Monday, November 06, 2006

All Saints – Here or There?

More than once I have arrived in church on the Sunday in the octave of Advent, having spent no little time in preparing a sermon based on the readings for Proper 25 or whatever number we have got toward the end of the Pentecost season, only to be reminded that the Prayer Book allows the use of the All Saints Day readings, (P.B. p.15 under “principal feasts”). This year I remembered in good time, checked the insert and noted that it used the first set of readings given in the Lectionary on p. 925. It then struck me that I had never been presented with the Second set of readings and wondered who made the choice. The only answer seems to be that it is the firm that publishes the insert that goes into the parish bulletin.

Alternate Readings:

Set I: Ecclesiasticus 44: 1-10,13-14
Revelation 7:2-4,9-17
Matthew 5:1-12

Set II Eccles: 2: (1-6) 7-11
Ephesians 1: (11-14)15-23
Luke 6:20-26 (27-36)

I then thought it might be interesting to compare the two sets: the comparison suggested that two rather different points of view about what a saint is were being presented, something that should warn us not to assume that the N.T. is a monolithic set of documents all saying the same thing about God, Jesus and us.
Both alternatives have a lesson from Ben Sirach, (Ecclesiasticus), not, of course Old Testament, but full of interesting Hellenized Judaic themes. There are no very striking differences between the two readings, though it might be that Set II emphasizes to some degree the living of a saintly life, facing the testing that reveals trust in God.
The second lessons, though, give us a clear contrast: the Set I reading from Revelation paints an imaginary scenario of the heavenly realm: saints are super-human figures pictured as doing obeisance to the Emperor (people literally did have to touch their foreheads to the ground when approaching the Emperor). In the alternate reading from the Letter to Ephesus, the saints are contemporary Christians, living in the here-and-now, sharing a hope that the Rule of God (as in the “Our Father” prayer) will be perfected soon.

Matthew, Luke and Thomas

In both sets, the Gospel centers on the teaching of Jesus, known in Matthew as the Beatitudes, and in Luke as the Sermon on the Plain, and, again, there is a big difference between those two versions of Jesus's words. Luke’s version is, one might say, down to earth. It is those who are hungry who are blessed, whereas in Matthew it is “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” who are blessed.
In general, I think it is true to say that our view of saints tends to be colored by the readings of Set I so that we think in ‘other worldly’ terms rather than about the present demands of the rule of God.
There are, moreover, good reasons for thinking that Luke’s version of the Beatitudes is nearer to Jesus’ original teaching, not the least being that the Gospel of Thomas has a saying (69b) that agrees with Luke against Matthew.

The Saints who are in Corinth

Much in the NT reminds us that sainthood is something to do with the here and now. When Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth, he addresses his words to, "the saints who live in Corinth", and if we read of the goings on in that church, we may wonder about our normal definition of sainthood. The reputation of Corinth was so bad that a term was coined to describe someone corrupted by excess: “Corinthianised”.

As we listen to the words of the beatitudes and to St Paul in I Cor. 13 where he gives us a blue-print of the Christian character, we get the picture of the person who is presented to us in the life and teaching of Jesus. Thus, in our baptism, it is said that "we put on Christ", or that we are joined to him. Clearly, this does not effect a total and immediate change in our lives, but it does give us the potential, to become what it is that God wants us to be: we do not have to wait for some future state to become saints; that is what we are called to be working at right now.

An Inclusive Church

That there are many who respond to and share the love of God who are not be found in our congregations must be a foundation of any inclusive church: God finds those who will respond to his love in places that we might not think proper, but God's love is greater than our human measuring of it. At the present time in our society, this is a point that cannot be too strongly emphasized. One of the foundations of the conservative Christian right is a firm statement that God accepts only those who are Christians, perhaps, even, ‘born again Christians’ (hard luck most Episcopalians!) and other world religions are at best comforting myths, and at worst, demonic. In the face of this ideological stance, we must insist that this is not the overall view of the NT; indeed, it is not the only view in the OT, though it is, without doubt, the predominant one, and it is the Hebrew texts that are most exclusive in language that are most often used in fundamentalist circles.

Present and Future

My conclusion after meditating on the two sets of readings was that they do, in fact, reflect a development in the idea of sainthood that began towards the very end of the New Testament period and went on to the full-blown doctrines and practices of the Mediaeval church, via the very understandable practice of things like the Eucharist celebrated in a third century cave where a Martyr was buried. The development of the cult of saints could not have happened without the ascendancy of a Neoplatonic notion of an immortal soul. This is a notion almost entirely absent from the New Testament, (though often obscured by the translation of psyche (nephesh) by soul rather than ‘life’ or ‘self’), but found in the very earliest Patristic writings.
The New Testament is, of course, not without a clear future perspective, but apart from the Book of Revelation, its writers are noticeably reticent about the details of life after the resurrection of the saints. Paul speaks of the dead as “asleep in Christ”, (I Thess. 4.14ff; I Cor. 15.51), awaiting the resurrection at the eschaton. The Deutero-Pauline letters, on the other hand, seem to imply a sharing already of the resurrection, perhaps of a spiritual kind? (Col. 2.12). One of the Nag Hammidi Treatises, goes much further:
We are drawn to heaven by him, like beams by the sun, not being restrained by anything. This is the spiritual resurrection which swallows up the psychic in the same way as the fleshly.

It may well be this clearly Gnostic teaching that had already elicited a rebuttal in 2 Tim.2.16, where false teachers hold “that the resurrection is already past”. Even this development of a ‘spiritual’ resurrection does not supply any detailed scenario of heaven, and the general tenor of the New Testament is minimalist about what happens after death. The Book of Revelation gives us pictures and metaphors, but it is important to remember that they are just pictures: a royal court or an unending church service, for example. Neither of these images is in any way appealing, I would think, to those who have thrown off monarchy, and become quite fidgety if a service lasts much more than sixty minutes.

When next I have to preach on All Saints Sunday, I am going to insist that whatever the Insert in the program for the day has, I am going to use Set II of the assigned readings.

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