Sunday, 29 November 2009

Advent Sunday Repentance 29th November 2009

I want to say something this morning about repentance.

To repent of something is to resolve to discontinue some sort of wrong doing so as to get even more upon the right track.

Our whole calling is one of repentance and twice a year the church dresses in purple, drops flowers and Gloria’s to give us a grand reminder of this.

The scripture readings chosen for Advent Sunday touch on our need for fulfilment at the Lord’s return. They are a reminder of our need to get more on the track that heads towards God.

Jeremiah’s warning from chapter 33 of his prophecy that days of fulfilment are coming relates to God’s promise to restore the house of David and called the Israelites who first heard it to a new expectancy. God’s restoration was nigh, that of ‘The Lord our righteousness’. The coming of Jesus is seen as the first stage of fulfilling this promise. The establishment of righteousness upon the earth and his second coming Christians believe to be the final stage that Advent season particularly underlines.

In today’s second reading from his first letter to Thessalonika Paul’s emphasis is on seeking the holiness without which we won’t be able to see God. May he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Advent season is a quest for holiness. We even have a Holy Hour on Wednesday evenings with this in mind. An hour of quiet in Church before the Lord, a simple introduction, some scriptures for people to read in the silence if they want and the invitation to strengthen hearts in holiness mindful of the Holy Communion we share week by week but often in a manner that is hurriedly prepared.

Christmas means Christ’s Mass and there is an Anglican tradition of careful preparation for Christmas Communion. The bible is very clear on the need for careful devotional preparation before receiving Communion – or, more bluntly, the need for true penitence. This is why St Paul writes to Corinth examine yourselves and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.

One wonderful expression of repentance and aid to this struggle against sin is to celebrate with a priest the sacrament of reconciliation. People get confused about the Anglican use of confession. It isn’t mandatory as in the Roman Catholic Church but it’s on offer as a sacrament or means of God’s grace. It’s particularly recommended for use before the sacraments of healing, confirmation, marriage or ordination as well as a means of deepening the significance and holiness of the sacrament of the eucharist we receive week by week.

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them Jesus said to the apostles. For twenty centuries this ministry of freeing from sin has continued in his church particularly through the ordained ministry. It’s a bible-based sign in which individuals are given a welcome home to God and his church through the minister.

This ministry complements the assurance of forgiveness given to all Christians through prayer and the promises of scripture. It is commended in the Prayer Book so I intend advertising the sacrament of reconciliation before great feasts.

A lot of us, preacher included, agree with repentance but need to know what specific sins we need to repent of. Only the Holy Spirit can tell you! It helps to regularly examine your conscience with an eye to the commandments and beatitudes of God. The blood of Jesus is like detergent but it needs access to our spiritual dirty clothing. We need to spot the dirt by coming into the light of the Holy Spirit in whose light we see light to quote the Psalmist.

Another advertisement: we have a special Evensong and Advent conscience examination next Sunday to build up the spirit of repentance at St Giles.

Yet another advertisement on sin is the mnemonic for the seven deadly sins: PALE GAS Pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice and sloth. I’ll repeat so you get the hang of them! Here are seven things to hate! Pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice and sloth They start with pride the sin of youth and end with sloth the sin of old age. Yes we can laugh but if sin, as it does in Greek, means falling short like an archer’s arrow, it is our negligences that are often most damning, along with our failure to live instrumentally.

Today’s gospel from St Luke ends with a call that I’ll make my parting shot. It comes a bit rich from a priest who blessed a pub this week – The Crown at its opening: Be on your guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life…be alert at all times praying that you may have the strength…to stand before the Son of Man.

Have a blessed and holy and joyful Advent. Repent and believe in the Gospel!

Sunday, 15 November 2009

May Christ dwell in our hearts St. Swithun, East Grinstead Sunday 15th November 2009

Let us let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer of our faith. Hebrews 12:1

Our whole life as Christians is a looking to Jesus. Our life is this prayer and this prayer, this looking to Jesus is our life.

The Lord wants a deeper place in our life and that of our church because Christianity is always about getting more of Jesus Christ into our lives and shedding self-interest.

