: ‘What did I say?’ I ask, at a loss, when I have apparently said the wrong thing. But this season of saints and souls and remembrance is here to remind us of the good news of our knit-togetherness. I am not a self-contained, sealed-off individual. Thank God. My resources are not just my own, what I manufacture in myself; there is more to me than ‘me, myself, I’ (to quote the unintentionally bleak song by Joan Armatrading). Other people are bound up in my life as I am bound up in theirs; we are (as the government tries to persuade us) in this together, as companions on the journey.
‘The communion of saints’ is a phrase we use to celebrate this, the truth that, whatever stage you have reached on your journey into God, it is thanks to many, many people: their words, their love, their example, their prayers, their lives living in you; the truth that you – perhaps simply by bothering to turn up here this evening – are a source of strength to someone else in their journey; and the truth that this knit-togetherness, this ‘communion and fellowship’, extends across the world and across time, even across the gulf between the living and the dead. The writer to the Hebrews says as much in the passage we heard: he calls on his congregation to acknowledge their debt to the ‘cloud of witnesses’ who have gone before, and then makes the extraordinary claim that the destiny of these heroic men and women of faith depends on him and his fairly unheroic audience: ‘They would not, apart from us, be made perfect.’
Saints are people who are willing to let God show them the better ways in which their lives can be tangled up in the lives of others. God can show us these better ways if we can get the habit of looking at ourselves and asking, ‘What am I saying to the people whose lives are woven with mine? How does my choosing, my satisfaction, my frustration or my joy, my anger or my cheerfulness, change them?’ You and I need to protect a little time, regularly, to do this. Another description of the communion of saints could be St Paul’s phrase, ‘the body of Christ’, that corps of people across space and time journeying into God in the wake of Jesus; and in the body, every member has an interest in every other.
We can resist that, pretend that society does not exist, but that does not stop it being true. We can embrace it, but in a selfish way: we can become a people of nosiness and twitching curtains, and turn the church of God into the Neighbourhood Watch from hell. Or, we can embrace it as Christ embraces us. Then we shall see that, in the end, I cannot flourish unless you flourish too, and that what you are – your frustration, your joy – is a part of what I am becoming before God: apart form one another, none of us will be made perfect. And since all the world (whether it likes it or not) is ‘knit together’ but often finds ‘communion and fellowship’ in short supply, then what God does among us, the body of Christ, is Good News that the world needs to discover.
The body of Christ See especially 1 Corinthians 12.12-31; also Romans 12.4-8.