Claiming Our Patron
The history of All Saint’s Day is a curiosity in that not much has been written about it. We do know that during the first several hundred years of the early Church’s life, it was forced to live as an illegal and hunted community. This forced exile at the hands of the Roman Government caused many of the faithful to be slaughtered for their Christian witness and belief. The anniversary dates of these early martyrs’ deaths were memorialized in the churches worship services. Because the early church was small it was fairly easy to keep track of the names and dates of the martyrs. But as martyrs became more numerous, especially under Emperor Diocletian (284-305) it became difficult to remember them all by name and date of martyrdom. As a result, a common Feast Day was established for all martyrs. The first record of a common feast for the martyrs or Saints was attributed to the consecration of the ancient Roman Pantheon as a Temple of the Blessed Virgin and All Martyrs in May of 609 CE. The feast of All Saints was commemorated finally in the mid 700’s. And by the 800’s the feast was extended by Pope Gregory IV to the entire church.
Since the 16th Century Reformation Christians have had some significant disagreements over who the Saints are and how they became Saints. In the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and to some extent in the Anglican Churches, saints are viewed somewhat as a small group of deceased Christians who, while living on earth exemplified the life of Christ by their ministry of devotion, good works and piety. Roman Catholic teaching affirms that the Pope must canonize Saints. Saints so canonized are intercessory vehicles for those who choose to pray to them. Some of you here this morning may have selected saints that you pray to.
The Reformation brought with it a new definition of sainthood. Anyone who was a believer in Jesus Christ, both living and dead was considered a Saint. Their sainthood was defined by their faith in Jesus Christ and by their baptism by water and the Holy Spirit.
Last May, as I was preparing for my ordination and consecration service as 8th Bishop of Washington here at this great cathedral I reflected with family and friends that of the 5 congregations and cathedrals I have served in my 30 years as an ordained person, 4 of them were named after Saint Paul. At the National Cathedral, we are known as the “Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.” And as I reflected about the coincidence or divine guidance of being in sacred spaces named after Paul, I became curious about one the named Patron Saints of this great cathedral.
What was in the mind of those who gave life and breath to this great “National Cathedral” that they would name one of their Patrons Saints, Paul? Why was it that this great National Cathedral, a “House of Prayer for All People” would claim as one of its own, a saint known for his magnificent oratory, prolific writing and evangelical zeal and who authored First and Second Thessalonians, Galatians, First and Second Corinthians, Romans, Philippians and Philemon?
It was a very early tradition within Catholic Christendom that churches be named after popular Christian heroes and saints, easily recognizable to the newly converted Christians. Congregations named after Saints, were in effect using their names as an advertisement to define the unique nature of their particular worshipping community. Without newspaper and print media advertising, signage, radio and television commercials, the naming of a congregation after a well known Saint was a direct form of advertising and marketing in the immerging Christian world. A church for instance naming itself after St. Mark would define itself as a pre-eminent church or the first church in an established community. The rationale for this distinction was that Mark’s Gospel was the first Gospel of the four ever written and was dated prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Naming a congregation after Mark identified that congregation as a first among equals and identified the principles of that congregation as being strong, pre-eminent and courageous in preaching and teaching. As a graphic symbol to back up that claim the depiction of a roaring lion was used as a way of visualizing the nature of the congregation.
So what about the selection of Paul as one of two patron saints of this great “National Cathedral?” Was Paul chosen because of the story of his spectacular conversion experience or was it because of his profound and prolific theological writing?
God forbid that Paul was chosen because of his overwhelming, repressive, negative teaching about the role and place of women in the early Christian community; or because he was an upholder of the place and necessity of slavery in his culture. May we all hope as well that Paul’s selection was not based on his very limited understanding of human sexuality and his near histrionic expositions on human sexual behavior.
I have three icons of Paul in my office at Church House and each one, although somewhat different, depicts Paul as a balding, tight-faced, thinly bearded “worry-wort” who looks more like a candidate for a “Milk of Magnesia” commercial than what we might imagine one of the great theologians of the Christian Church. Paul’s selection as one of the Patron Saints of this great cathedral was obviously not based on artistic renderings.
A bit of information about Paul might be better in helping us understand why he was chosen as one of two Patron Saints of this great cathedral. It is universally believed that Paul died about 64 CE. Six years before the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem. This places all of his writing prior to the destruction of the Temple and places him at a time when followers of Christ or (Jewish Christians) and Jews still commonly worship with one another in the same Temple. There was coexistence between these two groups of Jews up until the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.
It is commonly believed that the author of Mark, the first of the four Gospels written, used Paul’s writing as a basis for the formation of his own work, and that Matthew and Luke, who wrote later than 70 CE borrowed extensively from Paul and Mark. We also know that Paul was a very influential scholar and a significant resource in shaping the theology and teaching of the early Christian Church. Could this have been one of the reasons why he was selected as one of the patron saints of this cathedral?
