Where have you seen and experienced holiness, in the lives of other human beings you might call saintly?
On this feast of All Saints it is right for us to ponder for a moment, and to reflect, perhaps with others, on what we have seen and heard… what, I wonder, do we see, and who and what do we call holy? How does this fit with the patterns and pointers we find in our Scriptures and Tradition?
Today’s Gospel (from Luke 6.20-31) is a powerful expression of this. It reminds us that biblical holiness is not about merely keeping the laws of tradition, or keeping clean in terms of the dominant norms of society. They may or may not be helpful. What really matters is allowing love to grow within us and to be expressed through us. As Jesus puts it, in words which have become known as ‘the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” This is not about rejecting what is useful in the human-shaped rules of our Faith and society. It is however a call to a ‘higher righteousness’ which goes way beyond human righteousness. For Jesus urges us: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, ’”bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” If we seek to know what holiness is, we therefore need to look to Jesus, the supreme embodiment of divine sanctity. The model he offers us is one centred on divine love, which is both comforting and challenging.
The mixed comfort and challenge of holiness is certainly seen in today’s Gospel reading, isn’t it?! For Jesus not only declares who are blessed – that is, part of God’s holy love. Jesus also declares woes, a powerful critique, against those who have got divine sanctity so badly wrong. This is a very striking contrast. Jesus, the embodiment of divine holiness, thus clearly challenges us to reassess who and what we regard as saintly. Jesus’ language, as we can see, is quite subversive, challenging and even, for some, offensive. Certainly, for Jesus, being saintly is not about being conventionally nice!
Let me suggest three key themes from the Gospel which may therefore help us in our journey of holiness, and its celebration today.
Firstly, we need to see that the blessings, or beatitudes, of Jesus are descriptive, not prescriptive. Jesus describes what saintly folk are like. Jesus is not prescribing what we are to be and do. Blessed are the poor, the hungry, the weeping – not because God wants people to be poor, or hungry, or to weep, but simply because God sees such people as infinitely valuable. Jesus also tells us that we are to rejoice when we are hated, reviled, or defamed, because of the Son of Man. Again, this is not a command to us to seek to be hated, reviled, or defamed. Such things are simply a description of what may happen to us if we live in response to the love of God. Similarly, being rich, or well fed, laughing, or with a good reputation, are not, in themselves, woeful things for us to shun. However, in themselves, they are certainly not signs of a godly life. Indeed, they may sometimes actually be descriptions of people who are causing grief to God and to others, if they are not truly sharing divine love in practice. Jesus, we can see so clearly here, does not advocate a ‘prosperity Gospel’.
Knowing that holiness is not a set of demands should be both a relief, and an opportunity, to us. On the one hand, we are released from obsessing about keeping human rules. We do not have to strive, or stress, about how we are with God. We simply have to allow ourselves to be loved by God and to love in response. On the other hand, we are then better able to recognise holiness among and around us. Following Jesus’ descriptions, where for example do we see the blessed among the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the reviled today? We may have met many more saints like that than we usually realise, when we look for holiness like that. And, when we do so, we may begin to realise that we too may also often share in that kind of holiness without knowing it.
Secondly, today’s Gospel encourages us to see that Christian ethics flow from God’s grace and creativity. For example, Jesus’ encouragement to ‘turn the other cheek’ is not a simplistic command for us to follow in all circumstances. God is not demanding that we become doormats! Rather it is about continuing to live in the same divine spirit of love which loves us whatever happens to us. In reality, as we might explore on another occasion, scholars like Walter Wink have helped us see that ‘turning the other cheek’ must be understood in the context of Jesus’ day. Jesus is suggesting some ways of creative nonviolent resistance to injustice, not mere submission to the sin and violence of others. This is not a fixed rule like a human law, but a pointer to a God-centred way of living. Again, the key words are the so-called Golden Rule: “do to others as you would have them do to you.” To live as saints, as people seeking God’s holiness, is to live in ways which may creatively transform griefs, hurts and oppression. We do not have to live exactly like Jesus, or anyone else. What difference, however, does the grace of God inspire us to be and do? How do we stay living in a spirit of love even when things are tough and others are hurting us? It is to this vocation that Jesus calls us.
Seeing that holiness is not a set of demands, and that ethics flow from grace, leads us to a third vital aspect of today’s Gospel reading: namely the reminder that saints are often quite unexpected people. So, to answer one of my own questions with which I began, one of the saints I rejoice to have known was a woman named Ellen King. When I met her, Ellen was in her 80s and yet still running a bakery in one of the poorest areas of England. A very humble person who lived quite simply, she was however typically full of joy and hospitality to all she met. Her shop was thus a source of holiness in a very tough community. I think of her still as a model of the bakerwoman God we find mentioned in the Bible. She served all she met with the bread of life, as well as physical bread for survival. An incredibly dedicated church worker, with others she interviewed me (Jo) for the job of local parish priest. The others all asked the usual kinds of significant questions that are asked when a new parish priest is being sought. Ellen however said nothing, until the very end. Then, looking at me (Jo) closely with a gentle but very firm gaze, she simply said, ‘will you love the people?’. That was all, but it cut to the very heart if things, and it said everything about what holiness is about. We can be, and do, all kinds of wonderful things, but the bottom line is always love. Can we keep on loving God, one another, and, importantly, ourselves, whatever happens? In suffering, as in joy, will we open ourselves to divine love and live through it? Will we love, and share our bread, and the bread of life, with others?
May God continue to bless us as we travel on as saints together. Amen.
by Jo Inkpin, All Saints 2019