I think we can all agree that life beyond the grave is quite beyond our ken, for “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, what God has prepared” [1 Cor 2:9]. Nor has anyone returned to tell us what it’s like on the other side. And yet, images from the Bible and Christian tradition offer some foretaste of what lies in store, beyond this present world. We trust that those who have gone to God before us are neither plaster saints, nor gloomy shades, but people who have lived life with such love and decency they went straight back to the God who created us in God’s image, in order to be forever with our Maker. They went “marching in” — happy to be meeting face to face with the One who always held them in the palm of his hand. Heroes and ordinary people. Some who have inspired the church for centuries, and other unsung heroes, living a quiet life of family, work and friendship, in the spirit of the Gospel, as peacemakers, pure of heart and gentle of spirit.
Today’s glowing text from Revelation calls them “a multitude that no one could count” — because of God’s rich mercy, and as Jesus assured his friends before his departure from this life, in the Father’s House there are many mansions. There’s surely place for all of us in God’s house, and the surest way there is to cling to our Saviour who is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”
The Gospel chosen for today is the Beatitudes. Matthew sets the scene for us. It is Jesus looking out on very ordinary people; shepherds, fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, the sick, the maimed, the blind, the lepers, and the possessed – in other words a motley crowd of people, by and large, poor and oppressed, even desperate. But what Jesus sees is very different from what of the Scribes and Pharisees see. Where they saw a motley crowd of unclean people – the great unwashed – Jesus saw blessedness, holiness and saints in his midst. The one word he used to describe them was blessed. It’s not that they were without flaws or totally innocent. Far from it. The crucial point is that they were looking for more, much more, and they saw in Jesus one who could provide the food that endures and satisfies the soul. This was the hunger and the openness that Jesus was looking for. Once that’s there, God’s healing mercy would do the rest.
The transforming power of God’s mercy and forgiveness is best seen in some of our great saints. St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Augustine, lest we forget, all had colourful pasts. Peter denied Jesus but then became an apostle of Jesus. Paul persecuted the followers of Jesus but, once confronted with the risen Christ, he became convinced that everything else was loss compared to the supreme knowledge of knowing Jesus. In his youth, Augustine embraced a hedonistic lifestyle but then came to embrace Christ and become a great saint. It’s what these saints did with Christ’s help that made them saints not what they got up to prior to accepting that help. That same dynamic is true for us also: with Christ’s grace we can attain sanctity and we shouldn’t allow what we’ve done in the past to hold us back.
The common ingredient in all of these great saints is that they underwent a conversion. At a certain moment in their lives each of them heard and obeyed the words of Christ: ‘Repent and believe the Good News.’ There is a clear shift from darkness to light, from selfishness to generosity, from sin to virtue. It’s not something that happened to them overnight. For many of them it was a long and painful struggle. And that’s what makes them so attractive and challenging. And that’s the challenge for us today also, namely, to repent and believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ.
This country is blessed with some wonderful national parks. What I like about them is the carefully laid out trails for hikers and walkers. On those trails are lots of markers. In difficult uphill or downhill parts, you will find steps cut out in the rocks. In marshy places you will find stepping-stones laid out. And in dangerous parts you will see warning signs posted.
Thanks to these well-made and well-worn trails, even amateurs can make their way safely through deep forest and rugged mountain terrain. As you travel these trails you marvel at the hard work that went into the making of them. And one thing becomes abundantly clear: without those trails the ordinary hiker would be completely lost.
The saints had done something similar for us. They have laid out paths for us. They have put down markers on those paths. They have travelled the way ahead of us, a great host of them. They have shown us what ordinary human beings like us can achieve when they avail of the grace of God. They have set us an example of determination, dedication, and sacrifice.
Perhaps the Northern hemisphere is more conducive to celebrating the Feast of All Saints. November on that side of the world is full of dark days and with the onset of winter there is every reminder that the year is almost spent. It’s a time to reflect on our gains and losses and chief among our losses are the good friends who have died recently. As we miss them sorely we pray that they all may now rest in peace. May they now share that great and never-ending love and mercy of God. They are probably urging us to keep going, not to get too caught up in the things of this world. The world ahead is beyond all we can imagine so let go and let God.
So let’s be thankful for our friends, the saints, who have gone ahead of us. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist they are in communion with us. Even if you still feel the pain of their loss I hope and pray that you can also have a sense of the joy they now experience with all the blessed.
Sunday, 6th November 2016