The Feast of Saints Simon & Jude – Monday 28th October, Festal Eucharist
Contrary to popular belief, your kin in the American Church do, in fact, have rules. Some of them govern the discernment process, and require the approval of various committees who often solicit grand narratives of faith journeys, complete with suitably dramatic and overwrought experiences of clear call narratives.
Now I have a few of these, though none that rose to the level of Marian apparitions or a voice in the garden telling me to read, but I discovered that with enough adverbs, even the most prosaic of experiences may become profound. All of which is to say, if the saints are anything like me, it’s possible that their spiritual records may be, shall we say, spiritually enhanced.
But this leads us to our perennial problem: how much of this saintly stuff are we meant to believe, and how much is just so much holy embroidery? How much are we supposed to plumb the depths of the unknown, and what if our discoveries somehow upend their saintliness in the first place?
Fortunately, we don’t have that particular problem in those we celebrate today! “Ah yes, the famous Saints Simon and Jude, included in that heralded compendium of divines for their admirable work of: appearing in lists.”
Pray for us, indeed.
Now, it’s not that I question the likelihood that the apostles of Jesus would have done saintly work, it’s just that when preaching a rousing sermon about the imitation of Christ and the saints, it’s helpful to have more to go on than a shady Anglo-Catholic website that tells me they were martyred in Persia or the red vestments draped on our altar and Vice-Principal, roughly the hagiographical equivalent of a shrug.
Yet despite all this, here we are: honouring the work of God in the lives of saints we barely know. We honour who we believe them to be. We honour who we hope that they were.
We honour what we hope we could be.
Now a different, and indeed a worthy homily would go on to talk about how we ourselves in all our apparent and future saintliness may well be absent from the annals of history. It would go on to commend us for doing the hard work of ministry despite this lack of recognition or even the opposition of those around us, and send us on our way, sufficiently edified and comforted.
That sermon is well and good, but instead I wonder this: what if these murky saints, martyrs or not, recipients of visions or not, are an invitation for us to imagine what we could be?
The Epistle for this feast reads that our foundation as Christians must be the apostles and prophets, with Jesus as the chief cornerstone. Well that’s all well and good, but it’s not as if they’re available for questioning, not to mention that between opinionated scribes, errata, and the fact that each apostle has about twenty different titles, it’s hard to even get at who these apostles and prophets were!
But Ephesians goes on to tell us that we, along with the saints, are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God. In Christ, the whole structure is built together, which seems to me like we’re all just variations on the same stones, the same bricks. Perhaps the point isn’t the particular gifts or accomplishments of saints but rather that they inspired others to believe that they too might be worthy of building this temple, might be worthy of being a dwelling-place for God Almighty.
In our Gospel this morning Jesus has a lot to say about the disadvantages of being a disciple, namely that the world ain’t so excited to hear our message, even if it is one of liberation and of love. This dwelling-place we’re building may look less like a fancy cathedral and more like what it is, a pile of misshapen stones miraculously fit together with the mortar of Grace.
It seems in that way that the miracle of sainthood is less that they were perfectly cut stones themselves or worthy of building the façade, but rather that through them others believed that their own brokenness and lopsidedness didn’t make them any less worthy of use. Now that’s a powerful message.
Yet it’s no wonder the world doesn’t quite understand it. How could it? Believing that saints are just as complex and imperfect and problematic as the rest of us makes about as much sense as, well, a God who dies on a cross. But we know there’s more to that story. Perhaps there’s more to the story of the saints as well. Perhaps their stories end with us, just as saintly, just as worthy of resurrection. Perhaps those stories I told about myself, embellished or not, were true.
And, Lord, do I need to believe that, Because I don’t know about you, but this witnessing to the Gospel day after day thing ain’t easy! And sure, most of us will probably not write inspired Scripture, most of us will not have massive portraits hung on the colonnade of St Peter’s, and most of us will be too caught up with fixing roofs and committee meetings and quiet words spoken to one for us to even think of canonization…
But what we must never forget is that this, too, is saintly work. We, too, might be saints. Simon and Jude are only saints because others believed in their holiness.
Now, I am not encouraging a shallow kind of revisionism, where the few merits of various Christians always outweigh their sins (though I hasten to add that we are not St Michael, holding the scales of judgment). Rather, I am suggesting that how we think about saints in the past tells us something about how we think about those in our midst.
I suggest that, where the record is murky, where it seems the saints may not be all they’re cracked up to be, this actually give us hope!
I suggest that perhaps archaeological confirmation that St Thomas made it to Peshawar is less important than that Indian Christians find hope in the belief that he did.
Perhaps an Epistle of Jude that withstands source criticism is less important than the belief that the Spirit entrusted one of us with a message for the whole Church.
Perhaps a full account of the travels of the crown of thorns of Notre Dame is less important than the pilgrim’s belief that she might one day be worthy of the blood shed upon it.
Because that’s the point of all of this, beloved: the silk brocade and the glow of extra candles, the processions and the sermon you don’t normally have to sit through this early in the day-
Today’s festivity is for this:
We need to believe that all might be saintly. We need to believe in the absurdity of the Gospel which we proclaim. We need to imagine that this altar, these gifts, this wine, this bread, might actually taste of salvation, might smell of liberation, might be the Body of Him who died that the world might live. We need those sainted giants over whose shoulders we peer, seeing the hope of God’s liberating work laid out before us.
Because this is not a Gospel we invent,
This is not a Gospel we rewrite,
This Gospel has been given,
and lived, and lived and lived and lived and lived and lived and lived again.
This is the promise of the saints, those we honor today and those still to come: they are not blueprints to holiness. They are accelerants to the flame of Gospel hope.
They are testament that the Gospel has been lived and we might live it too.
What are we being formed here to do if not the same? What is our work in each outpost of the Kingdom if not infecting others with the absurd belief that they might be saints?
We need not be martyrs, we need not write Scripture, we need not evangelize Persia to be counted as saints in the commonwealth of Heaven.
Simon and Jude prove this: we need only walk with our God, taste his flesh, offer his cup and his chain-breaking Grace to those we meet along the way.
Go forth and do likewise.
Will Dickinson Episcopal Diocese of Virginia