A Sermon for All Saints’ Tide

Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler

At All Saints’, Margaret Street, W1

For All Saints’ Festival Sunday, 5th November 2017


On Tuesday I was fortunate enough to be present at the national commemoration of the 500th Year since Martin Luther’s 95 Theses were published. Westminster Abbey resounded to the sturdy singing of those theologically-rich Lutheran hymns and the Abbey Choir treated us to a stunning music new and old. Whatever the merits and demerits of the Reformation, we will always have Johann Sebastian Bach.


In the afternoon, at a Symposium to mark the occasion, Professor Eamonn Duffy, reflecting on Roman Catholic reappraisals of Luther in the past one hundred years, told the story of a news report which appeared in some conservative catholic website about the intention of Pope Francis to canonise Martin Luther in this anniversary year. Needless to say, similar websites, anxious to believe anything bad about the Holy Father, reprinted the story with fulminating glee, failing to notice that the date of the first article was 1st April. That the picture of the Pope had been photoshopped onto an image showing a half-size statue of the great Reformer in chocolate should have given the game away.


But Luther has always been for me an essentially attractive person, despite the now notorious anti-Jewish sentiments and the way in which his theological views were expressed in language that today makes our toes curl. Holiness, it seems to me, is always expressed through sinful lives: think of Mother Theresa’s authoritarianism or Martin Luther King’s sexual incontinence. In an age obsessed with judging the past by our own oh-so-enlightened present, the latest example of which saw the resignation of a cabinet minister this week, I wonder how future generations will judge our moral standards. Luther, like us, was a person of his time.


Perhaps the great insight of Luther, which transformed his spirituality and theological world-view and which now is respected across the Catholic/Protestant divide, is the concept of imputed righteousness. As he had struggled with how to be holy in the face of an implacably stern, wrathful God, Luther had rediscovered in St Paul and St Augustine the free gift of God’s mercy. The Reformed tradition has often likened this mercy to a great cloak, a great garment surrounding the believer. Imagine says Luther, this cloak of God’s righteousness, God’s holy self, placed around the shoulders of the believer, such that when God looks upon the one who believes, he sees not the sinner but his own righteousness, God’s own holiness. God, in his mercy, imputes his own righteousness and holiness to the believer, who no longer needs to prove or demonstrate his own worthiness by effort or papal indulgence, but simply receives through faith this gift of God’s righteousness. When God looks at you or me, says Luther, he sees his own holy life reflected back. So St Paul can say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” and St John, in our Epistle this morning, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” God looks upon us and sees his Son’s perfect work of reconciliation resting on our shoulders. And we are free.


Luther, of course, was a conservative Reformer. One senses that he might have at home in the rich Catholic liturgy of All Saints’, Margaret Street And, while holding Luther’s great teaching on imputed righteousness in mind, he has insight to us on our observation of this All Saints’ tide in All Saints’ Church. First, says Luther, our duty is to honour the saints who are living. In his Festival Sermon he says this, “The living saints are your neighbours, the naked, the hungry, the thirsty, poor, people; those whose suffer shame, who lie in sins. Turn to them and help them.”[1] If we, who in this Mass sing the praises of the Christ who suffered on the cross for our sakes, and whose glory in majesty shines in the life of the masses of the sanctified redeemed of Revelation 7, if we honour the lives of the departed saints, and if Pevnser is right about this building that “From everywhere the praise of the Lord is drummed into you”[2], we truly honour the work of God in them by living out in our own time the righteousness of God that they received as gift. The honouring of the saints begins as we leave the church and not as we enter it. Clothed as we are with God’s righteousness, with the gift of the one who suffers in love for others, so we are called to honour the saints. In honouring the saints who are living, we honour the Christ who clothes them with righteousness. That is our true praise, “drummed in” by this building as we are “drummed out” to love and serve the Lord.


But, says Luther, we also honour the saints who have departed. Having used St Paul’s description of Abraham in his letter to the Romans to give an example of this, he goes on, “Here is the true foundation for honouring the departed saints. God has written this solely for our comfort. We honour departed saints only so that we might be encouraged and grounded in the doctrine of faith. It is the same doctrine which the saints also taught and by which they lived…we must also honour his dear mother in the same way…thank God for his good will in presenting us examples in his mother and the beloved saints.[3]” Perhaps Luther’s insights here aren’t as complete as we would like them to be; maybe he has thrown a little too much baby out with the bathwater in his polemic against abuses in his contemporary church. But much remains: an honouring of the saints, a focus on their example. Chiefly of course, Luther wants us to see in the saints God’s imputed righteousness and the example of faith in Christ rather than any moral worth of holy acts as the driver of our honouring of the saints. That seems to me the fundamental thing as well. John Webster, formerly Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford, says this about being a saint, “to be a saint is to be a reconciled sinner, re-established in fellowship and so liberated and empowered for the works of holiness.[4]” When we gaze upon the saints, especially those who have gone before us in the life of faith, we look upon them first and foremost to learn from what they knew of the mystery and work of Christ.


Which brings me back to what I find attractive in Luther, and encouraging. Luther for me is a realistic saint – he is both brilliant and frustrating, coarse and winsome, passionate and cruel – I could go on. What draws me to Luther, in short, is because I see myself in him, my own struggles, my own love of God and my own utter failure to be consistent in that love. I’m self-aware enough to know that I have moments of brilliance, thanks be to God. Only the other day, I was visiting someone with dementia and I found myself listening to the words coming out of my mouth and being rather astonished at the wisdom they contained. But, brothers and sisters, you are like that too. You have those moments of utter Christian insight or dedication that seem so wonderful when they happen that they feel entirely like gift. But I’m also self-aware enough to know my own capacity of calculation, manipulation and even occasional malice, the details of which need not detain us. And, brothers and sisters, although you are not me, you are like that too. You have those moments where the ego or the selfish heart assert their cruel rights over life or others, in ways that can feel utterly demoralising. Holiness can seem like the last thing these are.


And in those moments, let saintly, compromised Martin Luther remind us of imputed righteousness, of the limitless mercy of God, who clothes us in Christ and to whom we can turn in our darkest, most malicious moments. In throwing ourselves on God’s mercy, the Gospel proclaims is to be, in Webster’s words, “reconciled sinners, re-established in fellowship and empowered for the works of holiness”. In this we are like every single saint of God, living and departed, who we honour today. We honour the saints, because of the mercy God shows them in their faith and in their living. Nourished by God’s word and fed by his sacraments, they, like Luther and like us, once “feebly struggled” and yet found in Christ the path to fulness of life so that “they in glory shine”. They reveal to us the promise of God in all its glory. They show to us where mercy and imputed righteousness lead. And, in all our brilliance and malice, they encourage us to take the next step towards Christlikeness. Amen.







[1] Festival Sermons of Martin Luther, 2005, p.182

[2] The Buildings of England, London 2, p. 327

[3] Festival Sermons, p.182

[4] Webster, Holiness, SCM Press, p.84