Sermon: All Saints’ Day
Sunday 30 October 2016
The Revd Pete Hobson, Director – Leicester Cathedral Revealed
(Dan 7.1-3, 15-18, Eph 1.11-end & Luke 6.20-31)
An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar. Then the Englishman decides he doesn’t like it – so they all have to turn around and head for the door…
Why is that sort of joke supposed to be funny? It’s to do with what we associate with particular identities – and there are certainly many punch-lines to that particular opener I wouldn’t be using here – or indeed anywhere! Of course, we mostly learn to look beyond those sort of crude stereotypes. But not too far: most of us, if pushed, would probably assert some sort of identity that helps shape how we see ourselves.
I’ve been listening to the 2016 Reith Lectures on Mistaken Identities by the US philosopher, Kwame Anthony Appiah. Four lectures on our personal identity as shaped by the forces of religion, nationality, race and culture. So far only the first two have been broadcast – and they’re well worth a listen, if you’re the sort of person who likes to use BBC iPlayer! His overall premise is that each of these four common signifiers of personal identity – religion, nationality, race or culture – can easily hide as much as they can inform.
Appiah’s first talk, on religious identity, takes the somewhat relativist view that religious truth is essentially a malleable concept and that appeals to orthodoxy as revealed in religious texts – such as the Bible or the Qu’ran are very changeable things. I’m not wanting to argue the toss on that here and now, but alongside that he also made the point that for most of us orthodoxy – believing the right things – is less important than orthopraxy – doing the right things. And also that for most of us both of those find their expression not in solitary belief or action – but in community. Which brings us back to identity. We define ourselves, in part, by those we choose to associate with.
So here we are this morning, all busy associating with each other in this particular congregation; listening to readings from our Scriptures; saying or singing certain things together; and perhaps (though that’s harder to tell) walking out of here at the end and living our lives in certain common ways.
So at the risk of making his point for him, I’d like to see what our Scriptures offer us by way of inspiration this All Saints festival. Three different types of writing, with, I suggest, one common thread of Identity.
Daniel 7 is written into a context where Israel is in captivity in Babylon, and identity is both very clear – that of a slave nation – and also very uncertain – at the whim of the conquering nation. The dream of the ‘four great beasts’ is clearly explained as describing the global political scene of the day – and beyond it. How can God’s special people, threatened and captive, think to survive in a world cast askew on the storms of mighty armies and movements. Probably much as the refugees just displaced form Calais jungle feel today. The answer is that their identity as God’s special people – “the holy ones of the Most High” – does give them a security and protection that lies above and beyond all that earthly uncertainty. How comforting that actually felt in the face to day-to-day realities may be another matter. But it was god’s word to them through Daniel.
Turning now to Paul writing to the Ephesian Christians in the early decades of the church, they too were a small minority of a minority, in a hostile world, ruled by emperors who were at best ignorant of them, and at worst – think Nero – out to get them. Many of them still saw themselves as Jews, albeit ones who had a new insight into how God was redeeming their people. Others were gentiles become Christians, and it was just beginning go dawn on them all that maybe something new – beyond Jew and gentile – was emerging. Paul’s opening words to them here set a cosmic scene of who Jesus Christ is – and who they are in the new inheritance and identity “in Christ” (v11). He goes out of his way to emphasise that they belong to him who is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come” (v21). Again, we don’t know how it felt to be on the receiving end of those words – but it’s very clear what is being claimed by them.
And so to the words of Jesus himself, from Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, in chapter 6. Jesus, as so often, takes the more directly personal approach, with a series of Blesseds and a series of Woes. Who are we? We are the strange people who love our enemies, and who pray for those who abuse us. We are the ones who give to others. We are the people who are willing to weep now, and laugh later, to be hungry now, and be filled later. We are the mad people, who live in a way diametrically opposed to the ways of the world. We do as we would be done by, not do as they did to us.
That’s an identity, is it not? Not based on nationality, or colour, or culture. Not really based on religion either. But based on citizenship of somewhere not to be found on this world’s values. We are defined as citizens of Heaven, and ours is the kingdom of God.
At its best the church does look and feel like that – a community of people not just believing differently, but living differently, and doing it as a community together. Of course, at its worst we can be indistinguishable from the rest – factional, inconsiderate and selfish. Or worse.
We live in a world where all the traditional identities are breaking down – so it’s no longer enough to identify ourselves as mainly English, Irish or Scottish; black, white or coloured; religious, agnostic or atheist; CofE , Methodist, Catholic; working or middle-class; straight or gay. In this confused and confusing world, there is an alternative to reducing everything to pure individualism of “if it makes me feel good, then I’ll do it”. We belong to a community, to a movement – to a Kingdom – that offers us another, and better identity. One that, I suggest that need not be mistaken, but instead is the best, most sensible, most life-giving choice a human can make. We are all the Saints who belong to Christ. And Christ belongs to God. And everything, ultimately, belongs to him.
An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walked into heaven. And who they had been really didn’t matter anymore compared with who they had become. Because in God’s Kingdom, All Saints are valued the same!