1 John 3.1-3
It seems to me that there are essentially two ways of approaching All Saints’ Day. These correspond very roughly with our reading from Revelation on the one hand and our gospel reading on the other.
Our reading from the Book of Revelation offers us a glimpse of heaven. We see something rather like it above us painted on the Chancel Arch. A great multitude without number, from every tribe and nation and people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They are robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They worship God, and they suffer no more. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Here we have a vision of the lives of the saints in heaven.
Our gospel reading strikes us by contrast as being much more down to earth. Blessed are the poor in spirit, Jesus says, and well he knows that many of us are feeling pretty poor in spirit right now as we stand on the cusp of another lockdown, with no end to this crisis in sight. Blessed are those who mourn, and there are many of us who are doing precisely that at the moment. The Beatitudes are easy for us to relate to, because they are grounded in our experience of earthly life, and they outline Jesus’ vision of holy living in this life: humility, patience, persecution and suffering, a thirst for righteousness, and purity of heart.
So when we reflect on the lives of the saints on All Saints’ Day, do we focus on their earthly lives, or on their heavenly lives?
For me, the answer has to be both. And if we look a little more closely at those two readings I have just described, we will see that they do in fact both combine these two approaches.
The reading from Revelation speaks of those who have come out of the great ordeal. There is a strong sense of the very real struggle of Christian life lived in this world.
And in the gospel we hear “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”; “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. As in Revelation, the struggle to be true to our Christian faith in this life is closely bound up with the prospect of eternal life that lies before us.
In our very practical and materialistic and economistic century, the temptation for us is to focus on the saints as moral exemplars in their earthly lives, and to ignore the heavenly dimension.
We have seen this in the way the Church of England has responded to Covid-19. We have, in many ways quite understandably, allowed ourselves to become a little bogged down in warning signs and risk assessments and debates about whether churches should be open or not. To some extent this is inevitable, and to some extent it is right and proper. We do have to think about these things. This earthly life is a gift from God, it is precious in the eyes of God, and the Church should play its part in reducing the spread of the virus and the various harms that flow from it.
But we must not focus on that so relentlessly that we forget to actually preach and live the gospel! The Church is not a sort of spiritual arm of the Health and Safety Executive; it is the Kingdom of Heaven breaking into our earthly lives.
So yes, we should of course be taking sensible practical steps to mitigate the risks of this virus, but we should also be preaching and living life eternal. In the context of eternity, in the context of the Kingdom of Heaven, in the context of the vision of God, in the context of the joy of the worship of the saints, in the context of the church triumphant in heaven, this scrap of DNA we call Covid-19 is nothing at all. We who dare to hope to spend eternity with the saints gazing into the infinite depths of the love of God, we are the very last people who should be falling into a morbid dread of this virus and its consequences. Let us be sensible; certainly. Let us not be reckless; of course. But let us also not be fearful.
And if we as a Church were to be able with God’s help to step out of our fears, if fortified and inspired by the vision of the life of the saints in heaven we were to lift our eyes above and beyond the internal affairs of the Church here on earth, we would surely be in a vastly better position to engage constructively and generously and lovingly with the world around us as the saints did in their days. It is not a question of being so heavenly-minded that we are no earthly use; it is rather that by being more heavenly-minded we might in fact be much more earthly use.
Because in these difficult days, and in the difficult months and probably years that will follow as we wrestle with the economic and political fall-out of this virus, the world is going to need peacemakers, the world is going to need those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the world is going to need those who are prepared to suffer for righteousness’ sake.
So this All Saints’ Day, let’s rejoice in the fellowship of the saints, let’s take comfort from their prayers poured out constantly for us at the heavenly throne, and let’s join them in our hearts in the eternal worship of heaven. And fortified and inspired by the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ, and which the saints enjoy in heaven, let’s throw ourselves without fear into the struggle for peace and righteousness in this earthly life which God has given us, and which our Lord Jesus Christ and his saints have shared with us.