Sermon for All Saints’ Day 2019

Ephesians 1.11-23

11In Christ we have obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
15I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

The Feast of All Saints is intended to encourage us, by setting before our eyes the example of the heroic saints of old. They fought the good fight, they ran the race, they have won the prize, well done them!
The trouble is that the more we look at their triumph, the more it actually becomes pretty discouraging for us. In the words of the great hymn, “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine.” They were so much more successful than we are. When Francis of Assisi preached, people came from miles around to listen. When I preach, most folk stay in bed! When Cuthbert planted his Cross in the market square, the local king came out with all his subjects and they all gave their lives to Jesus. If you were to do that, people would complain that you’re causing a public nuisance. When Paul spoke about Jesus, everyone asked to hear him again. If you try speaking about Jesus, you’ll find people edging away from you and your social life will take a severe dip.

And they were saints. We’re just normal. Julian of Norwich spent most of the day in prayer. I can’t even manage a whole minute of rapt attention before my mind wanders, or my knees start hurting or I get an itch somewhere. Hugh of Lincoln was known for his kindness, moderation and godly nature and I’m irritable and enjoy a nice bottle of red.
So well done saints! Bully for you. I guess the rest of us are just failures. Except that St Paul says this:

“I pray…that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you…and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places… And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

Did you catch that? “The church, which is…the fullness of him who fills all in all.” In other words, Jesus is the ultimate power in existence, more powerful than all rule and authority and power and dominion. And that he has placed all that power in the Church. Not just the big successful churches, but the whole church, every church, even little, ordinary churches like ours.

In fact, we’re not so little or ordinary after all. Because God has poured all his power into us. Just get your heads around this. God created the world. He redeemed the world at immense cost, suffering and dying on the Cross, in Jesus, descending to Hell and then rising again, thereby destroying the sins of the whole world and all the powers of evil and the next stage of the plan…is us!

It’s a bit of a gear change isn’t it? Not quite where you thought the plot was going. Maybe you might expect the next step to be the abolition of poverty, or the healing of all diseases, or a solution to climate change. Instead, it’s us – you and me, gathered here this morning. And it was always intended to be so. Paul says we were ‘destined’ (predestined) for that role.

And it’s not as mad as it seems. Because it is the very fact that we are so ordinary that makes us so valuable to his plan. Because if we’re ordinary, yet God does something remarkable in us, it shows that it’s God who makes the difference, not us. So when we manage something extraordinary, like surviving grief, or coping with setbacks, or not worrying too much about the money and material possessions that seem to mean everything to everyone else, or just turn up to Church willing to be bored for an hour when everyone else is enjoying a lie-in or having more fun, it gives a powerful message.

It’s the very fact that we are weak that allows God to use us. Someone who thinks they have life sorted is very unlikely to be of much use to God. They will be pretty determined to do it their way. But someone who is weak, who doesn’t know all the answers, who realises they need God just to survive life, that’s someone God can do business with. As the Bible says, it’s when we are weak that he is strong. And as we’ve already noted, perfect people can’t help ordinary people. Only ordinary people can help ordinary people. And that’s why we are God’s plan A and not all the great geniuses of the world.

It’s little people who make the lasting difference. Many years ago, when I first visited the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, I was first struck by the mangled ironwork and the sad, beautiful rubble. It spoke of the overwhelming destructive force of the Nazi war machine. But as I wandered around, I noticed that every little side chapel contained a story of some ordinary person who had done something like sheltering Jewish families, or risking their lives to help the injured, or facing imprisonment for their faith. At the time, their acts must have seemed so small and insignificant in the face of all that evil, but 50 years later, the great evil is dead and long gone. And their simple acts of Christian service still stand. Their flickering little light has proved far more powerful than the overwhelming darkness they faced.

And so it is of us. Our little acts of worship and service are the truly significant events in our world today. It’s why Bill Hybels says “the local church is the hope of the world” and why Leslie Newbiggin said that the most powerful witness to the Gospel is a congregation that believes it and lives as though it were true.
We have to believe in the Church. We have to trust that Jesus’s great work of redemption is not carried out by slick professionals or ingenious schemes, but through ordinary, humdrum people like us, prepared to let Jesus work through us.

And actually that was true of the saints of old too. They look so impressive now, but in their time they were ordinary people who faced the same struggles we did. Francis of Assisi found his work with lepers desperately hard. He had been terrified of them all his life and when he first forced himself to share a meal with a leper, he kept being sick because his stomach churned constantly. Julian of Norwich had to spend years coming to terms with the devastating loss of her worldly hopes and dreams before her prayer life began to lead her to beautiful places. Cuthbert was an irritable introvert who kept escaping to islands to avoid interruptions, yet, he forced himself to go and be with the people God called him to meet. They found the Christian life every bit as difficult as we do. And if they were here now, they would not despise our struggles in the least. They would just say – just keep going. It’s worth it.

It has always been a struggle to be a Christian, but that is the nature of the life of faith. What makes the difference is when we draw close to God. You can tell a life that is close to God – it shines out. People who spend time each day with God, allowing him in to their hearts, living by faith in him, acknowledging their weaknesses and seeking his strength, have a different quality to the rest of us. They are not perfect by any means, but you do see the change, a growing gentleness, kindness, compassion and graciousness that is the fruit of drawing close to him.

Christians are like the stained glass windows in Church. By themselves, they are nothing special. At night they look like any other window (perhaps with a few more cobwebs). But when the light shines through them, you see the image of the saint. So it is with us. We are ordinary, but when we let the light of Christ shine through us, people will see the saint we cannot see.

So today is an encouragement after all. It is encouraging to know that it is in the ordinary everyday-ness of church life that God is powerfully at work. It is encouraging to know that the little acts of Christian service are the truly significant events of human history – and one day, in His kingdom, we will see how our own small contribution mattered so much. It is encouraging to know that saints are just ordinary people who let God’s light shine through, who are willing to be broken and put back together by God. And it’s also an encouragement to draw closer to him, to let him into our hearts a little more and let his light shine through us.

Preached: Clifton, Crosby Ravensworth 3 November 2019