Paul was attacked and persecuted for his controversial teaching in the Synagogues of Lystra, Derbe, Iconium, Corinth, Ephesus and Philippi. Because he was thrown out of the Temple for teaching about Jesus Christ, he was forced to take his message of salvation to the gentiles… the non-Jews. Paul’s brilliance and eloquence went from being shared with the greatest minds, theologians and philosophers of his time to being shared with the no-accounts, the unclean gentiles, heathens and social outcasts… those of little or no social standing in the culture of Paul’s time. Clearly seen in his Epistle to the Romans, Paul reaches out with concern and compassion to both Jews and Gentiles, preaching on themes of reconciliation and forgiveness, relying heavily on such inclusive words as ALL and EVERY. Could this have been one of the reasons was he was selected as one of the Patron Saints of this great cathedral?
The brilliant mind and teaching of Paul lost its audience. In response to this devastating adversity encountered by hostile intellectuals, pious Jews and uneducated Gentiles, Paul was forced to simply say to any who would listen: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” He said: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. God chose what is Weak in the world… things that are not… to reduce to nothing things that are… so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” It is in the profound gift of Paul’s writing in 1st Corinthians that we are exposed to what I believe to be the core of his teaching when he wrote in speaking about love: “I am not speaking of love in the ordinary sense… but the love for others… which is a love that can only come from God through Christ.” The love of God, experienced through the risen Christ was the core of all of Paul’s teaching and it is on this basis that I believe that above all others reasons Paul was probably chosen by our parochial ancestors to be one of two patron saints of this cathedral.
Today you and I live in a world where Christianity too often defines the value of self by requiring the individual to have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” In living into the life of our patron Paul we must refute the sickening, sweetness of too often privatized grace and open up those bibles that may be gathering dust in our homes. Read Holy Scripture as if your very life depended on it! For you know… it really does! And in the discipline for your prayer life listen to the rhythmic heart beat of Saint Paul who teaches us that our human, spiritual development and wholeness must come from an affirmation of our corporate need to be fed by God’s love in ways that bring to the table and affirm the diversity of the whole of humanity. Because of his profound, complex, yet very simply lived theology, I believe that above all others, Paul was probably chosen by our parochial ancestors to be a patron saint of this cathedral.
If this great cathedral is to stand for something within the life of the Nation’s Capital, the Diocese of Washington, the National Episcopal Church and the larger Anglican Communion, it must stand as a place where God’s unconditional love for all humanity and creation is preached, taught and prayed daily. If this cathedral named after Paul is to stand for something, it must vigilantly and courageously speak out against those who piously judge others as sinners, unclean gentiles, faithless Jews or violent Muslims; as unwelcome people of color, language, culture or sexual orientation. We must preach, teach, and pray daily that it is only through human diversity that we can see and truly know the God of all creation and experience the unfailing love of his son Jesus Christ.
We must preach and pray daily that judgment belongs only to God. May we never forget that each one of us has a unique value in God’s eyes. Know that each one of us is a unique human being created in the image of God. There are no outcasts… second-class citizens, no discounted souls in the scheme of God’s creation. If we are unable to see God in each and every person we encounter on our earthly journey, how then do we think God will recognize us when upon our death we seek entrance into the land of eternal light and joy?
We must also be a prophetic cathedral that preaches peace ….a peace that passes all understanding. And when that peace is threatened by the rhetoric of war we must stand tall and proclaim that war is the ultimate definition of profound human failure. For it was Paul who was clear that one’s loyalty belonged to the teachings of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ first, and then to the State.
As you leave the cathedral this morning I would encourage you to look at the west facade and examine the exquisite, carved stone statue of Paul depicting him on the “road to Damascus.” The artist was Frederick E. Hart and the master carver responsible for its magnificent depiction was Vincent Palumbo. The statue depicts Saint Paul at the moment when he has been captured by the revelation of Christ and his miraculous conversion to Christianity. At that moment he is temporarily blinded, and the statue extends his right hand, as if lost. The left hand, held near his body, releases a sword, which represents the “letting go” of his violent persecution of Christians.
Christ changed Paul’s life forever and he is transformed as a man of violence into a man of peace, compassionate words and who had an extravagant love for Christ. His conversion, calls each of us to evaluate our own journey with Christ and to measure our commitment, to the Lord of Life with Paul’s. We must ask ourselves this great question: how has Christ changed our life and have we had the courage yet to live into the depth of that conversion?
Paul reminds us all of the powerful message of Christianity that has been lost too often in our rush to worship other secular God’s that too often clutter and control our lives. Paul writes in 1st Corinthians 13:1-13… “If I speak in tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, the will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I was an adult, I put an end to foolish ways. For now we see in a minor, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now only in part; then I will know fully; as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
How do we see ourselves as we listen to the words of the Saint and Patron of this great cathedral? And today, as we celebrate the gift of All The Saints, how will each of us begin anew to live into the words and teaching of Paul in a world that has too often been exposed to the silence of the church rather than the power of its great words and admonition for engagement.
All Saint’s Day not only makes a statement, it should ask us questions. May we answer, as did St. Paul… that in all things, Christ is at the center of all that we do, all that we have, all that we are and all that we will ever become. AMEN
The Right Reverend John Bryson Chane Bishop of Washington November 3, 2002