Preacher The Revered Alan Sykes
Today we are celebrating All Saints Day – two days early. All Saints Day falls on Tuesday this year, so watch out for those trick or treaters on Monday evening. In our house we normally turn the lights out at the front, sit in a back room and pretend we’re not in. Cheating, I know, but I’ve never liked trick or treating.
Anyway, that is completely beside the point.
I have to confess that I was a little confused about All Saints Day. It may not be seemly for a clergyperson to admit to confusion but, let’s face it, that’s life.
The thing I wasn’t sure about is this: is All Saints a celebration of all those who have believed in Christ – after all, the New Testament calls all believers saints, as in our first reading from Ephesians? Or is it a celebration of those Christians who over the centuries have shown themselves to be especially saintly?
So I consulted this book – called Exciting Holiness. And it says that All Saints is a celebration of those heroes of the faith whose lives have excited others to holiness.
I take it then that we’re not thinking today about all believers but about those people who got further along the spiritual path than most – whether we’ve heard of them or not.
So let’s try and work out what makes for sanctity, what makes someone a saint. In a way I’ve already answered the question. A saint is someone further along the spiritual path than the rest of us, but that statement begs the question about what the spiritual path actually is.
First of all, it needs to be stressed that we’re not talking about people who were or are perfect. We can utter no truer cliché than when we say ‘oh well, nobody’s perfect’, because that is literally true even for saints.
And while we’re about it, sanctity doesn’t involve some kind of league table either. Sanctity isn’t a competition.
Now, the notion of reincarnation used to be a purely Eastern thing, believed in by Hindus, Buddhists and a few others. With the cultural melting-pot that is the world these days, quite a few westerners now seem to believe in reincarnation – even some Christians.
Reincarnation is not an orthodox Christian belief, but there is a sense, I think, in which Christians can, perhaps even should, believe in reincarnation – though not literally.
Over the course of a normal lifetime we are successively very different people. A one year old is not the same as a ten year old, who is not the same as a twenty year old, who is not the same as a fifty year old, who is not the same as an eighty year old.
You get the idea. We go through different stages of being. We die to one manner of being and we start to live to another way of being – while still, mysteriously, remaining the same person. That’s the sense in which we can believe in an admittedly metaphorical form of reincarnation.
As with our biological and psychological lives, so with our spiritual lives. As the years pass we change spiritually, we grow. At least that is the hope. It’s possible, I guess, to stagnate or even to regress but that’s not the way it should be, if things go according to plan.
It may be that at some later stage in our lives as Christians we may be barely recognisable from what we were previously.
It seems to me that spiritual growth has something to do with sanctity. They may even be the same thing.
So what does spiritual growth mean? Well, here’s what I think it means. St Paul tells us that there are three pre-eminent virtues – the so-called theological virtues: faith, hope and love, and it seems reasonable to suppose that spiritual growth, sanctity, has something to do with these virtues.
Paul also tells us that love is the greatest of these greatest of virtues. Faith and hope will be eventually superseded. They won’t be necessary because in the fullness of eternity we will fully posses God just as God fully possesses us. Faith and hope just won’t be needed in such a state of affairs.
But love will always be necessary because love will be the very essence of that mutual possession between us and God.
Spiritual growth, therefore, I take to be the growth of faith, hope and, pre-eminently, love within us. That means an increasing empathy, an increasing love for others and for oneself, an increasing love for the world, which means the whole creation, and an increasing love for God. We are called to love all that is – not necessarily to approve or to condone, but definitely to love.
You might be wondering why love for God is so important. Two reasons: firstly, God is part of all that is, and all that is precisely what we are called to love. Secondly, our love for God is actually the foundation of our love for everything else. If God loves his creation, we are called to go and do likewise. If God doesn’t pick and choose, neither can we.
Sanctity then is intimately linked with the range and depth of our ability to love, with our learning how to love.
One last thing: it seems to me that sanctity is a bit like humility. It’s best not to think too much about how we’re getting on. It’s just not helpful to keep on wondering how humble we are and it’s certainly not helpful to preen ourselves on how humble we may imagine ourselves to be.
And it’s similar with saintliness. Let’s not think about it too much. And certainly let’s not imagine that we’ve attained sainthood.
Of course as human being we can’t help wondering about where we are spiritually on occasion but it’s best, I think, to dismiss such thoughts as soon as they crop up. Just go and do something else.
All we can do is to keep on praying, keep on giving thanks, keep on soaking up the words in our Bibles, keep on practising those random and not so random acts of kindness whenever the opportunity arises.
Let’s just not get introspective or self-obsessed about it. The best thing is simply not to think about it.
Unfortunately, that’s precisely what we’ve been doing for the last ten minutes, so perhaps the best thing for me now would be to advise you to forget everything I’ve just said.