For today’s Feast of All Saints of Rus’-Ukraine St Paul exalts the eternal purpose of God (Romans 1.12-18) to identify those whom He will call, those he will make righteous as he conforms them to the image of His Son, and thus those He will fill with glory as all things work together for good by the power of His love. Who shall separate us from this our destiny, asks St Paul?
These few verses are luminous in the spirituality of what we Christians mean by sanctification, God’s holiness coming on us to make us His saints. We look to the officially canonised saints, and especially the Mother of God, as the evidence that human beings can become saints. This is not because they have become super-humans, but because we see in them that it is possible for mortals to be what the Lord had intended at the time of Creation, before we turn to the ways of deliberate imperfection and our preferred habit of falling short of the glory of God, something that we know as sin. We counteract this, as we pray for forgiveness and the restoration of our lost state, with a million, “Lord have mercy”s in our lifetime. Yet the popular expression in response to human self-indulgence or fallibility is, “You are only human”. But there is nothing “only” about being human. For it was his plan from the outset to clothe himself with the humanity He first given to us, and to take it for himself, so that, God becoming human by means of the indissoluble union that we worship in Christ the Son of God born of Mary, humanity may participate in the very life of God.
“Who shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus?” demands St Paul. It does not in the end make a difference to the divine plan to take our flesh - and be united with us so that we could be united to Him - that we disobey his fatherly law and erred from His love. As we know from the parable of the Prodigal Son, it intensified His resolve never to part Himself from us, however much we exerted our wills to part ourselves from Him. As in Francis Thompson’s poem The Hound of Heaven, we know that it is the nature of God to pursue those who have fled Him. Thus a famously consoling English hymn sings, “O Love that will not let me go, I give Thee back the life I owe.” And in Psalm 138 it is the same:
O Lord, You have searched me out and known me … You hem me in behind and before, and lay Your hand upon me. Where shall I then from Your Spirit, or where shall I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall Your hand lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me.”This was always the plan, and the fact of our sin does not change the intention of God to unite us to Him, since what is added is our forgiveness, our redemption, our forgiveness and our restoration to place us back on our original track of reconciliation.
It cost the Lord not less than everything, of course; and we recognise the superabundance of his core self-giving, which is the very nature of the Persons of the Trinity, not only in miracles and blessings but in His blood shed and His life poured out upon the Cross. God’s justification for doing this is not only to free us from the power of guilt and sin, but because he was always going to do this - to live like us that we might live like him, letting nothing ever ultimately stand in His way. Thus the Cross is the road to the empty Tomb. Thus the thorough rout into the depths of Death and back is the road to ascending humanity into the glory that God always intended for it. Thus the resurrection into which we were baptised makes the Cross - contrary to worldly appearance - glorious and life-giving. Thus the kingdom of heaven long ago became the nature that abhorred such a vacuum left by the removal of the bars and gates that kept us pent up in death.
When I went to a Methodist service one day, I remember the expectant moment after the first hymn has gathered all together in dedication to the Lord, and the minister addressed the people with the dramatic words of the Apostles from the Letter to the Hebrews: (12.22-23):
You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to myriads of angels in joyful assembly to the congregation of the firstborn enrolled in heaven, You have come to the Judge of all, to the spirits of righteous people made perfect.”Who does he mean? He means us! Think of it: here in our Divine Liturgy, as we move around the altar and come in and out before the presence of the Lord, we are surrounded by the saints at worship in perpetual love; and we see that people no different from ourselves have been made righteous, not through any merit of their own but by the sheer outpouring of goodness that is infinite to overcome our failings and our preference for something else. There is nothing “only” about being human, destined to be filled to overflowing with this grace. And then, as St Paul says to us, “Those He destined to be changed to conform to the image of Christ from the beginning” - that’s you and me – “He next called. Then after He had made them righteous” – not by our merits but from His own reasons to make us no different from His Son – “He made them perfectly the same. He glorified them.”
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist spiritual tradition, was inspired by the Eastern fathers of the Church. So in his preaching and the classic Wesleyan hymns he stresses not so much the problem of our sin but the magnificence of Christ’s sinlessness, and his full forgiveness by the power of the Cross to free us from ourselves and the evil that we do. To Wesley, since we are forgiven and free, what holds us back from becoming united with God in Christ even now? And if we can truly find this unity with the Lord, no wonder we can say with St Paul that we have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to the joyful assembly of the congregation of those enrolled in heaven. So Wesley follows St Paul to the great conclusion: If Christ by His power as God makes has impressed His own image into us and we are the very coinage of His Love, His buy-out conquerors in His competition with death and sin, what is there next but for Him to perfect what He has begun and make us perfectly holy, even starting here and now. So He works into us His holiness as He works out of us all that is amiss, making us His saints glorious as He is glorious. Saying none of this is to boast. As St Paul reminds us, “God forbid that I should boast save in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by Whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” (Galatians 6.14) For to hope for glory and holiness in the midst of this life is to tell the truth of our sins and our need for God’s redemption and restoration.
In our Eastern Church we rely on those who have gone before us on this very same road. We know that they followed their Lord, passing through adversity and disrepute, scorn and unbelievability. Yet we see the saints as glorified, just as St Paul told the Romans. Their images on the icons show them not in earthly portraits but in their glorified state. These all knew their sin, yet hoped in the holiness that was to come. And at the forefront of them all, the Mother of God, most pure, immaculate and sinless, was made righteous throughout her existence by the pre-ordained purpose of the Lord to come to her above all others, for the taking of our flesh from her so that in the same instant we might be one with Him. So we touch her icon, as she touched the foot of the Cross. So we touch the icons of St Olga, St Vladimir, the monks of the Caves of Kyiv, St Josaphat, Blessed Klement Sheptytsky the Martyr, and so many others, because their hold on life here was the same as Christ’s, and because the prayers of them all are heaven’s hold on us.
At the end of our Divine Liturgy after Communion we shall give glory to Christ for being our sanctification. So we understand that what is true of the saints in the icons must become true of us - and it has already begun. We are to be the new icons, the new reliability of prayer for those who are to come after us. We are the spirits of righteous people made perfect. We are the congregation to which new people in Christ will come in joyful assembly, and say, “We have come to Mount Zion, to the City of Living God.” There is nothing “only” about being human. All is for His glory, and all His glory is for us to be holy, to be his saints defined by the very quality of the “nothing” that ever can separate us from the love of God in Christ, the Love that will not let us go.