Daniel 7.1-3, 15-18 Ephesians 1.11-23 Luke 6.20-31
The season from All Saints to Advent is traditionally a time for remembering: we have All Saints closely followed by All Souls; then Remembrance Sunday, all leading up to the last Sunday of the year, Christ the King. And there is something very fitting that as the year draws to a close and the leaves fall from the trees, leaving spaces, that there is space not only to remember times and especially people gone before but also to step back a little from the busyness of the world and to take stock. Those we have loved but whose memories we treasure are sharpened at this time; they made us what we are today and they will continue to shape our future. At All Saints, we pay due respect to that motley crew of men and women down through the ages who enlivened and inspired the Church and whose varied and diverse witness has served to advance the Kingdom in all sorts of different ways.
In the early church, there was no distinction. All those who responded to the call to follow Christ Jesus were considered sanctified; St. Paul frequently refers to ‘the saints’, identifying them as those leading holy lives in the service of Our Lord. He writes to the Ephesians today. I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.
For the saints, in all their variety, have enabled us all to touch the divine; to look, in St. Paul’s glorious phrase with the eyes of the heart enlightened. Their heroic virtues inspire us by giving us a pattern, a way of life to follow; their continuing prayers join their voices with ours in keeping the gospel light shining in a benighted world. It is the gospel of salvation, of the healing of the world that they embraced which is ours also, our message of hope for all people, a message which turns the world upside down.
There can be no doubting the subversive nature of Christ’s message as revealed in the Beatitudes. The more familiar version is in St Matthew’s gospel, the opening to the Sermon on the Mount, but today we have St Luke’s, who we can continue to enjoy in these last few weeks of Year C. In the passage we’ve just heard, Luke emphasizes four groups, the poor, the hungry, the distressed and the despised – in other words, those at the bottom of the pile, the least in society, those with nothing to contribute, the needy, the suffering and the outcast; and these are the ones he identifies as blessed; these are the ones whose reward is great in heaven.
Whilst some may read this as a reversal of fortune when we die, a sort of compensatory after-life, this isn’t what Our Lord is talking about at all. Instead, he is calling us to focus on the here and now, on the society we inhabit. The audience at the time would hear a reproach for past failures to discern and carry out the will of God – that is what the ancestors did to the prophets. And those who bear the responsibility for this waywardness, the rich, the comfortable, and the selfish, those ones who raised up false prophets – these are the ones who must and will be called to account.
And yet Christ’s message, as we know full well, isn’t confined to first century Palestine, it is a gospel to be preached afresh in every generation. We live today in a troubled and divided world – in other words, no different from any other generation – and our nation, for all its challenges, is a Christian country. This has nothing to do with the faith or otherwise of its citizens, it is a sign that our laws are based on Christian teaching, notably justice, fairness, tolerance and redemption. The gospel of Christ is the gospel of love for all people, not merely those who might think the same as we do. It is a gospel of generosity and hospitality, of self-giving and sacrifice, a gospel of the common good. We are called by baptism to be Christ-like, to live our lives as he did, to spread the good news in all we say and do, in the words of St Francis using words if necessary. And yet so often our attempts as a Christians to be prophetic, to reach out to the poor, the hungry, the distressed and the despised, are treated with scorn and ridicule, if not downright loathing and condemnation – just like the prophets of old.
It is as if the qualities which Our Lord Jesus Christ not only embraced but embodied – tolerance, forbearance, kindness compassion and above all forgiveness – are signs of weakness; and yet doing good to those who hate, blessing those who curse, praying for the abusive, turning the other cheek, giving and giving again – these things are exactly what Christ is spelling out for us. There is no soft option. Only be pursuing this path, by preaching the subversive gospel in the face of so much opposition can we truly hope to make a difference, to challenge, as the prophets did, not through weakness but through strength, the strength of those who today we acclaim as martyrs ad saints, those who down through the ages have devoted – and often sacrificed – their lives, that we might live, in the words of St Paul, in the fullness of him who fills all in all.
What this gospel passage is calling us to do is to stand in solidarity with those saints in heaven, to be prepared in our earthly lives to be faithful witnesses to the Kingdom; we as Christ’s followers are not to watch idly as the excesses of the world threaten to tear it apart, but we are called to challenge, to work tirelessly for the cause of justice, as Christ himself did, defending the weak and calling to task all those who would work against the Kingdom. Do to others as you would have them do to you demands a response from all of us. It is the language of creative relationship, a relationship which we all enter into by nature of our common humanity, and in that relationship, just as with any relationship, there are expectations which we are called to fulfil as true disciples. Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you is Christ’s commandment to us all. Only by doing this can we truly begin to advance the Kingdom in the company of all the saints, for the praise of his glory. Amen.