Our individual prayer time is foundational to this along with our gathering Sunday by Sunday on the Lord's Day, in the Lord's House, with the Lord's People. This is why we’ve all got an invitation to join our School of Prayer this week at St Swithun’s.

One of the most important things about our daily prayer is the time we give. Whatever we feel or don't feel at prayer it is the offering of 5, 10, 15 minutes daily that is pivotal. Time matters. It is also important to offer Our Lord what we might call ‘prime time’.

Time, and then secondly, place. There’s church of course, suitable for some of us. Most of us though have to find a prayer space at home. We need then to be quiet, but perhaps not too quiet so we keep our feet on the ground. We need perhaps to be comfortable, not so much that we fall asleep. Prayer invites attentiveness. Some people say a hard backed chair gives you that business like feeling. Myself I use a comfy chair, but try to kneel as well for some of the time.

Then what – as one definition puts it ‘prayer is a lifting of heart and mind to God’ and there are many different ‘airports’ for lift off. The aim of our course is to open some of these airports or ways of prayer up to you.

Wherever you lift off from you have to be ‘there’ to get a lift. Confession of sin before you pray is important – you want God to see the real you and nothing pretentious! The bottom line for prayer, for getting to a place of lift off, is honesty. To be there is also about getting down from your mind into your heart as well.

Tom Smail's baldness 'caused by the Lord banging on his head to get his religion from head to heart'- a vital 14".

I want this morning to address briefly six aspects of prayer, of looking to Jesus: listening, friendship, warfare, benevolence, recollection, and lastly empowerment.

1. Listening
Prayer, looking unto Jesus, is listening. You can’t look to Jesus unless you give ear to him, unless you attend to him.

Our whole life depends on right listening – to other people and to ourselves at times – but chiefly to Jesus. Through prayer we hear from God. We catch his inspirations for our life and for the world.

How do we look to Jesus in listening? A discipline of time offered to attend directly to God.

Michael Ramsey’s quote – he jokingly said he prayed only for 2 minutes but went on to admit it took him 30 minutes to get there.

Scripture is a means of looking to Jesus through listening to his Word. We read in Hebrews 4:12 that the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

We’ll be looking during the week at the power of imaginative listening to scripture. A basic piece of advice on praying from scripture is to read through prayerfully until God touches your Spirit and then hold yourself at that point once such a prayerful impulse has been given to you.

2. Friendship
Looking to Jesus is about friendship. We seek our friends’ attention and he seeks ours. When friends meet they light up and so it is with Jesus and ourselves as we come before him in contemplation.

When did you last sit in quiet before the Lord? What is it that keeps you from doing so? Could you imagine Jesus your friend doing you any harm?

Contemplative prayer has been described as ‘spiritual radiotherapy’. St Augustine once said that the whole purpose of life is the healing of the heart’s eye through which God is seen.

Heart surgery of the Holy Spirit: the melting of coldness within is like a defrosting by the heavenly microwave!

One aid to contemplation is to read a set prayer slowly, open for God to speak to you as your friend.

A major barrier to contemplation is the way our minds get so distracted which hinders our hearts from contemplation. This is where the repeating of short phrases that engage and focus the mind can be helpful as in the Orthodox Jesus prayer. This involves repeating again and again the gospel prayer Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner. The value of the Jesus Prayer is commended all through the Christian tradition as in the writings of St. John Chrysostom: Abide constantly with the name of our Lord Jesus, so that the heart swallows the Lord and the Lord the heart and the two become one. Please don’t hesitate to talk to the prayer guides, to myself or your clergy if you want guidance on the Jesus Prayer or any other of the forms of prayer suggested in this booklet.

Looking to Jesus in prayer is about listening and building friendship, about lighting one another up so that in the words of Nehemiah (8v10) the joy of the Lord [becomes] our strength.

3. Warfare
Prayer, looking to Jesus, is thirdly warfare against the deadening spiritual impact of the world, the flesh and the devil. Prayer is warfare because Jesus calls us to a fullness of humanity that involves our shedding constraints, shaking off what Hebrews calls the weight and the sin that clings so closely (12:1b). He who is in you, St John says, is greater than he that is in the world. 1 John 5:4

In prayer we see ourselves in a true light and take action in the name of Jesus against the dark forces that impel us. Hesychius of Jerusalem writes: As it is impossible for the sun to shine without light, so it is impossible for the heart to be cleansed of the filth of wicked thoughts without prayer in the Name of Jesus…let us utter this Name as often as we breathe.

