We can fall into two errors concerning works and grace. We can say God is the one who saves us so we cannot contribute anything to salvation, therefore there is no need to bother. The other is to assume that we must simply wage war on our sins without true dependence on God with no real hope of success. This leads to despair.
St Paul is clear. No amount of rule keeping is enough. It is Christ who destroyed the power of sin and we can be assured of that. St Paul warns us against rebuilding bad habits. Whilst works and rule keeping are not enough we cannot simply leave it all to God. I know some traditions make the claim that if you are one of the select group, chosen by God for salvation, nothing can separate you from that. You make the right choice, say the right words, and salvation is assured regardless of what you do afterwards. If only that were true, it would be so easy. In fact the truth of the matter is more subtle.
You are never too late to be saved, up to the moment of mortal death at least. The repentant thief on the cross next to Jesus is a perfect example of this. Christ promised him paradise after all. There is no need for despair, salvation is always there. However by the same token it is also possible to damn oneself, right up to the end of one’s earthly life. You can choose to turn your back on the promises and love of God, He gives us free will and that means the chance to say no.
Works alone will not save us, but I suggest that our choices are demonstrated by what we say and do. We need constantly to be realigning ourselves in God’s direction, we must strive to do what is right and we need to show ourselves and God what we truly are. Christ tells us that “by their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 7:16) St James puts it like this “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” (James 2.18).
This is ascesis, the struggle we engage in, regardless of our circumstances. St. Paul likens it to training as for an athletic contest. In this struggle we have support. We are saved by Christ as part of the Church and our fellow members of the Body of Christ support us both practically and in their prayers. The prayers of the holy people of God are a ferocious weapon in our defence.
Amongst those friends are the ones we call saints. Now of course “saint” just means a holy person. You are very possibly sitting next to one now. We ask our friends to pray for us, be they this side of bodily death or the other. The saints are alive in Christ as we are. By the same token there are people walking this city who are spiritually dead. The streets have walking corpses and the graves are full of life.
One way we demonstrate our love is by spending time with people. With our friends on Earth that is easy. With our friends in Heaven it is less so, at first glance, but in fact we have several ways to do this. Apart from asking their prayers, we have other ways to know the saints as individuals, and to establish a relationship with them. We can, for example, read their lives. Shockingly we find the same humanity in them as we do in ourselves. They are not a different species. We may learn from them how to lead better lives by following their examples. In some cases we can read their own words. It is like being in the same room listening to them. That is why the Early Church collected and valued the writings of St James, of St Paul and so on, even before their writings were recognised as Scripture. In doing this we also find some saints more attractive to us as individuals than others. This is quite usual. It reflects the fact that their particular situations speak to us more than others. I have always had a soft spot for St Polycarp for some reason. I used to tease my wife about her very real love of St George.
We can also go on pilgrimages and sometimes reverence the relics of the saint directly. That was something a few of us managed last week. We visited places where the great saints of Northern England lived and died. Lindisfarne and the Farne Islands were wonderful. The experiences that I shall value most were when we made intercessions (for ourselves and the whole parish) at the very spot in Bamburgh where St Aidan reposed and at St Cuthbert’s shrine in Durham. These were powerful spiritual experiences.
Any parent who has had children leaving home will know how much a brief phone call or an email means. They also know how much they really value a visit. We did the best we could on this pilgrimage to visit the saints and in so doing we were showing our regard for them, and it certainly strengthened the bonds between us. I shall be asking the prayers and support of St Aidan with greater confidence now I have had the chance to strengthen the friendship between us.
Not everyone can go on pilgrimage of course. If one cannot visit, a longer phone call home, as it were, is good for parent and child, and spending time in front of the icon of a saint is better than a brief formal kiss. We, therefore, spend time with them by praying in front of their icons. As St John of Damascus points out, what is done to the image is transferred to the person depicted. As we reverence the icon we show respect and love for the saint shown. It ought not to be done lightly as we rush past. It should mean more than this. Venerating an icon properly is like making a pilgrimage without having to travel.
Faith then (in the sense of a formal belief) is not enough. Faith demonstrated in loving action, and showing what we truly are and desire is what matters. To do what is right requires also the support of all the holy ones around us. We prayed for you here last weekend when we were away, I know you prayed for us. The saints will pray for us if asked.
Let us then continue to pray for and support each other, and grant the saints the love and respect that they deserve—for they surely love us.
Holy St. Aidan pray to God for us.