Haggai 1.15b-2.9; Psalm 145; 2 Thessalonians 2.1-5,13-17; Luke 20.27-40
Who or What are the Saints?
‘But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth’ – 2 Thessalonians 2.13
Introduction: One month ago I stood in St Peter’s Square in Rome as the tour guide gave our group of school students the quick run-down on the marvels of the basilica: Michaelangelo’s Great Dome and the Pieta, Bellini’s colonnades, and so on. Once he had finished I could not resist taking a moment (we were after all in the queue waiting to enter), to observe that the building of this enormous Cathedral was the trigger for the Protestant Reformation, and that in just one year we will mark the 500th Anniversary of the event which started the Reformation. And it was about saints.
Every history of the period describes and explains the event. Some begin with it, as does GR Elton on page 1 of his history of Reformation Europe:
‘On 31 October 1517, Dr Martin Luther, professor of theology in the recently founded Saxon University of Wittenberg, nailed a paper of Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in that town. There was nothing unusual about this. Any scholar who wished to defend any propositions of law or doctrine could invite learned debate by putting forth such theses, and church doors were the customary place for mediaeval publicity. Luther’s Ninety-Five attacked the practice of selling indulgences – documents offering commutation of penance for money payments. Certainly Luther had no thought of starting a schism in the Church. These were not the first theses he had offered for public disputation, nor did they embody necessarily revolutionary doctrines. Nevertheless the day continues to be celebrated in Lutheran countries as the anniversary of the Reformation, and justly so. The controversy over indulgences brought together the man and the occasion: it signalled the end of the mediaeval church.’
- What has this to do with Saints? Luther’s choice of date was very deliberate: the Eve of November 1, All Saints’ Day, (now regrettably obscured by the maintenance of a mediaeval tradition around the same day, All Hallow’s Even, or Hallowe’en.) Luther had a pastoral concern; he was angry at the aggressive marketing of ‘indulgences’ by a fund-raising Dominican, Johann Tetzel, who was paid 20 times a professorial salary (plus expenses) to raise money for the rebuilding of St Peter’s in Rome, and to do so by selling documents that asserted remission of years in purgatory based on the intercessionary prayers of saints. ‘It was pastoral concern that moved Luther to act. People had come to make their confessions to him but had shown no signs of sincere repentance for their sins. On the contrary, they produced copies of indulgences that they had bought and obviously thought of them as licences to sin with impunity. Luther declined to give them absolution. Tetzel was also to give half what he raised to the Archbishop of Mainz to discharge his debts, and it was to this Archbishop that Luther also sent a copy of his Theses on October 31. Unsurprisingly, he was ignored ‘(Tudor Jones p.34f). But copies of the theses spread, assisted by the new world-changing technology of the printing press, and Tetzel and others began to engage in debate with Luther’s contentions. Doubtless the coming year will provide occasions to recall the Reformation period. It is sufficient today to note the significance of October 31, noted in our lectionary as a day to remember Martin Luther and other Continental Reformers, and pray a Collect of Teachers, with awareness that it was a controversy about the nature and activity of saints that lit the flame that set Europe alight.
- Who are the Saints? I imagine we are all somewhat familiar with the process of canonization in the Roman Church, whereby some dead Christians are identified as ‘saints’ on the basis of (inter alia) miracles performed. It remains a sticking point in moves for interchurch agreement. The idea that ‘saints’ so recognized can be appealed to to ask mercy from God, or even to grant such mercy or aid, was squarely attacked by Luther, and Protestant churches have maintained his opposition to such practices. I have pinned a copy of the 95 Theses to the church porch Noticeboard, here, and will refer to a few of them: ‘A true Christian who is truly repentant has remission from both the guilt and penalty of sin because he participates in the benefits of Christ ‘(16-17). ‘He has no need of letters of pardon and it is misleading to teach that buying indulgences is a good act when it is manifestly better to give the money to the poor’ (41-45). At most the pope can only remit punishments imposed by the church during this mortal life (20.21,24,25); his authority cannot possibly extend beyond the grave to purgatory (13-19,22,25). In any case ‘The Pope can remit no guilt, but only declare and confirm that it has been remitted by God‘(6). Nor is there any such thing as a treasury of the accumulated merits of the saints. The ‘true treasure of the Church is the holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God’ (62). In a way Luther identified the heart of the problem in his first Thesis: ‘Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when he said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.’ This Latin phrase for ‘repentance’ in The Vulgate, the common Bible of the day, literally means ‘do penance’ and was so translated into vernacular languages and taught. Unsurprisingly, a key feature of the reformation was the translation of the scriptures into the language of the people, and their discovery of the power of God’s word for themselves. [Erasmus had produced a more sound new Greek New Testament, and this encouraged translations into native languages: William Tyndale’s English New Testament was published in 1534. Luther himself produced a Bible in German, a version as significant in German cultural history as the Authorised Version was to become in English speaking countries]. Part of the result of this was it enabled Christians to see how the New Testament talks about all believers as ‘the saints’, or ‘the holy ones’. We are all saints, if we have received the holiness of Christ through faith, by virtue of his death and resurrection. We acknowledge the example of godly believers who have gone before, and we rejoice in the encouragement of their lives, or are challenged by their sacrifices. [For example, I note that next Friday, November 11, is St Martin’s Day. From what we now call Hungary, and the son of a soldier in Constantine’s army, and who named his son after Mars, the god of War, Martin, himself a soldier who left the army to pursue the life of a monk, was to become reluctantly the Bishop of Tours in France. He died about 400AD, but though he never crossed the English Channel he became a hero of the Faith to the Celtic missionaries who re-evangelised Britain from the West and North in the 6th and 7th Centuries, from bases on the Holy Islands of Iona and Lindisfarne. His example explains why so many churches in Britain (and therefore even in Sydney: at least seven) are dedicated to St Martin. This is an example of helpful identification of some Christians whose saintly lives can be a model for others]. Last week I noted St Paul’s particular use of the word ‘the saints’ for the original church in Jerusalem. Today, in one of his earliest letters, Paul uses the same language (holy/sanctification/saint are related words) for the believers of the infant church in Thessalonica: that their salvation was due to God’s choosing them; that their sanctification (=saintliness in God’s eyes) was the work of the Holy Spirit following their ‘belief in the truth’ (2.13). Theirs would be ‘the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ’. And, in an echo of last week’s mention of tradition: ‘So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, whether by word of mouth or by letter’ (2.15). These traditions are the facts about the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. Here, then, Paul has given a sound summary of what a saint is: one who has heard or read the gospel of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, and who has believed it, by God’s grace; who now shares in Christ’s holiness as a gift; and who determines by the influence of the Holy Spirit to live a life pleasing to God, holy and generous, remaining forever dependent upon the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
So, Saints of this parish of St Jude, be glad to be ‘saints’, following the example of our Lord Jesus, and of those who have set a pattern to us of living for Christ in their own time and place.