The battle that is prayer comes much into its own when we attempt self-examination. This has been described as like going under water. You experience an up thrust, an opposition. There is a power at work totally opposed to self-knowledge. Satan is fearful of both our knowing God and our knowing ourselves. He wants us to live in ignorance so that we can comply with his schemes! So we battle on – in the spiritual warfare that is prayer!

4. Benevolence
Looking to Jesus fourthly is benevolence, the capacity to enter the good will of God for all people, especially in intercessory prayer. This is a feature of prayer that the St Swithun’s exploration will major on in the coming week.

Christianity is not merely a doctrine or a system of beliefs Thomas Merton wrote, it is Christ living in us and uniting people to one another in His own life and unity. For Merton a hermit monk there is only one true flight from the world; it is not an escape from conflict, anguish and suffering, but … flight from disunity and separation to unity and peace in the love of other [people]. This benevolent spirit of intercession is captured in St. Paul’s invitation in Galatians 6:2 to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ.

We look to Jesus to be with us as we intercede. He lifts us up into his perfect Offering, most especially in the Holy Eucharist. In intercession we come before the Lord with people and needs on our heart to entrust them to him with confidence.

My wife Anne’s prayer for Catherine that bore fruit after 11 years

Through intercessory prayer, in the words of Professor Hallesly we couple the powers of heaven to our helplessness…the powers which can awaken those who sleep in sin and raise up the dead … that can capture strongholds and make the impossible possible.

5. Recollection
Looking to Jesus is prayer of recollection, prayer that takes stock of your life and celebrates what God has done and is doing and, looks forwards to what God is going to do in us and through us.

Another feature we will be majoring on in the fortnight ahead is the value of prayer journaling. This is the discipline of keeping a sort of written conversation with the Lord so that we can trace his working in our lives. 'Tis grace both led me safe thus far … and grace will lead me home.

Just an idea, even if you can’t make the sessions. Why not in the coming week attempt a review of your life? Look back over your years and recollect with Jesus the five biggest spiritual milestones along the way, your five most powerful desires, your five worst fears. Recollection is about such reminiscing or calling to mind. It is also about ‘collecting again’ or recovering control of oneself. Through looking to God we gain self-possession.

Attention to God, mindfulness of Jesus is at the heart of the Christian life. The recollected woman or man inhabits her or his words, is able to be present to Jesus at all times so that Jesus can be in them and show through them. As the orthodox spiritual writer Fr. Bulgakov puts it The Name of Jesus present in human heart, communicates to it the power of deification … shining through the heart, the light of the Name of Jesus illuminates all the universe.

6. Empowerment
Looking to Jesus lastly is empowerment. You will receive power he said, when the Holy Spirit comes Acts 1v8. Well he has come, at baptism and confirmation, the birth of our Christian commitment - and in the receiving of Holy Communion - but we need to invite him deeper into our lives by praying regularly for the Holy Spirit. Earlier in Luke 11 Jesus says with a great emphasis ask, and it will be given to you. If you being evil know how to give good things to your children, how much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! Looking to Jesus is an empowerment especially by the word of God and the gifting of the Holy Spirit. You do not have James warns in his letter (4:2) because you do not ask.

When we persist in asking we can from time to time feel God’s touch upon our heart, see some sort of vision or be led to some particular scripture verse as we look to Jesus. This is charismatic prayer, literally graced or given prayer in which our looking to Jesus and waiting before him is answered by a heavenly gift.

To summarise, prayer, looking to Jesus, brings some wonderful experiences. It’s also a matter of perseverance, as Michael Ramsey reminds us with his 2 minutes prayer within half an hour’s devotional time. We need spiritual determination if we’re going to get anywhere in prayer though prayer itself kindles such enthusiasm and determination. Let us run with perseverance then the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus through listening, friendship, warfare, benevolence, recollection and empowerment. May the Lord turn our eyes more and more upon himself in the coming week!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

British Legion Remembrance Service 8th November 2009

A few words to help the scripture readings inspire our act of penitence.

