Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday. It’s the day when we give thanks for all those figures from Christian history who we call saints, those whose lives have inspired ours, ordinary people, flesh and blood, not superhuman, yet somehow setting an example that was extraordinary. It’s not just a day for holy hero worship though. This day is also supposed to remind us that if these ordinary people could be saints, then, potentially, so could any of us.
Now there’s a thought. We can all be saints! Perhaps that excites you, perhaps it alarms you. But if you do want to be one, how do you go about it? Is it just a matter of popping down to the local halo shop and buying the biggest shiniest one you can find…? It’s probably just as well that it isn’t.
Actually the pathway to official sainthood really depends on which denomination of the church you belong to. To be an official Roman Catholic saint you have to have at least a couple of miracles attributed to your intervention after you have died, as well as living an exemplary Catholic life. It’s all quite a rigmarole.
Many Protestant churches, though, have traditionally regarded the whole idea of the saints with great unease. If All Saints’ day is observed at all, the emphasis is likely to be on the way the New Testament uses the word “saint”, where it refers to all Christian people, the living congregations of churches, anyone who is part of the body of Christ, rather than just named individuals with special places in heaven.
The Church of England, as ever, tends to have a foot in both camps. It doesn’t have any mechanism for making saints itself, though it has added to the calendar all sorts of worthy people it thinks we should remember – saints in all but name – people like Florence Nightingale and John Bunyan, who wrote “Pilgrim’s Progress”. It recognises and celebrates the pre-Reformation saints of the Catholic Church, and many churches will have statues or images of saints around. Officially, Anglicans don’t pray to or through the saints. The 39 articles of religion, written in the 16th century and setting out what the Church of England thought was important then, positively thunder against the practice -“a fond thing vainly invented… and repugnant to the Word of God.” But of course, the reality is that many Anglicans are quite happy to talk to anyone in the heavenly realms who they think might be listening.
If it all sounds like a bit of a muddle, then that’s because it is. The saints – who they were, how you got to be one, what they are there for - became one of those issues around which Christians polarised and fought bitterly, and sometimes it can be quite difficult to get back beyond those struggles. But it’s only if we can do that that we can start to see how ideas about sainthood can enrich rather than just embattle our faith.
Of course, the idea of saints isn’t just a Christian one. People have always needed their heroes, their inspirational figures. All faiths have their saints, whatever they call them – and those who have no faith still seem to need to have people to look up to and emulate as well. The first Christians to be called saints, though, were those who were martyred for their faith in the early centuries of the Church. Persecution wasn’t constant, but there were often purges and outbreaks of trouble, and when they happened, being a Christian suddenly became very dangerous. It was very hard to hold onto your faith in those circumstances, and many just gave up. What was the point, if it was all going to end like this? Those who managed to find the courage not to go back on their commitment to the way of Christ became an important source of strength to those who were wavering.
Eventually, of course, that time of Roman persecution came to an end; Christians were no longer being thrown to the lions, but the concept of sainthood didn’t go away. It was gradually broadened to recognise the impact people could have through their lives as well as their deaths. Dying for your faith could be difficult, but living it could be just as hard. Walking in the way of Christ, living with love, justice and honesty is never easy - it wasn’t then and it isn’t now, and often those who try it will feel that it is a foolish effort, like trying to sweep back the tide, and one which is doomed to failure.
And that brings me to our Gospel reading. To be honest, I struggled to see at first what this story of the raising of Lazarus had to do with the theme of sainthood, beyond the fact that Lazarus, Martha and Mary all end up bearing the title of saint. But then something I read pointed me to the old King James Bible translation of this story and that shed a new light on it. I don’t very often go to the King James Bible. Much though I love some of the beauty of its language, much though I appreciate the special place it has in many people’s hearts, it is often not as accurate a translation as the modern Bibles. Sometimes though, it comes up trumps, with something that really hits home, and that is definitely the case with this story. In the modern language version we heard this morning, when Jesus asks that Lazarus’ tomb be opened, Martha replies rather primly, “Lord, already there is a stench…” In the King James version, though, she is much more earthy and direct. “Lord,” she wails, “he stinketh!”
Martha knows that Lazarus is dead, really properly dead. It’s been four days, and in the Middle Eastern heat, she knows what that means. He stinketh! It is too late now. It is pointless and hopeless and everyone knows it, because he stinketh. But it turns out not to be as she imagined. Jesus calls to Lazarus to come out, and Lazarus comes out. He calls into the utter darkness of death, into the stink of that tomb, and life emerges. We probably come screeching to a halt here; after all, we know this is biologically impossible. But the people of Jesus’ time wouldn’t necessarily have thought so. They didn’t expect dead people to rise, but if God wanted it to happen they wouldn’t have doubted that he could, theoretically, make it so. We struggle with this story in a way the original hearers wouldn’t have. But whatever its historical reality, we can be absolutely clear what John was trying to say here. He wasn’t telling his hearers about biology, he was trying to help them cope with the despair of living in their own stinky world, where they often felt there was no hope, and everything around them cried, “give up!” The message of this story was that no matter how things looked, the world they saw - and smelt - around them was not the only, or the final reality. Life might sometimes stink, but God was still with them, in the midst of that stink, and that meant that there was always a reason to hope.
My guess is that we need to hear that just as much as they did, because our sense of hope can be just as fragile. George Orwell in his dark novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” painted a picture of the triumph of a totalitarian regime. He used the powerful image of “a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” It is a terrifying image because it sums up what has to be one of our deepest fears, that evil will have the last word, and that there is nothing we can do about it.
We aren’t short of evidence to feed that fear either. We turn on the television news and we see bloodshed and hatred, deceit and corruption, people who grow rich on the proceeds of evil.
Closer to home, at work, in our own communities, or even in our own families we may be aware of people getting away with things they know are wrong, hurting others, manipulating and scheming to get what they want.
We might feel that we are sometimes fighting a losing battle with ourselves as well, unable to change habits, behaviour and attitudes which we know are harming us or those around us.
We stinketh too!
Sometimes, frankly, everything stinketh. The stench of death – the death of hope, the death of love, the death of goodness – can seem overwhelming, and we find ourselves thinking , “Why bother trying to do what is right? If you can’t beat them join them! Everyone else is at it, why shouldn’t I be?”
And that is the moment when, whatever our theological position, we desperately need the help of the saints. We need them because they show us that it is possible to live out the message of Christ, the message of resurrection, the message of hope. They weren’t perfect – no one is – but they showed that it is possible for life and love to survive, even in the face of great evil, that it is possible to carry on doing right, even if it seems to bring no visible reward, even if no one else is doing it, even if it feels pointless at the time. We keep telling their stories as we struggle with our own sense of hopelessness, because we know that message is true for us too. However deep the darkness, the smallest light can defeat it; however much the world stinks of death, the sweet smell of life is stronger; however much we weep, we can also find a thousand causes to rejoice if we have eyes to see them.
On this All Saints day, we give thanks for all those, living and departed, who have helped us to see that truth when we have most needed it, to resist the stink of death and choose to hope instead. And we pray that we in our turn might live up to the calling to be saints for others too.