Based upon a published sermon by the Revd Dr Susan Durber
When you read a job description, it tells you the qualifications that you need for the job. For instance, if you want to teach French, you need to be able to speak French. If you want to be a solicitor, you need a legal qualification. If you want to be a driver, you need a driving licence.
What I want to ask today, is what are the qualifications that you need to be a saint? If you were to ask the average woman or man in the street or the pew what qualifications you need to be a saint, I’m confident that most of them would get it wrong.
So, what qualifications do you need to be a saint? I think many people would say that you need to be ‘dead’, a fairly fundamental qualification. And in some parts of the Church to have Saint in front of your name, instead of Mr or Mrs, you do indeed need to be dead. And you probably need to have been dead for some time. It’s true the recent Popes have speeded things up a good deal. But if you asked most people to name ten saints they’d almost certainly name those who have been dead for centuries.
I also suspect that most people would probably say that to be a saint you need to be ‘good’ in the moral sense. That’s how the word is popularly used, and sometimes in that sense it’s even used of the living: ‘she’s such a saint to put up with me,’ someone might say. Likewise, when people are thinking about the official saints, the ones you could name a church after, they are thought to be good people, or certainly well-behaved people.
As far as the statistics go you’re much more likely to be a saint if you’re a man, about seven times more likely apparently. So, if you’re looking for saintly qualifications maleness is one of them.
You also probably stand more chance of achieving sainthood if you’re celibate. Sex might be something the Greek gods excelled in, but Christian saints have tended to live quieter lives. If you’re a woman you’re much more likely to be a saint if you’re a virgin. If you’re a man it helps if you give it all up, preferably in a flamboyant and public gesture, for the celibate life.
Saints are also often those who have suffered a good deal, martyrdom being one of the possible entry qualifications. There aren’t many foodies among the famous saints, which is ironic really given Jesus’ reputation as someone who enjoyed a good feast. Saintliness is usually next to suffering, if not to cleanliness.
Saints are also usually thought to be great and extraordinary individuals, quite different from the rest of us. When we think of a saint we tend to think of someone who really stood out from the crowd. A saint is someone who was a one-off. Someone who did what most people could hardly imagine accomplishing. Saints are like hero explorers or great adventurers, the sort of people most of us admire from a great distance, and not the sort of people you could imagine sitting down with for a chat or a cup of tea. Saints are those who are above the crowd. Saints are also popularly thought to be the famous among Christians. You have to be known to be a saint. Saints are a kind of Christian cult of celebrity. And there are lesser and greater ones, just as there are A and B list celebrities.
In the Middle Ages, people tended to love best their local celebrity saints, and would leave the big ones to the great cathedrals and monasteries. It’s all too human. Saints are also usually thought of as a kind of holy elite. They are the ones who with the martyrs and apostles will have the best seats in heaven. They are the few shining examples of how human life can be when it’s lived as it’s meant to be, and not by the usual run-of-the-mill folk like the rest of us.
I don’t think I’m far wrong that in the popular understanding saints are dead, good, celibate, extraordinary, elite, suffering, famous, striking individuals, and are most likely male. But what’s so interesting is that there is nothing at all like this in the New Testament. Nothing at all. It’s true that the Apostles are given special honour, and those who were the witnesses of the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. It’s true there are some who seem especially favoured, like Mary and the disciple whom we are told that Jesus loved. But whenever the New Testament writers speak of ‘the saints’, ‘the holy ones’, there is no suggestion of any of the popular marks of sainthood.
The New Testament never once mentions ‘a saint’ in the singular. All the references, as in the reading from the letter to the Ephesians, are to ‘the saints’, to the whole community of the Church. The saints are those who are part of the community of the people. They are the living Church, not just those who’ve died. Since they are the whole collection of people who come to worship and follow Christ, they’re not all morally excellent. The sinners are right there among the saints. They’re holy ones not because they are particularly good, but because they have been blessed by God, sharing ‘the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints’, as today’s reading put it. They’re not necessarily celibate either, since any community of Christians is as mixed in that respect as any other. There were women among them in great number, and the letter to the Ephesians addresses the ‘wives’ among the saints as much as the husbands. They were not being martyred. They were not a few extraordinary individuals. They were not an elite among the Christians, since they were simply all the Christians. These are the saints.
If we think of the ‘the saints’ as meaning only the very special and remarkable ones among the Christian people, only those who have died long ago, only those who have lived lives as we will never live it, this isn’t going to do our souls much good. It’s good to have heroes to admire, but too often the effect of these star Christians has been to make to make the rest of us feel inadequate and second best, as though we follow Christ in a feeble, pale way. And too often it means that we feel a strong sense of disconnection from other Christians from the past because the only ones we really know about are the hyper-Christians of former times, whom we can only think of as exceptional or crazy or both. It only serves to disconnect us from other Christians.
But the feast of All Saints is really about recapturing this sense of connection, of discovering our common life with those who have gone before us in the faith. And the feast of All Saints is a wonderful kind of catch-all festival, because it was invented to celebrate precisely those saints who never made it onto the A list, or even the B list, but who share with us in the great company of all the saints. If the writer to the Ephesians has it right, we’re all saints. We’re all called to be holy, and part of God’s holy people. We belong to a great tradition which has preceded us, and which will succeed us. We’re a small presence in a great tide that is more than us, and which gives us meaning and purpose. We’re among the saints, through past, present, and future, on earth and in heaven, in this place and across the great world. We’re part of something much greater than ourselves, and in this great community we find a place, a calling, a faith. This means that we don’t have to do everything with our own small life, it means that the purposes of God are to be fulfilled by the great company of the saints, not by me or you alone.
I’m sure that the earliest Christians, when they wrote about the saints, wanted to encourage those who would hear their letters. They wanted to convey to them a great truth, that God was making them into a holy people, dignifying the diverse collection of people who found their way into the early Church, and making of them a holy community. They would have been dismayed to think that this talk of saints might have become anything about special Christians who might leave the rest of us feeling second-rate. The feast of All Saints is a way of helping us all to know that we’re part of something, part of something which will make the best of us, and in which we can find ourselves becoming more fully human and closer to the Creator who made us.
In the New Testament, the word for saints is simply ‘the holy ones; that’s it. Of course we’ve tended to make holy mean good, and so holiness has come to mean something like moral uprightness. But holiness isn’t the same as goodness. A small child once described saints as those through whom the light shines. And I think that’s pretty good. We’re part of God’s people, and if we’re being God’s people, then whatever darkness people are in, it might be that we can be those who let some light in, just as sometimes we need the light too.
So, today let us celebrate, not the famous saints, not the extraordinary saints, not the titled, haloed, stained-glass saints, but simply all the saints, among whom we have been called to be, and through whom God works to bring blessing to the world. We may not be dead, perfectly good, being eaten by lions, or be particularly extraordinary, but we are called to be the holy ones of God. That is both a huge honour and a great challenge, a great dignity and a humbling privilege. May God bless us, who are poor in spirit, as Jesus promised God would, and give us all we need to be his people for the world.