Scripture for this Sunday: Daniel 7.1–3, 15–18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1.11–23; Luke 6.20–31
When I was young, one of the books that we read in Primary School was The Water Babies, a story by Charles Kingsley, who was a priest in the Church of England in the mid-19th century. It is a kind of fairy story, but also a satire and a morality tale. Wikipedia has a good synopsis and analysis of the story.
It has fallen out of favour, because it reflects some of the rather dubious values of its day, including dismissive or insulting references to Americans, Jews, blacks, and Catholics, particularly the Irish. I don’t think that I will be looking for a copy for my American wife of Irish heritage!
Stripping away those prejudicial aspects that are troublesome nowadays, the story still has some interesting and relevant themes. The author aimed satirically at critics of Charles Darwin and his Evolution of Species, for example, finding nothing incongruous between the idea of evolution and a creator God. He was deeply concerned with the exploitation of working class children. And the Christian theme of redemption.
The story is of Tom, a chimney sweep, who falls into a river after an encounter with an upper class girl, Ellie, and then ostensibly drowns, but is transformed into a water baby, and subjected to a moral education. One of the spiritual leaders in Tom’s watery world is Mrs. Do-as-you-would-be-done-by, an obvious reference to the “Golden Rule.”
Tom proves himself by being willing to undertake things that he does not like, even helping his former master towards repentance, is united with Ellie, who has also become a water baby, but is then redeemed and returned to the world in human form as a “great man of science.”
The Golden Rule is, of course, derived from Jesus’ admonition to his followers, in his sermon on the plain, to, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” And here it is, right in today’s gospel! It is a variation on Jesus’ theme of loving our neighbours as ourselves. Some people do this better than others, it would seem – and perhaps they are the ones we call saints.
There are those who believe that Jesus would have a hard time being heard in today’s world – even in churches – because we have become too hard-hearted, too mistrustful of those who are different from us, and too inclined to create churches in our own image rather than embracing a church that recognises all humanity, in all its diversity, as being created in the image of God.
We are more likely to be destined for the admonition of another of Tom’s teachers, Mrs. Be-done-by-as-you-did, because we cannot let ourselves be taught by Mrs. Do-as-you-would-be-done-by. At the very heart of the teaching of Jesus is his concern to encourage humanity to follow a path of mutual flourishing, of mutual care and compassion, not gated communities governed by gated minds. Jesus craves a human existence that is concerned with the needs of the whole, the common good, rather than the benefit of any individual.
And, on All Saints Sunday, perhaps that is where we can gain a glimpse of sainthood. What makes a saint? Not a canonisation process – that is simply an organisational means to an end.
What is sainthood but a recognition of someone who really does understand that what is at the heart of the Christian gospel is that the needs of the whole body are the concern of every member? Someone who actually embraces and lives in this message and example to the very best of their ability – and better than most of us.
Saints are those who offer their lives in special ways to do to others not only what they would have them do for themselves, but who would do for others what Christ would do for them. That’s not exactly easy, which is why only a special few really manage to live up to the model of sainthood. But we can all try, if we honestly believe that Christ’s expression of God’s vision for a better world is the one we are willing to follow.