St Mary’s Lewisham

November 4th 2007

Learning from Hymns 5

For all the saints who from their labours rest


Many people suppose that hymns are nothing more than the things we sing together in Church. Of course they are that – but they are a great deal more beside. For the English language has the finest collection of hymns in the world, especially if you include those originally written in another language – Latin and Greek for example. But viewing hymns as merely ‘what we sing in church’ is to miss their most valuable feature. For as a way of teaching, learning and, above all remembering what our Faith is all about they are second to none.

So let us take the hymn ‘For all the saints’ written by Bishop William How when he was still a country vicar in Whittington in Cheshire and see what it has to teach us.

First, a word about the author. William Walsham How was born in Shrewsbury in 1823, the son of a solicitor. A lifelong Christian he distinguished himself as a parish priest and in 1879 was appointed a suffragan bishop in London to oversee the parishes in the East End with all the misery and deprivation that existed there at the time. In 1888 he became the first Bishop of Wakefield living and working with the mill and factory workers in West Yorkshire until he died in 1897. So now let’s look at his most famous hymn.

For all the saints who from their labours rest/Who Thee by faith before the world confessed/Thy name of Jesu be for ever blest. Alleluia!

This verse poses the question ‘What is a saint’; and it provides the answer ‘A saint is anyone who professes their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and God to the world in which they live’. So we can forget the notion that saints only existed in the past. The fact is that in every nation, in every generation, there have been those who professed that faith – today no less than hundreds of years ago. As we shall see presently, you and I are all ‘called to be saints’ and how we achieve this will depend on our having the right idea of what ‘saintliness’ consists of.

Let’s take verses two and three together to look for the answer:

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might/Thou Lord their Captain in the well-fought fight/Thou in the darkness drear their one true Light.

O may thy soldiers faithful true and bold/Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old/And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.

The picture here is unmistakably St Paul’s one of the Christian as a soldier of Christ – and many of our best-known hymns bear this out – Onward, Christian Soldiers! and Soldiers of Christ arise! to name only two. This means that Christians are to expect two things in this life: it’s going to be a struggle; and it’s going to require discipline.

Being a saint is a struggle because in a fallen world we are surrounded by evil forces who are always trying to pull us down to their own debased level. Why is there so much crime today? Because criminals like nothing better than persuading others to become criminals themselves by joining their gang, or turning a blind eye to their evil-doing.

It requires discipline because successfully fighting against evil requires a concerted effort by everyone involved, and not just the odd persons making a lone stand. Like any corporate activity, whether it’s playing in an orchestra, running a business, or winning a war, requires everyone to learn to work together, and obey the orders of those whose responsibility it is for issuing them, so it is with our fight against the world, the flesh and the Devil.

Now, that’s precisely where the saints come into it. Listen to verses four and five:

O many thy soldiers, faithful true and bold/Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old/And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.

O blest communion, fellowship divine/We feebly struggle, they in glory shine/Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.

In other words, we’re not fighting this war on our own. The saints in heaven are fighting alongside us, as indeed are the holy angels. How they are influencing the course of the war is something we don’t exactly know – any more than the soldiers in the front-line trenches know exactly what’s going on ‘behind the scenes’ at Headquarters. But of this we can be sure: that when the forces of good triumph over the forces of evil (which experience suggest that they always do in the end) the credit for this doesn’t principally belong to us on earth but to the saints who are in heaven fighting alongside us but ‘beyond the veil’; and behind them, of course, lies the wisdom and power of the Almighty God whom we worship, who is the Commander in Chief of the Church both in Heaven and on earth.

The Communion of Saints which we mention every time we say the Creed is a reality. It’s the regiment to which you and I joined up at our baptism. The words used on that occasion spoke of us as ‘Christ’s faithful soldiers and servants to our lives’ end’. However unsuccessfully we struggle we are ‘one with them in Christ’. If you ask ‘but what have we done to deserve this privilege?’ the answer is ‘Precisely nothing!’ By His grace, God has ‘knit together us and His saints in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of Christ our Lord’ – the Church.

How do we know that God (and we) will win this war? Well, that’s something that we in the front-line have to take on trust because we believe that God is the All-sovereign Lord of Creation. He couldn’t possibly be that if the forces of Darkness were eventually to triumph over the armies of Light. But in our prayer and bible-study, and specially when we meet together at His Table Sunday by Sunday we are connecting to God’s secret radio-station. If we listen carefully to what He is telling us we shall find that His message is ‘Hold the fort; I am coming!’, which Jesus signals still. And if we go on listening throughout our daily lives we shall discover that the hand of God has been unmistakably and ceaselessly at work undermining the powers of Evil. As the hymn puts it:

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long/Steals on the ear the distant triumph song/And hearts are brave again and arms are strong.

The hymn then turns to look at the future in the next verse:

But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day/The saints triumphant rise in bright array/The King of Glory passes on His way

That, of course is looking ahead to the Last Battle in which the forces of Evil are finally destroyed. The time for that hasn’t come yet. We must be patient. Progress sometimes will feel painfully slow. But our future is assured by Him ‘whose Word cannot be broken’. And in that last day we, together with all the saints, some of whom we have known, some of whom are sitting here this morning, but the great majority of whom we have never met, will all come together in one great act of worship in the new, heavenly Jerusalem in whose governance we, being delivered from all our sins, will be given a part to play.

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast/through gates of pearl streams in the countless host/Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost/’Alleluia!’


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