Showing up in the arena 

Feast of All Saints

Revelation 7.9-17

Psalm 34.1-10,22

1 John 1.1-3

Matthew 5.1-12

Sunday 5th of November 2023

                                    ©Suzanne Grimmett

Sometimes our most beloved stories tell us what it really means to be human.  The Harry Potter novels depict a world of magic where the deepest magic of all is found in the power of love. In the sixth book of the hugely popular series by J.K Rowling, Professor Dumbledore, the principal of Hogwarts School and mentor to young Harry, seeks to prepare him for the challenges he will face against evil in this conversation;

[Dumbledore commented,] “It will take uncommon skill and power to kill a wizard like Voldemort. . . .”

“But I haven’t got uncommon skill and power,” said Harry, before he could stop himself.

“Yes, you have,” said Dumbledore firmly. “You have a power that Voldemort has never had. You can —”

“I know!” said Harry impatiently. “I can love!” It was only with difficulty that he stopped himself adding, “Big deal!”

“Yes, Harry, you can love,” said Dumbledore, who looked as though he knew perfectly well what Harry had just refrained from saying. ..

“So, when the prophecy says that I’ll have ‘power the Dark Lord knows not,’ it just means — love?” asked Harry, feeling a little let down.

“Yes — just love,” said Dumbledore….”Harry, despite your privileged insight into Voldemort’s world . . . , you have never been seduced by the Dark Arts, never, even for a second, shown the slightest desire to become one of Voldemort’s followers!”

“Of course I haven’t!” said Harry indignantly. “He killed my mum and dad!”

“You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!” said Dumbledore loudly. “The only protection that can possibly work against the lure of power like Voldemort’s! In spite of all the temptation you have endured, all the suffering, you remain pure of heart. . . .”

But [Harry] understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him… It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew — and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents — that there was all the difference in the world.[1]

This particular section of the Harry Potter saga has relevance for this Feast of All Saints as Harry soon discovers that in order to save his family and friends, to allow the chance for Voldemort to be defeated, he must let Voldemort kill him. He must give up his life for the sake of the others.[2]

The resonance with the Christian story of the crucified and risen one is clear. This kind of apocalyptic dreaming shows up again and again in our fiction as stories which remind us that love is the greatest power of all and how we are to live that truth. How to be fully human is surely the lesson we should take from the witness of all the saints of ages past. It can be easy to be satisfied with a far lesser form of goodness than the vision that is painted for us in the Beatitudes. Discipleship has been watered down to something easily claimed by church attendance or being overall a nice person, and we may set aside a portion of our time and resources for God, but generally still be unchanged. This is religion on our own terms of convenience, or what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have called ‘cheap grace”. We have also been seduced by comfortable theologies that are content to align the idea of God’s blessing with those who are already gifted with wealth, power and influence. Contemporary Christian Nationalism presents a picture of all current structures and people of power as conveniently instituted by God and therefore blessed– a picture at odds with the upside-down vision of the kingdom taught and lived by Jesus the Christ.

Jesus does not give us a list of rules to live by. Instead he tells us “blessed” you will be if you inhabit the world according to God’s vision instead of human systems ruled by empire and greed. Or to use another possible translation, “happy” you will be if you can surrender yourself to worship and love of God and neighbour- a way which precludes the worship of money, power, success or any of the other small gods for which we seemingly sacrifice the majority of our lives. I like James Alison’s use of a different word, “radiant” in place of blessed. It is a paraphrase, but it seems on this Feast of All Saints’ to help us identify those people who have shone with the radiance of lives lived out in alignment with the alternative economy of God’s kingdom – a kingdom which pays no tribute to empire and surrenders all to love. Alison for example, translates “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” as “Radiant are those who have opted for poverty because they are making God their king.” Challenging indeed, but if we have missed the challenge of the Beatitudes, then we have indeed missed the point.[3]

Showing up in the arena is always going to need courage and perseverance. By ‘showing up in the arena’ I mean the everyday commitment to the demanding way of love and to prayer that is not content with just talk of mystical union with God. This is the kind of prayer that is a lived-out communion with others, sharing in their sufferings and seeing the world from the perspective of the poor and the marginalised. Jesus sees the reality of suffering and speaks out against those who burden or oppress the ‘little ones’ whose hearts he sees and knows. But Jesus also in these few powerful lines proclaims the shining radiance of those who are not imprisoned by their worship of the usual idols of empire but behold God daily through the free-flowing exchange of mercy…whose pure hearts know their dependence on God alone…and who trust in the ultimate power that is love.

When Matthew’s Beatitudes are read out at funerals or weddings most people feel a bit squeamish about the last verses which talk about the blessing of persecution, and so choose to stop at “Blessed are the peacemakers”. But here is the difficult truth. Wherever the radiance of one living a righteous life is witnessed, flowing from the communion of love of God and love of neighbour, existing social systems of domination will be threatened. Persecution can take many forms. I do not believe we are persecuted simply for being Christian in this country, although there are other parts of the world where a publicly lived Christian faith presents a threat to life and well-being.  There are other ways in our country that wherever injustice is protested or the voices of the poor and the marginalised are amplified, hostile responses follow swiftly. When we show up in the arena, prepared to embrace the road of costly grace, allowing our desires to be transformed by the suffering of others, there will be great challenge. The radiant goodness of the saints will always be opposed by those invested in maintaining their own power and control, and evil will always resist the coming kingdom of God.

We are generally wary of talking about evil or persecution, and shy of naming the systems of our society that oppress and deface the humanity of some while retaining power and wealth and control in the hands of the few. But we continue to tell stories of the struggle with evil, inventing fantasy worlds where the real courage needed to live authentic lives of love can be revealed. When Harry Potter finally enters the arena where he will place all his trust in the power of love, he does not go alone. Through the enchantment of the philosopher’s stone, his parents and those who had loved Harry in their life, appear as a kind of spiritual presence to strengthen him as he faces the evil of Voldemort. This resurrection power confirmed the unbroken connection of love to all those who had gone before him and gave him the strength to surrender even his very life.

We remember the radiance of those who have lived lives surrendered to the love of God and love of one another. This is what all Saints Day is all about- we recall the shining examples of those who have shaped the world by their goodness and their authentic walking in Jesus’ way. I wonder what glimpses of radiance you have seen in the lives of others you have known, or whose example down the ages inspires and strengthens you by their witness? Maya Angelou, famously said, “I come as one. I stand as ten thousand.” Wherever there is a breakthrough for peace, or justice or a lifting of the yoke of oppression, there is a line of saints whose radical and persistent alignment with the will of God made such a breakthrough possible.

So for all those saints who have shown up in the arena, walked through the refiner’s fire of their lives and been committed with the singleness of heart that enabled them to see God, we give thanks. For those saints who have faced persecution and suffering while refusing to worship at the altar of the idols of their age, we give thanks. For those saints who by their witness we have come to know the good news of Jesus the Christ and the grace that sets us free to serve one another, we give thanks. May we know the strengthening of their radiant spirits as we walk into the arena of our own lives with our heads held high, our intention, peace, and our hearts full of love.


[1] J.K Rowling , Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, pp. 509, 510-11, 512

[2] Paul J. Nuechterlein All Saints A Sermon (2020)

[3] James Alison “Homily for Solemnity of All Saints”