Sermon 28th October 2018

Saints…like us?

Today we remember and celebrate the lives of saints Simon and Jude, two of the apostles. What do we know about them? Apart from a mention in the lists of the first batch of apostles, they’re almost invisible; except that some of you may recognise Jude as the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes – frequently invoked by me when I lose my house keys – yet again… It’s not even sure who Simon or Jude really were, there’s more than one found in the New Testament depending on what authority is consulted; especially when you see that lots of bibles in other languages have no Jude but do list two Judases, being careful to add ‘Iscariot’ to one of them just in case people get confused! But the whole idea of “saints” is problematical. How do you get to be a saint, who’s entitled to have that sort of honour in their name?


We all probably have our own ideas of who and what “saints” are. The stereotype is an exceptionally holy person, living an extremely virtuous life soaked in religious observances, self-sacrificing, kind, loving; pious and prays a lot.  Saints are the ones who usually suffer for their faith, serve others without complaining, who get to such a level of perfection that we might have difficulty relating to such exalted beings; and more often than not they meet a messy painful end while staying faithful to Christ. Some dictionary definitions say: someone who has died and been officially recognized and honoured by the Christian church because her or his life was a perfect example of the way Christians should live. Or: a person who is exceptionally meek, charitable, and patient. In other words – most definitely not me and almost certainly not like most of us!


Well…the official definition may paint a pretty picture of saints but far too many of them were nothing like that. Contentious, rebellious, argumentative, at odds with their superiors, parents, governments and neighbours; repeatedly sinning in all sorts of ways and nothing like patient and forbearing. Convinced that they were always right. And within the conventionally accepted churchy lists of recognised saints, there’s plenty who were often extremely difficult people: St Paul, Augustine, Becket, Teresa of Avila, Francis, Thomas More, Mother Teresa. Oscar Romero, a brand new saint..


Even the original apostles frequently exhibit jealousy and envy, complaining and demanding. They’re presented in the Gospels as being a bit dim, never really get to grips with what Jesus is trying to teach them, and include at least one definitely morally questionable character among them, Levi the tax collector and Roman collaborator who becomes Matthew. Perhaps our Saint Simon of this morning, sometimes described as one of the Zealot faction; would have encouraged Jesus to claim his messiah-ship and kingship and lead an army to overthrow the Romans. Not quite saint-like according to the popular definition of saints. He certainlydidn’t get what Jesus was about, if this is the same Simon we remember today.


In the early days of Christianity, the description of “saints” meant just regular Christians banding together, following Jesus after his death and resurrection, living a life as close as possible according to the pattern he taught. St Paul, writing before the Gospels, describes all his church members as “the saints.” They are the collective body of those who practice right thinking, feeling, speaking, and behaviour as disciples of the kingdom, who do what God approves and commands. As Ephesians says, the community of saints is built together spiritually into holy temple of the Lord, with foundations laid by the ones who knew Jesus, and Jesus himself as the cornerstone – the one who holds everything together. Everyone has a part in the building of the temple – the Kingdom.


I’m sure we can all think of people we call saints today even if they aren’t perfect people – the ones who just get on with being good neighbours, real friends, present day witnesses to and for Christ in the way they live their normal everyday lives; who change the world in small and big ways by practicing what they believe is their vocation as Christians – just as we can. Although history isn’t really sure who Simon or Jude were, or what they actually did, there are countless anonymous others who remain unrecognised. They don’t go round with visible glowing halos or persistently serene expressions. They’re simply, plainly, humans trying hard to mould themselves into the people God calls them to become. Anyone who thinks that being a Christian simply means going to church and obeying only the letter of what the Church says to do, rather than engaging deeply with what Jesus and the Spirit says to do, probably needs to look at themselves a bit harder.


It’s in the Gospel reading that Jesus tells his disciples and us what it might really mean to follow him, as an ordinary every-day saint. Christianity is in many ways profoundly counter-cultural. The world can easily hate us – just as it did Jesus and his group right from the beginning – because the values of the Kingdom he’s asking us to help build, God’s kingdom, don’t always coincide with the world’s perceptions of what’s valuable. John’s Jesus says ‘If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you.’


The financial City doesn’t place “love your neighbour as yourself” above “get the best deal you can even if it means grinding your neighbour (or the opposition) into the ground.” The fashion retail trade doesn’t put decent payment and working conditions for the people who make its clothing at the top of the list when designing its pursuit of profit. The world just hates so-called do-gooders because they get in the way; do-gooders try to block things like abuse of the environment and worker exploitation and then agitate to correct them. And the world hates those who publicise and expose abuses, or name and shame, even more than the abusers. Whistle blowers are persecuted, disbelieved, lose jobs. You have been warned, says Jesus. Following me has its price, be prepared. It’s not that we need to reject the world and all go off and live in barricaded self-sufficient communes in order to lead a holy life, take no part in modern society. On the contrary – we need to actively challenge what’s wrong and then change it.


So what dowe know about Simon and Jude, those two apostles we remember today? Almost nothing. And maybe that’s the point. Even though they’re called saints, they’re just about anonymous, names in the Bible without any personal history or credentials. What did they do to deserve their sainthood? They could have been two of the many un-named, unrecorded and forgotten people then and now who simply got on with the life work of following Jesus without looking for praise or reward. Would they still have been saints? Well – yes – because as Christians we are all saints, all blessed, all imperfect but trying to do our best. Even perhaps all willing to have the world hate us in our determination to transform the world into God wants it to be. Amen.