All Saints' Sunday - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

All Saints' Sunday

All Saints' Sunday
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In the name of the living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

If you were to travel south-east from Trabzon, the ancient city on the Black Sea, which is now in modern Turkey, and zig-zag your way up into the mountains, eventually you can make your way to what is without doubt one of the most extraordinary religious sites that I have ever visited.

It is not an easy journey, particularly the final stage, which has to be undertaken by foot - a long climb up a slippery forest path that is mostly mud and tree roots.  But when, eventually, you emerge from the dense woodland into the sunlight, the sight that awaits you simply takes your breath away.

I have no idea how on earth they did it - it must have stretched human architectural and engineering ingenuity to the uttermost - but, remarkably, Sümela monastery, founded in the year 386 by the Roman Emperor Theodosius, is built into a sheer cliff face, 4,000 feet up in the mountains.  And at its heart, built into the rock, stands the monastery church, constructed around a cave in the side of the mountain.  A church that is absolutely covered in ancient frescoes, not only on the inside, but also, astonishingly, on the outside as well - wonderful paintings depicting biblical scenes and covered with images of the saints.  It is just amazing.

However, closer inspection reveals that, tragically, those wonderful fresco images have been very badly defaced, and in a very deliberate way.  In particular, all the faces of the saints have been systematically erased, gouged out, in a singularly appalling act of religious and artistic vandalism.

Last summer I conducted the marriage of one of my nieces in Ely Cathedral.   After the wedding there was a drinks reception in Ely's immense Lady Chapel, the interior of which is lined with carved images of the saints, every one of which has been neatly decapitated, barring one single statue, which somehow the iconoclasts managed to miss.

How very curious - the two settings could not have been more different - one of them up a remote mountain in Eastern Turkey, the other in a mediaeval cathedral in the fens of Eastern England, and yet in both of them images of the saints were the target for systematic and deliberate vandalism.  Why do saints attract such violence?  What is that all about?

The vandalism at Sümela is relatively recent, mostly dating back to the time when the monastery, which was, of course, Greek orthodox in origin, was finally abandoned as a result of the forced repatriation of Greeks from Turkey in 1923, which included the eviction of the monks from Sümela monastery.  The place was subsequently used by Turkish shepherds as a shelter.  And the shepherds were Muslim - so they defaced the frescoes because Islam regards any religious imagery of that kind as blasphemous.  Ely Cathedral was ransacked during the time of the Reformation, by extreme Protestants who rejected all the trappings of Mediaeval Christianity, particularly the veneration of the saints.

And why was the notion of sainthood so controversial during the Reformation?  Because Protestant theology, particularly in its more extreme manifestations, taught that human beings, without exception, were all so fundamentally depraved and tainted by sin that the only hope that anyone had of salvation was solely by throwing himself or herself on God's mercy - with that as your starting assumption, there was no place at all for any notion of human holiness or saintliness.  Which also ruled out at a stroke any notion that one could pray to the saints to ask them to mediate with God on one's behalf.  And beyond all of that, there was of course the whole very dodgy business of saintly relics and their supposed magical powers, which in its more corrupt and disreputable manifestations had been used to seduce a credulous population into parting with their money - which was also decisively rejected by the Reformers as dangerous and superstitious nonsense.

So, with the exception of the Church of England, which did retain some of the features of Catholic church order and spirituality, out went the saints from most Protestant traditions.  Which is actually rather a pity, because of course, the notion of sainthood is in fact a thoroughly biblical one.  In the New Testament, when St Paul writes his letters to the churches, he routinely addresses his recipients - the gathered congregations to whom he is writing, as saints - in Greek, 'hagioi'.  So, for example, we find the following:

Paul and Timothy, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi .... Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul ... to the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in
Christ Jesus called to be saints ...

Paul to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colossae ... Grace be unto you ... etc. etc.

In other words, the saints of New Testament times were, quite simply, the ordinary members of the churches - people like you and me.  And had St Paul been writing to us gathered here this morning in the year 2015, he would doubtless have begun his letter to us along the lines: 'Paul, servant of Jesus Christ, to all the saints who are gathered in the church of St Bride, Fleet Street - Grace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

And why did Paul address his readers as saints?  Because they were called to be holy, as we are called to be holy.  Yes, we are all flawed and fallen mortal beings - that is a given.  That is what it means to be human, and that is why we are all in constant need of God's grace and God's forgiveness, because we get it all badly wrong a lot of the time.  But we are also called to be channels of God's grace, and transformed into his likeness by the power of his love.  

Which is why there is in fact a very interesting connection between sacraments, like baptism and Holy Communion, and sainthood.  Because in both, God takes something very ordinary: bread, wine, water, your life, my life, the life of the person sitting next to you this morning - and transforms that into something that is quite extraordinary: something that is charged with the grace of God.  That is what we are all called to be: transformed by the love and the grace of God.  We are called to be sanctified, we are called to be saints.

But for that to be possible, we have to do our bit too, to enable the life-giving Spirit of God to do that transforming work within us.

So if you really want to know what a saint looks like - perhaps the best place to start, is not with a famous religious painting, or a Fourth Century orthodox fresco, or a mediaeval statue - but by looking around you.


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