Sermon for ALL SAINTS written in 2005, reposted for our new readers. No, this is not the one I gave the link for the other day.
Matt. 5: 1-12
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
I recall my very first solar eclipse, probably about 1961 or 1962, when I could not have been more than four years old. I remember it well. My mother was very careful to tell me not to look directly at the sun, because it was very possible that I could go blind if I did. During a solar eclipse, we can look at the sun, not realizing that the infrared rays are every bit as destructive to the optic nerve as ever. Our eyes cannot take those rays in their full strength. So, I was told not to look up when the sky would darken, but to look down and so preserve my eyesight.
A cousin, who lived across the street, came over with a cardboard box, that, if worn like a helmet over the head, due to a hole cut in the back and a white sheet of paper as a viewing screen placed in front, could be used to see the reflection of the eclipse. It was a partial eclipse, and I recall that on the white screen I saw the sun with a dark round shadow in front of it, causing the reflection of the sun to appear like the moon, when it is only partly visible. The sun appeared shaped like a quarter moon, reflected inside the box-helmet. Even more strange, when I removed the box from my head, on the ground a thousand such reflections appeared, little quarter-moon images of the sun. We could not look directly at the brightness of the sun with any safety, but we could look at the endless reflections all over the ground. I have never seen that particular effect from an eclipse on any other occasion in more than forty years. But, I cannot forget what it looked like.
That is an illustration for us. In our condition as fallen creatures, subject in this world to sin and death, we cannot not look upon the undiluted glory of God in its perfection. It is not a danger, because it cannot happen; for if it happened we would be unable to endure it. It is true that Christ said, “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father.” But, this was accomplished by His coming to us as a man. Even on the Mount of Transfiguration it was His glorified humanity that shined with the brightness of the sun in its strength. He made known His divine presence by everything He said and did, especially by defeating death when in His resurrection He ushered in immortality. But, never did He unleash on anyone a perfect glimpse of His divine nature, for to do so would not have been merciful, but rather terrifying. So, He took human nature in its fullness, and this became a part of Him forever by a loving and gracious act of His will. Human nature served as His icon, a perfect image of the Father for us to see. Similarly, His Presence here today is very real, but made food for us under “these shadows mean” of bread and wine.
We do hope to see God some day, and not only in the human nature taken by the Son, though never will it be set aside; And whenever we see God we cannot do so without seeing Christ Jesus, for the Trinity cannot be divided or dissected. The goal and hope of Christians is to see God as our Lord Jesus said: "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God." This one little line is the reason why this passage that opens the Sermon on the Mount is the Gospel for the Feast of all Saints. The Church long has used the word “saints” to speak of those we believe to have entered already into the perfect state that allows them to be granted the Beatific Vision. That is, to see God as God, the final perfect destiny of the human creature by grace.
Because we are not ready for the Beatific Vision, we must, for now, see God the way I saw the sun during the solar eclipse in my childhood. What we see, that is the sight of God in Jesus Christ, is real. And, real also is what you see when I hold the Sacrament up and tell you to Behold the Lamb of God. We see that reality in a way that is given to us by God’s love, because He saves us by showing Himself. Jesus said to Nicodemus:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.”
We see Him in His human nature, lifted up on the cross. We see Him as the Lamb of God, ourselves not worthy that he should come under our roof, but asking that He speak the word only, and our souls shall be healed. Yes, what we see is real. And, what we see is granted to us in a way that saves us rather than destroying us, for He came to save us. Our sinfulness, our weakness and our foolishness is all taken into account by the Father, and what we do not see is due to His mercy. The fullness of Godhead dwells in Christ bodily, and the Holy Spirit is really and truly present within the Church- within us with all His gifts. But, our destiny is to behold the sun in its strength when our eyes are made able to endure the brightness, able to endure seeing God as God. We are meant to know Him as He is, to behold throughout eternity the Beatific Vision, a vision not stagnant because He is infinite, and our knowledge of Him once made perfect will be ever perfected more and more, endless knowledge, joy and love.
Yet, we must never presume on God’s grace. Hell is the eternal denial of this joy; not that God denies it to us, but that we deny it to ourselves if we do not make it our aim to know Him.
Recall what I said in a sermon a few months back. On that Sunday the Gospel reading included the words we call the summary of the Law, and which the celebrant says in every Mass (that is, every Holy Communion- same thing). The first and great commandment is the impossible call to be saints, to love God with our whole heart, soul and mind, and then to love our neighbor as ourselves. When you look at the Epistles of Saint Paul, in the opening of the Epistles to the Romans and to the Corinthians, you see that all of the people who belong to the Church are “called to be saints.”
I like the King James Bible, with that accurate translation “called to be saints.” That “called to be” part is missing from the understanding of a good many Protestant revivalists, fundamentalists and Pentecostals. They teach that every Christian is a saint just by, as they like to say, “accepting Jesus.” Meanwhile, the opposite error belongs to those who seem to think of saints as if they were comic book superheroes, people with special abilities like Superman born on Krypton, or Spiderman with his radioactive bug bite that enables him to do amazing things. We mere mortals cannot be like them, and it’s best just to be normal.
Well, the truth is that a saint is a holy person. That is what the words means. And, the truth is that everyone who belongs to Christ has the vocation to be a saint. We have not yet arrived at being perfect saints, but neither are we supposed to leave that to a special class of superheroes. The scripture commands us to “follow on to know the Lord (Hosea 6:3).”
Let me quote my own sermon to you, from the eighteenth Sunday after Trinity:
“Everyone who belongs to the Church is called to be a saint. You, whether you like it or not, are called to be a saint. Your vocation is holiness, without which no one shall see the Lord. That is what the first and great commandment means. And, the problem is, if you don’t like the first product the Church has for you, namely to become a saint, we have nothing else to offer. Real Christianity is radical, and calls for total commitment in every area of life. That is why we need the Holy Spirit.”
The most important thing that we Anglicans focus on during the Feast of All Saints is not the issue of devotions to the saints. Sure, it is possible, I suppose, to slip into idolatry and to worship saints and angels. But, that is not really a danger for most sane people. I think we all know that only God is to be worshiped as God. The ancient practice of asking the saints to pray for us is not idolatry, and should not be condemned as if it were. There is no reason to object to someone saying “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners…” If someone were to speak to her as if to a goddess, that would be wrong; but asking for prayer from a person whom we know to be seeing God face to face is not idolatry. And I, for one, know that many Anglican prayer materials have contained such devotions since long before any of us were born.
But, as I say, the subject of devotions to saints is not our focus on the feast of All Saints. Our focus has always been the call that God has given to all of us, the call to be saints. That is, we are called to be holy, to be faithful in every area of our lives, to press on to know the Lord, to confess the sins we fall into and repent of them in order to be forgiven, and also to be cleansed and delivered from the power of sin. We are called to develop the virtues, faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, prudence and temperance. Above all of the others charity, the bond of perfection.
In order to begin to answer the call to holiness, we must be thankful. And, that is the best reason to look at the Lord Jesus as the Lamb of God, lifted up on the cross as Moses lifted the serpent on the pole in the wilderness. It is in thanksgiving that our hearts begin to render for Christ’s great act of love, that our souls are healed, not treating us our sins deserve, but rather dying as our atonement. In that love we begin to see the reflection of Divine glory. Like that reflection I saw as a child, wearing a box as a helmet on my head, we see the glory of God the way I saw a projection of the sun. And like the innumerable reflections of the partial sun that I saw across the ground, we see radiant glory in the great company of saints who have gone before, and who now, with hearts made pure by grace, behold the glory of God.