A Sermon preached at St.Mary’s Iffley
by Anthony Phillips on 4 November 2018
In a few moments we will be singing the Sanctus – Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory, Hosanna in the highest. It is of course the language of heaven – what the angels and archangels are constantly reciting. And in this Eucharist, for a moment heaven and earth have become one, as turning away from all worldly concerns, we unite with the whole company of heaven to be fed by the risen Christ with his own body and blood. So we go out from here to bear him who is love into his frozen world.
But how is our cargo to be recognised? How are others to perceive the Christ we carry? The short answer is by our holiness.
In a world of Trump and Twitter, holiness is an unfashionable concept. For most people it conjures up an unattractive model of narrowness, dullness and priggishness, the killjoy at any party. Yet tradition tells us that Jesus liked parties. When the wine ran out, he made enough to flood the village, and better than the previous vintage. He was even labelled by his enemies, ‘a glutton and a drinker’. Unlike the religion which he condemned, he was neither dull, narrow nor priggish. Clearly somewhere along the lines of Christian history, we have got the wrong model.
Etymologically holiness comes from a Hebrew word meaning separate. That which is holy is that which is separated off in order that God may make himself known there. This does not mean that God is restricted in where and how he may show himself in his world. It does mean that by designating someone or something holy, God gives a guarantee that there if he is wanted, he wills to be found. And he will be found in the showing of that very essence which is God himself, holiness.
Holiness is what God is – it is what, if I may put it crudely – he is made of. And that holiness when seen by others is seen as glory. So the whole company of heaven rightly ascribes to God his true being by singing Holy, holy, holy and goes on to indicate that his holiness is seen in God’s glory, not only in heaven but in earth too. Where is it seen? In his holy ones, those who allow God’s essence to manifest itself in them and in consequence exhibit his glory.
Holiness is not then looking if one had a bad smell under one’s nose. Rather it is characterised by an openness and warmth, a zest for life, an affirmation that it is to be lived in all its fullness. We are entitled to the best wine. Nonetheless it is not a chummy quality. There is a divisiveness about it, an otherness which can be profoundly disturbing. The saints, those whom the church has specially designated as holy, are not easy to get on with. We may speak of some men and women with admiration as saints, but the moment we have to live with them, then we find the experience extremely uncomfortable.
Yet through baptism we are all separated off for God to be enabled to work through us. He has no other means. We become the divisive – indeed subversive – community, for our criterion for living no longer merely embraces the world, but heaven too. Our perspective becomes quite different. Like God himself, we are to be other, beyond – other to what is one’s ready experience, beyond what that experience normally is.
Few of us like this call to sanctity. We prefer on the whole to accept our status as sinners. It is so much easier to be a failure. Nothing is expected of us and anyway God assures us of his forgiveness. So much Christian emphasis is placed on convincing men and women of their sin – little on convincing them of their sainthood. Yet St. Paul addresses his letters to the saints in spite of some very unsaintly behaviour on their part. In baptism we acquire that sainthood and are bidden to live it out, live it out by letting God live in us. We do not have to be anything, do anything, save open ourselves to the reality of what we have become. While allowing the Spirit free range within us, we assume our sanctity. The result is always what we least expect.
To-day we celebrate the memory of those who provide examples of how far and wide the Spirit can range. Many so surrendered their lives to the Spirit that death became their inevitable fate. Sadly as current events in Pakistan illustrate, there are still many parts of the world where martyrdom beckons for the saints. But for most of us the problem is not death but life. As day succeeds day and the drabness of our spiritual life sets in like a kind of persistent rheumatism or a November fog, the idea that we might reflect the glory of God becomes heartrendingly ridiculous. So we confine the saints to stained glass and expect nothing much to happen to us. And nothing does. Apathy becomes the order of the day.
But what right of you and I to become apathetic when week by week we are invited within the heavenly court? Yes with angels and archangels we are bidden to sing the eternal hymn, Holy, holy, holy, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory, Hosanna in the highest. And that holiness which is God – that otherness, beyondness, which invites men and women to a perspective far beyond the confines of this life, a relationship which knows nothing of time nor chance – that holiness is to be seen in our glory. Moses’ face when he descended from his meeting with God on the holy mountain shone so that the Israelites could not bear to look at it. As those separated out for communion with Him who is holiness, we too are called to reflect that glory. It is all made plain at baptism when the new Christian is given a lighted candle and is commanded by the congregation to shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.
Christian vocation is to be God’s glory – nothing less. And to be God’s glory one has to do nothing but take one’s sainthood seriously – let God who is holy be – be himself in you and me. Of course that will be costly. Grace is never cheap. It will cost one one’s life. But unless we assume our sainthood, our life will be no life – a wallowing in the mire of self-discontent, a smothering of the reflection of God’s glory – an imprisonment here instead of an encounter with what lies beyond. The question is not whether God has gone dead on us: it is whether we have gone dead on him? The saints whom we celebrate to-day were not perfect and sinless men and women. They were those who had encountered the precious grace of God and who neither dulled that grace nor compromised that gift. Rather they became what they had been created to become – the expression of that very holiness which is God himself. They encourage us to follow suit.