Preached on All Saints Day at All Saints Anglican Church, King City, Ontario, Diocese of Toronto, 1 November, 2020.
Readings for this Sunday: Revelation 7: 9-17, Psalm 34: 1-10. 1 John 3: 1-3, Matthew 5: 1-12
“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.” (Rev 7.14-15)
Vincent Loquès probably didn’t think of himself as a saint, but it seems that the people who knew him would have called him one. For ten years he was the sexton of the Roman Catholic basilica in Nice, France, charged with looking after the building and welcoming visitors in this popular tourist city. Parishioners remembered him as a devout Christian, with a ready smile, who fed refugees and dedicated his life to serving the church and looking after his family.
Likewise, Simone Barreto and Nadine Devlillers probably didn’t think of themselves as saints. Simone was a mother of three and worked as a caregiver to the elderly, and had gone to the basilica to pray last Thursday morning. Also there on Thursday was Nadine, another devout parishioner, described by friends as kindness incarnate.
All three were brutally murdered, just before the morning mass, by a man with a knife who seems to have gone to the church just to kill Christians.
Vincent, Simone, and Nadine were not saints as the term has been traditionally defined. They performed no miracles of note, and were not known for their teaching. They seem to have been ordinary, faithful persons who had answered a call to put God in the centre of their lives. In this respect, they were saints.
Two thousand years ago, the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to a motley group of followers of Jesus in a distant city. He addressed his letter “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” Writing in Greek, the word he used for saints was hagios (ἁγίοις) which means set apart or holy. In Latin the word hagios became sancti or holy ones, and so to English as saints.
In St. Paul’s theology, one was made holy, one was made a saint, by answering the calling of God. It wasn’t that God called only the perfect or the pretty good to be saints or holy ones – Paul was clear that, left to our own devices, humans can act quite awfully. Rather, answering God’s call to live a life of devotion and love allows us to become holy. Thus the lives of the faithful, even ordinary people like Vincent Loquès, show admirable qualities that pointed others towards God.
Another way to think of saints is as friends of God. Friendship means a personal connection, both between the believer and God, and between fellow believers. All of us can think of special people in our lives who seem to have embodied some spiritual gift or quality that inspired others. As good friends do, these people were there for us in hard times, they taught us, they helped us, and made us better Christians and better people. They are and were our friends, and they are and were God’s friends, and so we think of them all, across the ages, joined together in a great communion of saints, a great company of friends of God.
Vincent, Simone, and Nadine were friends of God, and they have gone to join a particular group of the saints that we call martyrs. Today “martyr” is a loaded word that we need to use with great care. Thanks to terrorism, it has come to mean somebody who seeks a glorious death through violent action for the sake of a cause. This is not how the early church understood the word.
Martyr comes from a Greek word meaning witness. Martyrs were those who were persecuted and killed for their faith in Christ, and thus testified to Jesus through their suffering. The historian Tom Holland writes that the courage and faith of the early Christians, decent, harmless people, inspired revulsion against Roman persecution and led many others to Jesus. Our brother and sisters in Nice likewise appear to have been ordinary, decent, faithful people. They did not seek to be marytrs, but by their lives and by their deaths, they point us to God.
One more thing needs to be said about how we understand martyrs. God does not demand martyrdom or sacrifice. God never wants violence met with violence. As Jesus says in the Beatitudes, “blessed are the peacemakers”. God loves his friends. God gathers his friends and comforts them. Thus, in the vision of the martyrs that we hear today from the Book of Revelation, the martyrs are rescued from their “great ordeal”, they are gathered around the throne of God, and there they are comforted.
There is no easy theological answer to why God allows suffering. We cannot tell why good people experience horrific deaths as the three in Nice did. Neither can we say why our loved ones suffer cancer, or why we lose them to dementia. However, the Book of Revelation promises that God will come again and set all things right. Pandemic and cancer, war and hunger and injustice, all these things persist for now. We can only trust that they will be swept away when Christ returns to perfect God’s work of creation, which as Paul writes in Romans, groans in distress as it awaits its rescue.
Likewise, we trust that God’s friendship remains with us and with all the saints, even in our distress. God sees the suffering of all his friends. Jesus in the Beatitudes blesses the suffering, the ignored, the inconsequential, the mournful. God does not abandon God’s friends.
Perhaps, then, it is helpful to think of martyrdom as taking many forms. We can be called to be hagios, friends of God, and still suffer with cancer, or dementia, or poverty. We can experience crippling loss, can mourn a loved one who has left a huge hole in our life, and still be called to be a friend of God. God’s friendship does not buy us immunity from suffering. God’s friendship means that we won’t be alone through suffering, and so we can still bear witness to God, still be a saint and an example to others, eve in the midst of our suffering.
Without God in our lives, we might default to some idea of stoicism, to getting through the pain and indignity of a meaningless life as best we can, with whatever dignity we can manage. Christians on the other hand, following St. Paul, use terms like patience, perseverance, and endurance (eg, Heb 12.1) because we see beyond pain to something better. Thus Jesus in today’s gospel speaks of the how God will “reward” the blessed who suffer (Mt 5.12), and St. John sees the martyrs comforted and sheltered at the throne of God (Rev 7.17).
The saints and martyrs who have gone before us are now in the care and keeping of God. We say as much at the end of every funeral service, when we commit or give the loved on into the keeping of God. They have not ceased to exist. The holy dead are with Christ, who is the Alpha and Omega, who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, and thus they exist outside of time as we know it.
My late wife Kay liked to say that she loved receiving the eucharist because at that moment Christ is most present, and in taking communion she had, as she liked to put it, crossed the space/time barrier. and briefly entered eternity. She put it well. Receiving the eucharist, even in this attenuated, pandemic form, is to briefly step outside of time, and into the eternal company of the communion of saints.
So, as you come forward today, know what you stand in the company of the dear and faithful ones you miss. You stand with the faithful who built this church 160+ years ago. You stand with Vincent, and Simone, and Nadine, and all the saints and martyrs who have gone before us. We will stand with them again, on another shore, in the full presence and love of God and the Lamb.