We heard from Saint John the text for Remembrance Sunday: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

All who die in war give for their country. They have given for us, as if we were their friends. For your tomorrow we gave our today.

Whether readily or unreadily our dear dead gave themselves. We have benefited from their offering. It is an offering that points us to the heart of Christianity in all that Jesus has given to us.

A wealthy man and his son loved to collect rare works of art. They had everything in their collection, from Picasso to Raphael. They would often sit together and admire the great works of art.

When the Vietnam conflict broke out, the son went to war. He was very courageous and died in battle while rescuing another soldier. The father was notified and grieved deeply for his only son.

About a month later, just before Christmas, there was a knock at the door. A young man stood at the door with a large package in his hands.

He said, “Sir, you don’t know me, but I am the soldier for whom your son gave his life. He saved many lives that day, and he was carrying me to safety when a bullet struck him in the heart and he died instantly. He often talked about you, and your love for art.”

The young man held out the package. It was a portrait of his son, painted by the young man. He stared in awe at the way the soldier had captured the personality of his son in the painting. The father was so drawn to the eyes that his own eyes welled up with tears. He thanked the young man and offered to pay him for the picture. “Oh, no sir, I could never repay what your son did for me. It’s a gift.”

The father hung the portrait over his mantelpiece. Every time visitors came to his home he showed them this portrait before he showed them any of the other great works he had collected.

The man died a few months later. There was to be a great auction of his paintings. Many influential people gathered, excited over seeing the great paintings and having an opportunity to purchase one for their collection.

On the platform sat the painting of the son. The auctioneer pounded his gavel. “We will start the bidding with this picture of the son. Who will bid for this picture?”

There was silence. Then a voice in the back of the room shouted, “We want to see the famous paintings. Skip this one.”

But the auctioneer persisted. “Will someone bid for this painting. Who will start the bidding? £100, £200?”

Another voice shouted angrily. “We didn’t come to see this painting. We came to see the Van Gogh’s and the Rembrandts, Get on with the real bids!”

But still the auctioneer continued. “The son! The son! Who’ll take the son?”

Finally, a voice came from the very back of the room. It was the long-time gardener of the man and his son. “I’ll give £10 for the painting.” Being a poor man, it was all he could afford.

“We have £10, who will bid £20?”

“Give it to him for £10. Let’s see the great masters.”

“£10 is the bid, won’t someone bid £20?”

The crowd was becoming angry. They didn’t want the picture of the son. They wanted to buy the more famous pictures for their collections.

The auctioneer pounded the gavel. “Going once, twice, sold for £10!”

A man sitting on the second row shouted, “Now let’s get on with the collection!”

The auctioneer laid down his gavel. “I’m sorry the auction is over.”

“What about the paintings?”

“I am sorry. When I was called to conduct the auction, I was told of a secret stipulation in the will. I was not allowed to reveal that stipulation until this time. Only the painting of the son would be auctioned. Whoever bought this painting would inherit the entire estate, including the paintings. The man who took the son gets everything!”

It’s true – as the Bible says – whosoever takes the Son gets everything.

God gave his son for us as the father in the story saw his son given in combat for others.

Much like the auctioneer God’s message today is: “The son, the son, who’ll take the son?” And whoever takes the Son gets everything.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son so who ever believeth shall have eternal life.

Remembrance Sunday 8am

It’s the intention that really matters.

Oh, yes, the road to hell is often paved with them, but the combination of good actions with good intentions is what the worship of God and the building of His Kingdom is all about.

This morning later on we will be standing before our Cenotaph with thousands of other congregations led by Her Majesty the Queen at Whitehall as we pay tribute to the war dead of this and every nation.

On Remembrance Sunday we recall the sacrifice of the few for the good of all.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. It is a good and sweet thing to die for one’s country.

But is it? Reading the poetry of Wilfrid Owen might lead us to question such a sentiment.

Once again it is the intention that really matters, the heart’s intent.

When we look at the names on a Cenotaph, under such an epitaph as I quoted, there are awkward considerations to be made.

Many of those men and women had no intention of laying down their lives at all.

At the same time, if we are talking about those who sacrifice in war time, there will be many whose names are not among the dead who had an intention to offer themselves for their country but whose sacrifice was incomplete.

