WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
What God achieves through ordinary people shows there are no limits to spiritual mobility other than those we place on ourselves.
Among several indicators of a retreat from Christian memory in this country is the reality that October 31 figures more highly in people’s minds than November 1. Halloween is a burgeoning industry, replete with a mixture of tacky and occasionally sinister symbols of forces we barely understand but which oppose all we believe. Yet All Hallows’ Eve only exists as a prelude to All Saints’ Day on November 1st. In its own way, All Saints’ Day is dimly understood yet of profound value to an era which is depleted relationally.
In essence, All Saints’ Day celebrates the countless men and women who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, have shaped this world and our lives in the graceful contours of God’s coming kingdom. It is an opportunity to reflect with gratitude on what God is able to achieve through ordinary people and to remind us there is no special class of saints, no rigid hierarchy that limits our personal journey of faith. People naturally worry that social mobility may be slowing down today. There are no such inhibitions on spiritual mobility, only our own inertia and wilfulness.
One of the most striking social developments of recent years has been the growth in genealogy, the study of ancestry. Many clergy can testify to this anecdotally through the numbers of people searching out church registers. Meanwhile, the popularity of the TV series ‘Who do you think you are?’ demonstrates an insatiable human curiosity about origins. There are some striking clues as to why this interest has been stoked. Our generation is more rootless than those which have gone before. The flexibility of labour markets in a largely deregulated global economy means more people are moving further from their place of birth. This is axiomatic, but it has made a deep impact on our common life as we lose bonds of trust and familiarity. As a consequence, neighbourhoods are more anonymous and no longer places in which our identity is formed.
The emergence of digital technology means our communities are becoming more displaced as we relate to those we share interests, rather than localities, with. Much play is made of the so-called Facebook generation which is connected to dense digital networks. Yet people are actually relating less to one another by human face, through which encouragement and true understanding is formed.
These trends have eroded our personal identity by detaching us from meaningful community, making us more insecure and uncertain. The strange cult of celebrity has emerged from this environment as we replace genuine relationships with mediated and ephemeral ones. Many people know more about the private lives of Wayne Rooney and Cheryl Cole than they do about their own families and neighbours. Fame becomes a means by which people search for the identity and enduring love they lack, thus leading among the more vulnerable to a preoccupation with becoming famous, rather than simply being good at what they do and simply making a contribution to society.
It is into this culture that All Saints’ Day speaks with authority and comfort. The corrupted and heartless philosophy that we stand radically alone in this world and must make our own way through it, suggesting that both the winners and the losers in life deserve what they get, is challenged by the radically equal community formed in Jesus Christ. We stand and fall together, we suffer with others and we rejoice with them. Christians who live in countries where it is dangerous to believe in Jesus find enormous comfort in knowing that their suffering is shared and that their brothers and sisters are looking out for them, because persecution is the most isolating experience.
The individualism which permeates our faith can, by contrast, lead us to feel very alone when our faith is attacked. There is a newly-assertive atheism in the UK today and many people, relating to the world primarily through the media rather than through their Church, can feel as if they face the cold logic of Christopher Hitchens and the incisive physics of Stephen Hawking alone and inadequately. They forget that they are an organic part of a robust and resilient community which has endured for centuries and which has members whose logic and mathematics match those who claim there is no need for God but who remain in the community of faith precisely because they know there are some things that only faith can tell.
When faced with the unsparing challenges of the Sermon on the Mount, many Christians feel inadequate for the challenge they have been set by their Saviour, forgetting that the same power of the Holy Spirit is available to them as to all others and that they are not called to this standard alone. It is easier to live up to our calling in Christ when we are surrounded and supported by others who feel the same. St. Paul said we are to provoke one another to good deeds and just to experience the goodness of another Christian is to remind us both of our calling and of its feasibility.
Above all else, All Saints’ Day prompt us to think relationally about our faith and our role in this world. We did not receive this faith alone and unmediated. It has been passed on to us by other people, who heard it from other people, who heard it from other people, all the way back to those first disciples and, if you like, right back to Abraham, who first heard the calling of God. In the course of this, people have taken extraordinary risks and made incalculable sacrifices to ensure the story of God can be freshly told in a new generation. You will all have significant people in your life who have told you about the Gospel and – most importantly – influenced you in how they lived it. Today is the day to give thanks for them, for they are our saints: faithful people, frail, within our reach and an inspiration to a godly life.
The risk of our individualistic culture is that, though taking inspiration where we choose, we forget how powerful our own influence over others remains. This is the challenge that lies beyond the comfort of this remarkable day. We are only slowly reclaiming a sense of our influence in the world and should not be deterred by the feeling that we live such separate lives. Research published this year by Harvard University has shown how an ordinary person can, through the networks they have, genuinely influence several thousands of others by how they live (see Faith in Culture: How to influence your friends’ friends’ friends elsewhere on this site). I have never come across a more inspiring challenge to my walk as a Christian. Perhaps only in the world to come will we be able to trace the threads we formed which bound others to Christ.
The success of the TV series ‘Who do you think you are?’ comes from the unexpected twist in the tale that uncovers unusual ancestry. Today’s celebration traces the deep roots of our spiritual ancestry. We are children of Abraham and brothers and sisters of Christ. And we should wear that badge with that delicious mixture of pride and humility which comes from knowing God.
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