With all the Saints
Often I don’t get it right. When the lessons are read I discover the sermon I should be preaching. After the Sunday bulletin has been prepared and printed, I realise the sermon title that’s just right. So change today’s title from With all the Saints to Side by Side. I call it side by side because Simon and Jude are inseparable, they are always side by side. They are not brothers as Peter and Andrew, James and John are; but in the tradition of the church they are paired, they are side by side. As you look into their stories there may be a number of reasons for this: they are both disciples, that is chosen to be among the Twelve. They both have better known counterparts with the same name - Simon Peter and Simon the Zealot (Zelotes) - Judas Iscariot and Judas the brother of the James who was possibly the brother of Jesus. Tradition links them both to Edessa in Turkey and has them both going to preach the gospel in Persia where they were martyred. They travelled the road, sharing the load, side by side.
The readings for today are not part of the regular lectionary flow. They are the readings that may be used on saint’s days. With that in mind I began to look at them to discover why they had been chosen. Why, when you have the whole Bible at your disposal, would you choose these three readings to acknowledge the contribution of faithful saints and disciples like Simon and Jude? Fortunately, whoever has devised the lectionary isn’t here this morning so they can’t mark my attempt; which means that I can tell you why I think these passages were chosen with out fear of contradiction.
Isaiah: our reading comes from that portion of Isaiah called First Isaiah. First Isaiah is written when Jerusalem is threatened and besieged by the Assyrian army. Everybody gets in a panic - what will we do? What will we do? Isaiah alone keeps calm. He trusts that God will bring deliverance, that Jerusalem will not fall. Our reading contrasts those who fatalistically accept the outcome because they have aligned themselves with death, they have sold out their souls like the Death Eaters in Harry Potter. However, they will not endure, says Isaiah, but Jerusalem will. The reason why Jerusalem will not, cannot fail, is that it is the foundation on which God will build the structure of his rule and reign.
Ephesians follows Isaiah because this Isaiah passage was in the mind of the person who wrote Ephesians. There are three points of connection: foundation, cornerstone, and the structure hinted at in Isaiah is now emerging. In Isaiah’s time they looked to the physical structure of the Temple, not so in Ephesians; the Temple of the living God is constructed of people. Jesus is the corner stone, apostles and prophets are the foundation, and all of us, Jews, Gentiles, Maori, Pakeha, men, women, old and young are the community, the dwelling place of God that is his temple.
The Isaiah passage is chosen for the saints because it rejoices in the unshakeable, indestructible foundation and cornerstone. No assault can destroy it; it will withstand everything because God is going to build upon it. Ephesians is chosen because it tells us we too are in this building, side by side with the saints, side by side with the apostles, side by side with the prophets. And as apostles and prophets have been the foundation for us so we are to become the foundation and structure for our own time. When we visit Britain we go to look at the churches, and in them you can’t help but walk on the memorial stones that make up the floor. Lois doesn’t like walking on them, we don’t like people walking on our graves it gives us a funny twinge, and so she tries to avoid it which is an impossibility. I get around it by telling myself it is not the grave nor the last resting place of John Brown and realising that in matters of faith we literally stand on the floor of those who have gone before, as others hopefully will stand on our faith and love and courage and conviction.
John’s gospel is written from a context of intense and painful conflict between the Christian church and Jewish synagogue. In those days church and synagogue were so much alike, and yet very different. In this section of John Jesus has completed his active ministry and he is at the point of the last supper, the trial and death. Between the active ministry and the passion and death Jesus talks to his disciples and prepares them for what John himself faced - an alien and hostile world. Because you do not belong to the world - therefore the world hates you. None of the apostles and very few of the saints from the early Christian era died in their beds. They did not belong to this world and the world hated them. They were building a structure on the firm foundation of Christ, they were not making covenants with death to use Isaiah’s phrase, they took no cyanide pills when the troopers came, they endured the pain. There are, of course, far more saints than those who have made it onto the official list, but all saints have these two things in common: they build up the structure of God’s people on the firm and indestructible foundation of Christ; and they do not belong - they stand apart from this world. The lovely thing is, we too can go with the saints: walking the road, sharing the load, side by side.