But was it incomplete and non-sacrificial because they lived on?

Sacrifice is about love before it is about death.

It is the intention that counts.

Here at the Holy Eucharist we commemorate a sacrifice which is a death and very much more. Here day by day we recall the intention, the willing obedience of Our Blessed Lord offered in the garden secretly and on the Cross on high.

Our Lord gave Himself by intention at the Last Supper Table and in Gethsemane to interpret and fill with the richest meaning His agony the next day upon the Cross.

For us who celebrate the Eucharist Sunday by Sunday it is also our intention that matters. It is not the whole of the matter, of course, for we also receive grace, but what we put into this worship, not least our desire to offer ourselves, our time, talents and treasure to the praise and service of God, is pivotal.

The secret of renewal and mission in a parish is to be found at the altar in the sense both of what Jesus gives to us but also in the sense of what we have to offer from the heart with Jesus to the glory of God in the sacrifice of the Eucharist.

It is the intention that counts.

Among Mother Teresa’s most powerful sayings is one that surely gets to the heart of her many good works: it is not how much you do that matters but how much love you put into the action.

Sacrifice is about love and not about death. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 1 Corinthians 13:3

For us the challenge of Remembrance Sunday is one of the purification of our intentions, the cleansing of the thoughts of our hearts.

As we offer this Eucharist of Requiem for the war dead is there a desire to consecrate your energies to God’s praise and service or are their whole realms within you that lie unconsecrated, broken off from the wholeness of your discipleship?

Our prayer today is one of dedication. Here am I, Lord we are saying, with all my mixed motives.

Here am I with my energies and with so many possibilities before me for good or ill.

Here am I, Lord ready to do your will, ready to be generous with you in this Eucharist and with those you lead me to serve in the week ahead.

It is the intention that really matters – at the Eucharist, in War, in Mission, in Life…

So pray my brothers and sisters brethren that this my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Almighty Father. Amen.

Monday, 2 November 2009

All Souls' Day 2 November 2009

The Bible begins and ends in a garden, the garden of paradise. We read in the opening pages of Scripture that "God planted a garden eastward in Eden". In that garden "the Lord God walked" and He walked in close friendship with man.

The refusal by man of friendship with God led him into exile from that garden. No longer in peace with God and nature, man saw his garden overgrown and his destiny to labour by the sweat of his hands. Again and again God offered his friendship. Speaking of his people Israel, God said through Isaiah in Chapters 51 & 58: Her desert shall be like the garden of the Lord…you shall be like a watered garden.

Finally God came himself in the flesh, taking our human nature, to walk in a garden. St. John says in Chapter 18 that over the brook Kedron in Jerusalem there was a garden, and into that garden the Son of God came to sweat blood and tears for our redemption. Man created to walk with God in a garden is redeemed by perfect obedience offered by perfect humanity in a garden, the garden of Gethsemane.

That redemption is finally revealed to believers in a garden. Now in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid. They laid Jesus there.

Then on the third day the Risen Lord Jesus stands in that garden and addresses the weeping Magdalen: "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away". Jesus said to her, "Mary." she turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabboni!" (Which means teacher).

The gate of heaven is opened to all believers in a garden, the Easter Garden! She supposing him to be the gardener. St. John recognises the significance of that empty garden tomb and the hailing of Christ as "Gardener".

Was it not fitting that He who had acted in creation to form man in a garden should also recreate man in the flesh of his own glorious humanity once again in a garden? And walk once again in a garden, side by side with women and men restored by the resurrection to new friendship with him, through the will offered in Gethsemane and the blood on Calvary?

Mary Magdalene, Peter, John, walking with our Redeemer in the resurrection garden is a pledge of the eternal destiny of all who welcome what Jesus did for them in the garden secretly, and on the cross on high. We too will walk one day with our redeemer in a garden!

For the Bible ends as it begins with a garden. St. John the Divine writes in chapters 2 & 22 to him who conquers, I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God...then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the lamb.

Man created in a garden had his eternal destiny opened up in Gethsemane and the Easter Garden and he will enjoy that eternal destiny in another garden, the garden of paradise. Of this garden scripture uses few words save an affirmation that no unclean thing shall enter there and that those who enter must be washed in the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. No good works, however good, lived by the holiest of men will provide robes suitable for the garden of paradise where man is to walk as first intended, in step with God.

