onight we celebrate the Feast of All Saints, and in the course of this liturgy we are going to mark two little boys—Elliott and Declan—as numbered amongst God’s saints. Now, my saying that might strike you as a bit odd or incongruous; after all, isn’t sainthood something that is earned? Even if you’ve heard me preach on All Saints before, and so are prepared to acknowledge that this feast day isn’t limited to those who have been recognized as the big league stained glass sort of saints but instead includes all those who have gone before us in the faith of Christ, how can I be talking about little babies being marked as saints? They haven’t really done anything yet; certainly not anything heroic, saintly or sacrificial. Like all babies, mostly what they have done is to be self-centered sponges for care, feeding, attention, and diaper changes. You might be prepared to grant me that those who have lived a life of faith in Christ can be called “saints,” but surely not babies?
Besides, given the two readings we just heard proclaimed, do we really want to rush these infants into this stuff? In his upside-down set of pronouncements commonly called the Beatitudes, whom does Jesus name as blessed? Sure, we get the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; those all seem fair things to wish for our children. But we also get the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who are persecuted, reviled, and who have evil spoken against them, precisely on account of their being followers of Jesus. Do we really want to wish this on them? Even if we take into account Stanley Hauerwas’s insight that Jesus is not offering “a list of requirements,” but “rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus,” is this something we should be deciding on behalf of a baby?” In the view of Hauerwas, “Jesus does not suggest that everyone who follows him will possess all the Beatitudes, but we can be sure that some will be poor, some will mourn, and some will be meek.” Hopefully not these two little boys?
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Add to this the rather wild language of tonight’s reading from the Revelation to John the Divine, in which we are offered this image of these people, “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” “The great ordeal” meaning that they have been martyred simply on account of being followers of Jesus, and now in death they are said to be standing “before the throne of God,” in a state beyond hunger, thirst or other physical need or peril. “[F]or the Lamb at the centre of the throne,” John writes—and the Lamb is Jesus, by the way, in case we’re missing his imagery—“The Lamb… will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Much as we’d like to think that our children will be guided, sheltered and cared for by this shepherd, it would seem that at least for the persecuted church of John’s time, the way to the shepherd was through death.
Besides, John was writing in a time when they persecuted you and killed you for being a follower of Jesus. Those martyrs—as is the case in own day in places like the Sudan or Burma—we imagine can be fairly counted as saints, but what has that to do with us, in this time and place? And regardless, why would we want to associate any of this with the lives of our own children? We want to protect them and keep them safe, don’t we?
Maybe. Or is it more that we want to locate their lives rightly? That we want to speak a word of truth over their lives, namely that to follow Jesus on the way will be a gracious gift, but also one that will almost surely come with a cost?
To baptize babies is to locate them—or at least to state our intention to keep trying to locate them—on the resurrection side of death. It is why we use exactly the same promises for an infant as we do at an adult baptism. It is strong, strong language, which calls for a three-fold renunciation of evil and a three-fold embrace of life in Christ. Listen to the words that will be spoken between the parents and me in just a few minutes:
Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
I renounce them.
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I renounce them.
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
I renounce them.
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Saviour?
Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Do you promise to obey him as your Lord?
That’s crazy, right? Any wonder that some parents in this community, and particularly those whose own formation was in the Anabaptist tradition (and whose own forebears died on account of their advocating baptism on confession of faith), choose to hold off on baptizing their children? It is a perspective I respect, which is why we always have prayers and blessings when a new baby arrives, regardless of whether or not he or she will then be baptized.
But then again, maybe these words are not entirely crazy, or at least not if we take seriously the human condition. You can look at Elliott and at Declan and say to yourself what “sinful desires” have ever drawn these little boys “from the love of God?” What could they possibly know about the “evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy”? They’re innocent of all that, aren’t they?
No. And none of us is, because we are all of us a part of humanity. I know that the idea of “original sin” has fallen out of fashion, or it has in at least some theological quarters. Matthew Fox, for instance, has made something of a publishing career trying to advocate for what he calls “original blessing.” And yes, in some respects we are all of us originally blessed; made in the image of God, and beloved of God from before we were even born. But listen to these words from the British literary critic Terry Eagleton, a Marxist writer who has been known to describe himself as a rather bad catholic. “Original sin,” Eagleton writes in his 2010 book On Evil, “is not about being born either saintly or wicked.”
It is about the fact of being born in the first place. Birth is the moment when, without anyone having had the decency to consult us on the matter, we enter into a preexistent web of needs, interests, and desires—an inextricable tangle to which the mere brute fact of our existence will contribute, and which will shape our identity to the core. This is why babies in most Christian churches are baptized at birth, long before they know about sin or indeed about anything else. They have already drastically reordered the universe without being aware of it.
“The past is what we are made of,” he continues. In short, we are all complicit.
And so in just a few minutes we will stand at the font, and say to Elliott and Declan, that they are part of us, which means both complicit in our brokenness and claimed as saints of God, in spite of it all. That is, of course, how the word “saint”—hagios or “holy one” is used by Paul in his epistles. He writes of the “saints” in this church and the “saints” in that one, and by this means the Christians, the people, the day-to-day folks who gather to bear each other up in life and faith and struggles and doubt. And while we’re likely to keep seeing Elliott and his mom and dad around here for the foreseeable future, Declan and his parents will very soon be moving to Alberta; to another place, another community, another gathering of the saints. Tonight we’ll stand with the both of them, but next week or next month it will be up to another community to make room for Declan. But there will always be room for him, because like Elliot and you and me, he is a saint. All evidence to the contrary, we all are.