Today is the Feast of All Saints. The dictionary definition of a saint is helpful: “A saint is a person whose profound holiness is formally recognized after death by a Christian Church, and who is declared worthy of everlasting praise.” The word “saint” comes from the Latin word sanctus meaning “holy.” But what does it mean for a person to be holy—to be linked to God and the life that God intends for that person? Why should we today be interested in how these thousands of people lived holy lives so many hundreds or thousands of years ago?
The modern casual meaning of the word “saint” is someone who is very good and very kind. All of us can be very kind at times, and not so kind at other times. Children, can you think of something that you have done that has been very kind, or not so kind? You might want to keep your thought to yourself about being not so kind, but perhaps you could tell us something you have done that has been very kind? . . .
The Epistle for today from the 12th chapter of the Book of Hebrews suggests that, and I quote, “since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance [that is, every hindrance, everything that stops us from achieving what we hope] and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of [our] faith. . . .” There are here three challenges. First, we have to learn slowly over time to lay aside anything that is preventing us from living a full Christian life. It is essential to know our sins ourselves and to confess them to our confessor. My experience is that it is not easy to know yourself and your own sins. At times, your friends might know you better than you know yourself.
Second, we each have to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Now different races are set before each of us. Several of my sons and daughters-in-law often run half-marathons. Quite a few of my grandchildren have climbed the highest mountains in England, Wales and Scotland in one week-end. I have no desire whatsoever to run a half marathon or climb lots of mountains in a week-end. That’s OK. I do need to exercise, but I do not need to run half-marathons or climb mountains. Different goals in life—different races—are set before each of us; and one of our big challenges as Christians is to decide which race to run and when—how much time to spend in our studies, how much time to spend with our families, what job to seek, when to change jobs, where and how we wish to live, which other people we should seek to help, when and how we should pray.
There then are the first two challenges—to lay aside anything that is preventing us from living a full Christian life, and then to run the particular race—to seek the particular goal—that has been set before each of us by God. Those goals can change. Sylvia and I spent two years living in Israel; and we were quite convinced that it was right to go, but equally convinced that it was right to leave, although we had originally intended to live the rest of our lives in Israel. The Lord can call each of us into particular challenges in our lives and out of those challenges, too. There are different seasons in our lives—different times which lead to different possibilities.
The third challenge set out in this reading from the Book of Hebrews is to fix “our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith.” That’s tough to do. We already seem to have enough problems—at school, finding a job, doing a job well, deciding whether or not to marry and who to marry—difficult decisions. It would seem as if we might not have enough space in our lives to fix our eyes on Christ. But that would be a mistake, because it is precisely by fixing our eyes on Christ, that we learn in prayer and in friendship and in the experience of growing up—whatever our present ages—that the only way to solve all of these problems in life is to fix our eyes on Christ. Otherwise, we get lost in our own inadequacies, our own very human limitations, our own inability to pray and to find the quality of life that God intends each of us to have.
The Cornish musical composer, Graham Fitkin wrote recently about a new piece of music that he had just finished composing and was played recently at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall. The composer wrote: “Follow a line. Try not to be diverted. Continue to follow the line. If you are distracted and go off course then find your way back and hold the line tightly. You will be buffeted from outside. One always is. No matter, keep focus, maintain your position and prepare for the long game.”
The long game for this Cornish composer was to finish a piece of music which had been commissioned for him to write. What is your long game? What are you hoping to achieve in your life? What am I hoping to achieve in my life now? I’m still somewhat in shock after having become an Orthodox priest less than a month ago. This was not something that I anticipated would ever happen, even after four years as a deacon. How did I get into this situation? I was led by other Christians—whose lives I admired, living and dead—to follow in their footsteps. I was led as each of us can be led by this “cloud of witnesses surrounding us” in Chapter 12 of the Book of Hebrews.
It is not easy to be led by this particular cloud of witnesses who are so committed to Christ that they are willing and able to give up their lives to follow Him. That was the message today from the Gospel of St. Matthew Chapter 10 which ended with the words, and I quote: “He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake [said Christ] will find it.” In the Gospel for today in Chapter 19, St. Peter found that message very confusing, because St. Peter, like many of the Jews in first century Palestine thought that if you were rich it was a sign that God was blessing you. However, Christ told St. Peter that wealth made it “hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” The same is still true today—the richer we are, the more famous we are, the harder it is to enter the kingdom of heaven.
So how can we do it? How can we enter the kingdom of heaven? I think it is by having the courage to join this cloud of witnesses. A note on this passage from the Book of Hebrews, Chapter 12, Verse 1 points out that: “the Greek word translated ‘witnesses’ is the origin of the English word ‘martyr’ and means ‘testifiers, witnesses.’ [These people] bear testimony to the power of faith [in Christ] and to God’s faithfulness.” We too can bear testimony to the power of faith in Christ and to God’s faithfulness to implement His will in our lives, whether or not we give up our lives as martyrs. God alone shows us what race we are to run and what goal we are to seek in our lives. Perhaps some of you will find that the goal is just as unexpected for you as it is now for me. That does not mean you are being called to become an Orthodox priest. If you join this “cloud of witnesses,” you will be joining many others, both the saints who have died and the saints who are still living and might be recognised many years in the future. What is important is not that your life is recognised by the Church as being the life of a saint. What is important is that we have the courage to seek and find the unique lives that Christ has for each of us.
St. John Chrysostom preached that this cloud of witnesses is not, and I quote, “lifted on high above us,’ but ‘is set around us,’ which creates for us a greater freedom from fear.” End of quote. That is profound. We are wrong to think that the cloud of witnesses is “lifted on high above us”—too difficult for us to reach. We are equally wrong to think that when this cloud of witnesses is “set around us” we cannot join it –that we are not good enough, not worthy to be witnesses of the life of Christ. No, we can join the cloud of witnesses, we are worthy. AXIOS! Each of our lives are important, not only to us and our families and friends, but to God.
I conclude with the reading that the Orthodox Church chose for Vespers last night from the book of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, chapter 43, including the verses 10 to 11: ‘You are My witnesses,’ declares the Lord, and My servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe Me and understand that I am He. . . . I, even I, am the Lord . . .” Those witnesses of the Lord were present in Isaiah’s ministry 740 years before Christ, in the Gospel of St. Matthew written about the year 50, in the Book of Hebrews written before the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70, and in this church today. We are each called, whatever our age or intellectual ability or emotional strength to be witnesses of the Lord. We have each been chosen, as the prophet Isaiah said, to find out who God is, to understand His calling for our lives and to become witnesses of the Lord.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen
—Father Emmanuel Kahn