It is All Souls' Day and our thoughts and prayers focus on those we love in Christ but see no longer. Inasmuch as they are washed in His Blood, inasmuch as they plead Jesus' perfect offering and not their own righteousness, Scripture says they will have a place in the garden of paradise.

Yet no unclean thing may enter there. Unrepented sin in the heart - this has no place in a Saint destined to walk eternally at the side of a holy God. So our thoughts turn into prayer today as we pray for those we love but see no longer. We pray a washing and cleansing of hearts set on Christ at the hour of their death, so that their uncleanness may disappear and their entry into paradise be gained.

As we pray we recognise that we cannot change the basic orientation of departed souls, only beg the Lord to speed the cleansing and entry into eternal joy of those He is drawing already to himself.

The cleansing of souls I speak of reminds me of my own cleansing of an old Vicarage garden in North London. Where the potential is there the Lord allows it to blossom by removing all constraints, just as I removed the briars and ivy to see that garden flourish on the slopes of Alexandra Palace. Our prayer for the Holy Souls today and always is like my efforts in the garden - in both cases we help God to have His Way.

All Souls' Day reminds every mortal man and woman of their approaching death and the offer of an eternal destiny. That destiny is not automatic. It needs to be sought from the One who planned it in that first garden of Eden, won it in another garden of Gethsemane and now welcomes Holy Souls washed by his spirit in his blood into the garden of rest eternal and light perpetual, of gladness unalloyed and perfect bliss.

God make the picture words falteringly make of such a garden, a word picture supplied by the word of God no less, into a reality for us and all those we love in Christ but see no longer.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord - and let light perpetual shine upon them! May the garden of paradise be their eternal recreation!

Sunday, 1 November 2009

All Saints’ Day 1st November 2009

We will see him as he is, and all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. 1 John 3.2-3

We shall see him says St John. The Christian hope set forth on the Feast of All Saints is no less than this.

We shall see him and this is a call to purify ourselves, just as he is pure.

Three thoughts spring out of the scriptures set for this morning. In the first reading we are reminded that heaven is something corporate, something we shall see. In the second reading we are reminded that heaven is the vision of God no less and that is exciting. The third Gospel reading is a call to purify ourselves, just as he is pure for the Saints are those who have been poor in spirit, pure in heart and so on.

We shall see him

I don’t know how you see heaven but my wanderings round the National Gallery inform what imagery I have. That together with a natural longing to be for ever with those I have loved on earth. My favourite image in art is from Fra Angelica’s Last Judgement in San Marco, Florence. There you have a ring of saints dancing for joy on Christ’s right contrasting with a confused, disordered, anxious crowd on his left.

Heaven is for many people centred on the departed more than God but it is both that feature. You can’t have one without the other in the Christian vision. We shall see him and yet it is a vision that will be seen corporately.

The vision of God is too wonderful for me alone. As the letter to the Ephesians puts it we need power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. The vision of God can only be comprehended with all the saints. It can’t be privatised!

This is the understanding we receive from the first reading from Revelation chapter 7 which speaks of a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

Yes it’s not an image for the claustrophobic! There won’t be claustrophobia in heaven thank God! The nearest I can think of coming to this image on earth was an occasion I attended in Lourdes, the afternoon Procession of the Blessed Sacrament attended by several thousand pilgrims holding national placards – China, Australia, Romania, Canada and so on – but led by people in wheelchairs! What a powerful Christian, inclusive image.

There’s a movement called inclusive church working for women and gays. I would not dare to criticise it, of course, but inclusion in Christianity is something much more profound and far reaching than liberal Anglicanism.

True inclusivity is this – the democracy of the dead! It’s the inclusion through the Risen Christ of people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages before the throne of God.

We shall see him. And as at Lourdes the last of us will be first. Those who’ve been bottom of the earthly heap and borne it patiently will lead us. Those from far off lands, and those missionaries who have laboured to reach them, will be up front. Those of us who’ve been complacent about the lost will lose places up front to them.

There must be some hierarchy in heaven, of that I’m sure.

