Today is All Saints Sunday and many churches will be looking into the rear view mirror today. Big mistake for as I see it this is a day for celebrating and affirming our call to be saints-the holy ones of God. That’s how Paul begins his letters to the churches of Rome and Corinth and it’s how we ought to think of our own calling and identity. We are or at least seek to be the holy ones of God. We are called to be saints. We are looking forward not backward. There are numerous hymns in the non-conformist tradition that take up this theme.
So this is who we are in the understanding of God but who do we appear to be in the understanding of our neighbours. They sometimes imagine us to be a bunch of boring people obsessed with social conformity holding to a rigid and backward morality expressed in a conservative form of piety. Of course we are not really like that at all. We have high ideals, of course, but we are honest enough to admit that we do not always live up to them. That is why confession is always a key part of our worship and a moment of joyful release. Instead as Franciscans like to say our lives should be characterised by humility, love and joy- and sometimes we just about manage it.
We Christians are those who have embraced a new nature – have entered into a new creation after the image of our creator. We have put on Christ-to use another of Paul’s expressions. Christ-who calls us to love one another and to humility-to live as a servant as Jesus did-forsaking pride and status as he did even unto the cross. Here is Isaac Watts:
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.
This is very challenging stuff!
This is what all Christians share. Now I want to introduce a new theme for your reflections. I have spoken firstly of ourselves as those who are called to be saints now I want to introduce the notion of citizenship.
My passport says I’m a British citizen. Is that important to me. Frankly no! One day I might be an English citizen or a Mercian citizen or an Australian or New Zealand citizen like other members of my family. But I trust I will always be a citizen, albeit a candidate citizen of God’s holy city-that which comes down from above as the Book of Revelation describes it. The heavenly Jerusalem. You know we Christians sit at something of an angle to the world. As the epistle to the Hebrews puts it: – here we have no abiding city but we seek the city which is to come.
A more modern writer describes us as “Resident Aliens” the title of his best known little book. I find that very helpful-in the world but not of it.
Here’s another famous hymn:
Saviour if of Zion’s city
I through grace a member am
Let the world deride or pity
I will glory in thy name.
Blessed city heavenly Salem
Vision dear of peace and love
You probably know the great patriotic anthem; I vow to thee my country. But it’s the last verse that makes it a Christian hymn. It begins: but there’s another country. Indeed there is!
Christ calls us to make that vision of peace and love the defining quality of our lives. Love especially. That sounds fine but there’s some work to be done with faith hope and love and it bears on the conversation about cities.
St Augustine wrote: Two loves have made two cities. Love of God even to the point of contempt for God made the earthly city and love of God even to the point of contempt for self-made the heavenly city. Rome is in his mind but we might add London Paris, New York and Tokyo. We know how all pervasive self-love can be-the entire economy is based on it and it leads to all sorts of bad things-environmental degradation, racism and selfishness. We must try to escape from the mad individualism that’s so destructive – the idea that nothing matters except me. There’s a shop in Worcester I frequently walk past called: It’s all about me!
Augustine made his comments in the aftermath of a great disaster that seemed to have overtaken the Roman world. Rome had been sacked by the Goths. The city that had given law and civilisation to the world had been trashed. So people said if only we had remained faithful to the old gods-the gods of victory, prosperity and power none of this would have happened. Christianity what has it ever done for us etc. etc.
Augustine wrote his book-a very big book- as a reply to these people. What he does is to take the conversation to a different level-away from the catastrophes of the present moment and away from our self-centred concerns towards a renewed focus on the love of God whose transcends time and chance-away from the politics and economics of the earthly city to the nature of the heavenly city.
We are having a difficult year –the catastrophes of this year were not expected and are becoming increasingly burdensome. Have courage-love will win through in the end-the virus may well fade away or become benign or we will learn how to live with it. In like manner the Goths became increasingly civilised and turned into upholders of Roman ways themselves.