THE CALL TO BE SAINTS
Sermon delivered on All Saints’ Day, the 1st November 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.
Scriptures: Isaiah 25: 6-9 Revelation 21: 1-5a S. John 11: 32-44
Isaiah 25: 8 “He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.”
Today, All Saints’ Day, through the Scriptures the Spirit reminds us of three truths of the Gospel.
First, that there is a great multitude of saints. Even as we worship this morning a great company of those from whose faces all tears have been wiped away, has been worshipping from before we began and will continue to worship after service is finished. What we do for a brief time is to become attuned somewhat to what they are doing eternally. Although it may seem that those of us who meet together in church are a small and weak team playing against the great mass of the unchurched, we are called to remember that we are one with, we are in communion with, the vast throng of saints who have ever lived and served on earth; what Elisha had said about the angelic host unseen at first by his servant, compared with the great Syrian army that had come to take him captive, we can assert about the saints; those that are for us are more than the forces that are against us. The first thing, then, that we are reminded of, is that whenever we are in the saints’ team, we’re in the stronger team, no matter how things may appear.
The Spirit reminds his people, secondly, that it is necessary that saints have known suffering. The theme in Isaiah 25 that the Lord will wipe away the tears from the faces of his people is repeated in the lesson from Revelation 21 verse 4: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, not crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” To make a courageous stand for the truth’s sake implies a willingness to suffer: saints are not made from those who do not make a stand where that is necessary. The waggish comment, that the one that does not stand for anything falls for everything is very true. In our time, man has indeed fallen for all sorts of things. Not only so, but whole blocks of the church, even, have fallen for things that should be stood up to valiantly. And it’s not easy to make a stand where to do so will bring down upon oneself and upon one’s family and one’s associates a measure of suffering, but the Spirit today reminds us that that is part and parcel of the business of making saints. Our Lord Himself did not want to suffer. Yet there are things that we need to want to stand for, more than wanting to avoid suffering for. So our Lord said of His approaching passion, “How am I constrained until it be accomplished!” It is a truth of the Gospel that the faith and any part of it is absolutely worth suffering for. We are called to prepare ourselves for this in the way that the saints that have gone before have always done.
According to today’s Gospel from S. John, in the incident of allowing Lazarus to die and raising him from death, Jesus imposed upon Himself, as well as upon those who loved Lazarus, such as his sisters Martha and Mary, a special sort of suffering. For Jesus had told his disciples, in a saying that seemed very strange, that “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe.” Equally strange was the Gospel-writer’s saying, some verses earlier: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” St. John the Evangelist plainly wants us to understand that even though it caused immediate suffering, Jesus did not prevent the death of Lazarus, which he could have prevented. And as we have heard, the course of events caused distress, not only to the sisters, but also in sympathy with them and moved with profound sorrow at the death of his friend and at the grief that his other friends suffered, to himself. Jesus’ profound sorrow in these circumstances was mingled with anger at the evil of death, and also with a deep sense of awe at the power of God that was about to flow through him to triumph over death. For after saying to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”, Jesus exercised that power of God flowing through him, so that they might believe – and raised his friend from the power of death. And so it is that on the last day his voice will summon the whole world to the resurrection from the dead.
So first, we are reminded that there is a great multitude of saints, and secondly we are reminded that it is necessary that saints have known suffering. But there is a third truth about saints, of which we are reminded by the Spirit, when we read a little further on in Revelation 21 from the portion selected for our lesson. That truth is simply that if we would be among the multitude of saints, those indeed who have prevailed over suffering, our characters will have to be changed; because we read in verse 8 of Revelation 21 that the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, the murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters and all liars will not be in the new Jerusalem. For we are called to wash our robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb; it is shown to us in the well-known sixth beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. Among the multitude of saints, we will indeed see God, but not without purity or cleanness of heart. Remember too that for biblical writers the “heart” is not so much the seat of the emotions, as the seat of the intellect and the will. It is for the sake of such purification of heart that the saints must have known suffering as they take their journey through this fallen age. And so, we are called to wash our robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb; we are called to make a valiant stand for the Name of the Lord. We are called to cleanse our intentions through and through, that we may see God. In a word – we are called to be saints among the heavenly multitude. The banquet has been prepared and the invitation has been issued. It remains for us to be prepared, and to come to the banquet.