Rev. Don Beyers
You can download the PDF of the following sermon for printing and reading.
Over the past week I’ve had the pleasure of reading of N.T. Wright’s recently published biography of St. Paul. Wright, for those of you who do not know, is a retired Church of England bishop and world-renown biblical scholar. His writings are thoroughly engaging and thought provoking. I frequently find his books challenge me to think more deeply about scripture and to be careful not to apply 21st century ideas onto the ancient biblical texts.
Such was the case again this week while reading Wright’s acclaimed biography of Paul. Describing the theological understandings of Paul’s day, Wright makes reference to what the Jewish people thought of heaven. I read with interest Wright’s observance that the Jews of Jesus’ day didn’t think of heaven and earth as literal places, one above and one below. Rather, he reminds us, the ancient Jewish people understood the two to be different realms of one reality. The Jewish people, Wright suggests, were much more comfortable with a metaphorical understanding of heaven than many of us today.
While we may consider ourselves as moderns, I find it rather common for people to think of Heaven as a distinct place, far-removed from our reality. I occasionally even hear people speak of heaven as if it were literally above or some place that we go to after we die. Even worse, most people think of heaven as some sort of an all-inclusive resort where we will enjoy all the pleasures of life. Our modern imagination of heaven is far from that of our Jewish and early Christian siblings.
Wright’s reflection on the ancient understanding of heaven and earth got me thinking about our celebration of the feast of All Saints and our conception of what makes one a saint. Like heaven, many people today think of saints as persons far removed from us, women and men who lived lives of such extraordinary holiness that none of us could ever attain in this life. Like heaven, we’ve cultivated a certain mythos of the saints and have forgotten the original meaning of the word saint. Even worse, I fear we’ve divorced ourselves from the early church and fail to appreciate the theology that undergirds the whole notion of the “communion of saints.” I figured it might be worth dedicating some time today to the concept of sainthood.
To help us understand what makes one a saint, I think we need to remind ourselves of the original meaning of the word holy. While we may think of holiness as excelling in the virtuous life and living in perfect harmony with God, the early Christians had a slightly different understanding of the word. Deriving from the Greek word hagios, the word holy was used to refer to anything set apart for a particular purpose. It didn’t indicate, at least in the Jewish-Christian thinking of Paul’s day, the goodness of someone or something. Rather, our ancient Jewish sisters and brothers thought of all creation as good for God has made everything good. Instead, to suggest something was holy, was to say it was dedicated for a particular task or purpose.
The Greek word for holy was translated into Latin as sanctus. With time and the further development of language, the Latin word for holy developed into Old English as sanct and saint in Old French. Middle English further transformed the word into the version we have today: saint. At its very root, the word saint is simply a translation of the ancient Latin and Greek words for things set apart. In other words, saints are persons set apart for a particular mission and task. To suggest one is a saint simply indicates one is set apart from others for a purpose. One wasn’t necessarily called a saint because of how good they lived, although that is important.
The writings of Saint Paul indicate that this is precisely how he and the early Christians understood sainthood. Paul frequently calls his fellow Christians as the “holy ones of God” or the ones “who are called to be saints.” (Romans 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2, etc…) Like his fellow saints, he is “set apart for the gospel of God.” (Romans 1:1) For Paul and others, we Christians are clearly entrusted with a vocation, a ministry to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to all. And we witness the Gospel not just with words, but also by the way we live our lives.
Yet to know what we are set apart for, we must know the gospel we proclaim. The gospel is the Good News of Jesus, not just simply of his life, death, and resurrection, but also of the message he proclaimed. Jesus announced the purpose of his ministry early on as we hear in the Gospel of Luke:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4:18-19)
Baptised into Christ’s very body, you and I share in Jesus’ ministry. By virtue of our baptism we are set apart, made saints for the gospel he proclaimed. Therefore, we must live in such a way that reflects the gospel, that embodies the very message of Jesus, as Paul writes in Romans:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2)
While this may sound all good and wonderful, Jesus makes clear this will not be easy as we hear in one of his most memorable sermons given, the Beatitudes:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Mt. 5:2-12)
Proclaiming the good news will not be easy work. To stand on the side of the poor, the suffering, the weak, and the marginalised will ultimately mean that we will stand in opposition to the ways of the world. In a world that prizes power, wealth, and status, God’s favour is found among the powerless and the poor who yearn for God’s kingdom and ultimate intervention. We will share in God’s blessing if we are one with God’s beloved suffering.
Ultimately, if we embrace and embody Jesus’ call to proclaim good news to the poor and suffering of this world, we will be set apart from the world. We will be saints.
While we may think we live in a time radically different from Jesus’ day, I suggest we live in a day and age shockingly similar to his day. While there may be no more Rome, there are empires driven to conquer the world. The imperialism today is driven by the same hunger and thirst for power, wealth, and status that once marginalised people during Jesus day, perhaps even on a grander scale. If there be any doubt about this, we only need to look at the complete disregard and sacrifice of countless lives to the Covid-19 pandemic in order to uphold the global economy. Rather than think anew and work for the common good, the corporate and political elite of the world have left the rest of us to die on the altar of capitalism all the while deceiving us into thinking it is for our own good. We just need to look south of the border to see this in action.
The world needs saints more than ever before. The world needs you and I to step away from the ways of the world and to live a life that is dedicated to uplifting God’s beloved poor and wounded. The world needs us to have the same bravery that drove saints to stand-up against nationalism and genocide (Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Father Maximilian Kolbe), hunger, homelessness, and poverty (Mother Theresa), and political oppression (Archbishop Oscar Romero). The world needs us to share in Jesus’ ministry to proclaim the good news to those in need of grace and healing. Amen.