Like many I visited the relics of Saint Therese of Lisieux in Westminster Cathedral last month. She likened heaven to a garden with big flowers and little flowers. She was content to be a little flower in that garden. I’d rather think of her as a heavenly rhododendron bush and myself as a dandelion or a blade of grass – anyway the Saints will be Saints together. To use Therese’s image, together they make up a garden, for which you need both grass, flowers, bushes and trees.

Some forms of Christianity are good at throwing a line to unbelievers and drawing them in. They go on to promote their spiritual development as a one to one hotline to Jesus. Today’s Feast presents the drawing power of Jesus not as a line but as a net. The communion of saints is a net that by example and prayer draws us together around the throne of God to worship him day and night within his temple.

We shall see him

Our second reading from St John’s First Letter complements the first that reminded us heaven is something corporate. It reminds us that to be a Christian is to live God centred in hope of the heavenly vision of God. Let it speak for itself: See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are…what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this; when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

I remember vividly a scene in the play A Man for All Seasons in which Thomas More stands before his accusers. He swears to be truthful saying he believes any untruthfulness will lose him the beatific vision. It is the thought of seeing God face to face that sustains him, and indeed sustains many of us in our tribulations.

This is the one true and only blessed life Saint Augustine writes to Proba that we should contemplate the delightfulness of the Lord for ever, immortal and incorruptible in body and spirit…Whoever has this will have all that he wishes…There indeed is the spring of life, which we must now thirst for in prayer, so long as we live.

To believe in heaven is to yearn for reunion with those we love but see no longer. It is a reunion of mortals after death with all the saints. Yet it is only so because God who made all and sees all for the sake of the sins of us all sent his Son to live and die and open up the kingdom of heaven to all believers. It is Christ’s resurrection that holds mortals beyond death. What other hope is there?

It is significant that in the 20th century liturgical reform no feast days are allowed to eclipse Sunday because it has been strongly redefined as the Day of Resurrection. Today is the Lord’s Day on which the Lord’s People gather around the Lord’s Table. Only two Feasts can strictly eclipse Sunday – All Saints Day and the Feast of the Virgin Mary. All Saints Feast is itself a Feast of resurrection!

We shall see him because Christ is raised to welcome his faithful who have left this world in his friendship. In the words of the liturgy There we hope to share in your glory when every tear will be wiped away. On that day we shall see you, our God, as you are. We shall become like you and praise you for ever through Christ our Lord, from whom all good things come.

We will see him as he is, and all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

The last scripture we heard this morning was the Beatitudes reading from the Sermon on the Mount. The beatific vision comes to those who live the beatitudes – those words beatific and beatitudes link to the Latin root beatus which means blessed or holy one.

The holy ones, saints, blessed ones are those who are poor in spirit, meek, merciful, pure in heart, and peacemakers who mourn for the lost and bear persecution for righteousness sake. All of the qualities Our Lord lists are in his own person, so to be a beatus, a saint, is to be Christ-like.

In Christ there is no sin. In us there is sin and the need to be purified throughout our lives. This is why we offered the ministry of reconciliation, confession, before today’s feast, not that purification from sin occurs only in that way, but as a means of grace some find helpful to overcome the lower nature.

Today is All Saints Day and the focus is on heaven. Tomorrow is All Souls Day and the focus there will be on the purification from sin we need to get to heaven in this world and the next. It says of heaven in the second to last chapter of the Bible that no unclean thing will enter there (Revelation 21.27). That is why we pray for those who have died with unrepented sin that they will be cleansed and fitted for the vision of God.

All Saints Feast is a call to purify ourselves, just as he is pure. We won’t have eyes to see God without purification. This is a painful truth. Heaven isn’t automatic. It is the fulfilment of your desire for God. The whole of our earthly life is not the book of our life but its preface in which we learn an eager longing for God so that it can be satisfied in his praise and service in the real life to come.

To live in such a comfortable society is no blessing when it comes to getting to heaven for being comfortable flannels self love and heaven is for selfless love. Being comfortable panders to my needs whereas the ultimate Christian vision is corporate, one in which the least brother or sister is to be seen as the most important.

May this Feast of All Saints bring us comfort and discomfort.

We shall see him as he is – what a comforting thought!

And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. How discomforting!

There is work ahead for us all!