Most bonfire parties will have happened last night. Including the most famous and well-attended one in the country: the Lewes bonfire. More than most, it’s still shaped by elements of Bonfire Night history, and for a long time, not only Guy Fawkes, but also the Pope, were burned in effigy on the bonfire. As a tradition, it doesn’t actually stretch all the way back to the actual Gunpowder plot, but to a bout of national hysteria triggered by some late seventeenth century fake news: the story of a popish plot to kill the king, invented by a fanatical and deluded Anglican priest called Titus Oates.
Our readings – for keeping All Saints on a Sunday – provide almost the opposite of the bonfire night traditions. Bonfire night derives from fake news, and All Saints celebrates true good news. Bonfire night celebrates a partisan and divisive telling of history, and All Saints looks forward to a united, peaceful and harmonious future for humanity. Bonfire night marks the destruction and evil people can get up to. All Saints marks what good God can do with the lives of ordinary people.
The reading from Revelation portrays a world that seems a long way removed from the one we live in. People from every nation, every tribe and ethnicity, every language group are united in a song of praise: presumably that includes Palestinian and Israeli, Russian and Ukrainian. In that world there is no hunger, or thirst or scorching heat: the effects of climate change felt in so many vulnerable parts of this world. God wipes every tear away, and takes away the reason for any tears except those of joy. It’s a long way from the reality in which people burn effigies of those they hate, and celebrate destruction of their enemies.
And the reading from Matthew’s gospel gives us a challenge from Jesus. Live like people who have faith that God will make the world like that vision. Where the meek have triumphed, where mourning has ceased, and the hungry have food. Where peacemakers have succeeded and the persecuted receive their reward. Live like people for whom this almost unimaginable world of God’s future is a present-day reality.
When talking about saints in school assemblies, I have sometimes used a visual aid. I have a box, carefully closed, and well-wrapped. I invite some children to unwrap it, open it and tell me what’s in it. They do so with some excitement; excitement that turns to disappointment as they discover this box is empty. What’s in it, I ask. Nothing, they answer. Are you sure? I ask again. They are sure in their disappointment. Oh dear.
Then, from where I have hidden it, I produce a balloon, well blown up, air straining against its skin. What’s in the balloon, I ask? Air, they answer. And now, look again, what’s in the box? Tentatively one child answers: Air?. Yes, air. The box is not empty, it’s just that we couldn’t see the air in it.
That’s what a saint is: someone who helps us see the life of God here and now. Someone who lives their life according to the vision of one united world gathered from every ethnicity in praise of God. Someone who lives their life always committed to the hope of peace and the work of justice. Somebody who in a world of falsehood and fake news is always committed to the truth. Somebody who is always wiping tears away. Someone who, in a world that hurts, shares their life and love as a means of God’s blessing, where no-one else can see or find that blessing. Saints are Jesus-shaped. Saints are the people who help us see God, where we might otherwise see only emptiness and absence. They are signs of a different future, sacraments of the love that never lets us go.
So, this All Saints Sunday, be grateful for those people who have showed us a God-shaped and Spirit-filled life, whose life and love has spoken to us of God’s life and love, whose way of living has helped us see the truth of that future upside-down kingdom of peace and joy and justice. Be thankful for all those who have shown us that this world is not empty and loveless, but that the love of God is among us, true and real and transforming everything.
And as you hear again the blessing Jesus pronounces on the most unlikely groups of people, ask again for the gift of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, that you and I might be able, in whatever small way, to reflect that love and life for others to see and know, and give them a taste of improbable future of peace and justice, where all tears are wiped away.
- Does the image of air filling a balloon help you see a saint as someone filled with the love and life of God?
- How important are other people in helping you know God?
- Have you ever considered the saints as people who help you gain a better understanding and experience of God at work in the world?