In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What are saints like? It’s an interesting question to ponder. When we look through the list of saints, we find all different kinds of people. Just think about the Saints associated with this Cathedral. There is of course the Blessed Virgin Mary: revered for her virginity whilst nonetheless bearing the son of God. Taken as an example of obedience and humility. Or Saint Osmund, creator of in effect a rule of life, a structure and organisation in which people could pray together, creator of symbolic ways of understanding how Christians might exist in community. Some of those structures and symbols still endure today, like for example the determination of where the four canons of this Cathedral sit: Chancellor, Treasurer, Precentor, Dean at the four corners of the Quire, symbolising our role as sustainers and protectors of this praying community. Saint Edmund of Abingdon, one time occupant of the stall now inhabited by Canon Robert. A man for whom education, and the flourishing of the young was vital. Thomas Beckett: a man of bravery and conviction, a martyr. Martin of Tours, soldier; Margaret of Scotland, whose hallowing of family life by faith is an example to this day. Lawrence the martyr, Michael the Archangel. All of these are part of the Church of England’s calendar, and in a very particular way they are part of the spiritual life of this Cathedral because they are the saints to whom the altars of this place are dedicated, and thus in some way their particular examples shape the way we do Christian community and discipleship here.
But what have they in common? What makes a Saint, what makes somebody associated with that name, that title?
Well to answer that we need look no further than today’s gospel reading. On first glance it might seem a peculiar reading to set for this, greatest of the feasts of the saints. Let’s examine the characters. We have Lazarus, who really doesn’t do very much in the story at all because he’s dead for most of it. He doesn’t get a line in the entire story, and is probably one of the most unlucky people in the history of Christendom, getting to die not once but twice! There is Mary and Martha, who we have met earlier in the gospel. Both of them we know serve Jesus in their own particular way, one in action and one in prayer. There are the Jews, which of course is one of the expressions that St John uses to refer to people in the community who were not either Romans or already followers of Jesus. It’s a slightly uncomfortable term now, particularly with the heightened awareness of anti-Semitism in our society. But it is helpful I think to read references to the Jews in this gospel as faithful Jewish people who have not become followers of Jesus. And then there is Christ himself. Christ who we know was a friend of Lazarus, and of Mary and Martha. Christ who for some reason chooses to delay his return to the home of Lazarus, with the result that his sickness worsens and he dies.
This gospel reading contains what is often referred to as the shortest verse in Scripture. John, chapter 11, verse 35. “Jesus began to weep.” Or as some earlier translations render it, “Jesus wept.”
Now if saints are those who seek to follow Christ, perhaps it is not odd or unusual on all Saints Day for us to read one of the rare examples of Jesus showing profound emotion. We don’t get a lot of insight into the mood of Christ. There is of course the account of him overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple, an example of anger, or zeal. And here an example of sadness, sorrow, and crucially, as the Jews notice and comment upon, an example of love. “Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘see how he loved him!’”
One of the rare sermons that I can actually remember I heard preached in the parish church of the village of Cuddesdon just outside Oxford when I was visiting that theological college considering going there to train for the priesthood. It was Passion Week, the first of the last two weeks of Lent. And the preacher there pointed to this example as if you like, setting the template for holiness, the template for sainthood. Yes, Jesus is going to go on to perform a great miracle. He is going to hold back, or reverse death. Lazarus, silent throughout this reading, is going to emerge from the tomb. And of course in this story we have a foreshadowing, a harbinger of Jesus own resurrection. But it is not that about which the Jews comment in the texts we’ve heard tonight. They comment, they respond, they are provoked to reflect on the demonstration of love. At the heart of this gospel reading is a man crying over the death of his friend. See how he loved him. And the preacher that evening made the point that this is the vital definition of a saint of God. This is what marks out someone who belongs to Christ. They love. And that’s not the same as liking people, it’s not the same as being attracted to them, it’s not the same as using them as a pawn in our own particular life strategy. It is loving them because of who they are. It is recognising them as children of God, part of the extraordinary creation of which we are members. It is recognising them as valuable, and precious, and important. And, that preacher went on to say, it is that example that we should strive to meet. The people of God are those who try to love like Jesus loved. Like Jesus still loves today. And, he said, our aspiration should be that one day someone will note how we love, and be moved by that example to discover something about God.
Which of course we fail to do almost all the time. But as Thomas Merton, great 20th-century Trappist monk prayed, “I don’t always know the right thing to do Lord, but I think the fact I want to please you pleases you.”
Surrounded by the company of saints, with angels and archangels stationed around us, let us, if we can’t manage to love as Jesus loved, at least try to want to love as he loved. That is enough to make a beginning. To commit to trying to recognise every individual as beloved in God’s eyes, as of surpassing value as a deliberate piece of God’s wonderful creation. To reorient our lives into a model where our instinct is not hate, or to be suspicious, or to use, but to love.
See how he loved him, the people said of Jesus. Perhaps one day someone will say that about us.