Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 3 November 2013: Year C, All Saints’ Sunday
How to be a saint
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Would you like to be a saint? In the our Reformed tradition within Christianity, there is no process to make ‘special’ saints. The Roman Catholic Church, of course, has a legalistic process to create saints. You need to have been a Christian of particularly heroic virtue and holiness. Once you die, and it can be shown that people praying to you for help were able to achieve miracles, then you may well be elevated to ‘sainthood’- the process called ‘canonisation’. These heroic saints are often remembered, for example, by having special days or being patrons of churches (a practice still followed in the Church of Scotland, as at St Stephen’s). Reformed Christians should learn from other traditions, and find ways of celebrating our especially heroic saints.
Bu here’s a thing. When Paul writes to the Ephesians, he speaks of how he has heard of their ‘love towards all the saints’. And he speaks of Christ’s ‘glorious inheritance among the saints’. Who does he mean when he speaks of ‘the saints’. In the very first sentence of the letter, in his greeting, he addresses the letter ‘To the saints who are in Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus’. And in almost every other letter he writes, Paul greets the people he is writing to in each of the churches- in Rome, Corinth, Philippi- Paul calls the folks he is writing to ‘saints’, to says (to the Corinthians) that they care ‘called to be saints’. Paul does not reserve the name of saints to dead heroes. He calls the ordinary Christians of these cities saints. And he does so even as he writes to churches which, we discover when we read the letters, are arguing with one another, sometimes have immorality among them, and generally showing all kinds of behaviour which we don’t really associate with stained-glass window saints.
It’s clear to me that we are all, in the church, sinners. We fall far short of perfection. Yet to the Corinthians (as a disagreeable a group of people who ever inhabited any church!) Paul says they are ‘called to be saints’. We may be sinners, but we are destined to be saints. So in our Ephesians passage, Paul speaks of Christians being ‘destined according to the purpose of [God]… so that we will live for the praise of God’s glory’ (v.11). If we are loved by God, if we belong to God in Jesus Christ, we are already saints! Or at least, on the way to becoming saints.
I suspect many of us leave this place week by week, hoping that perhaps we will perhaps become somewhat better people as a result. But we will be back again next week, and feel that we need to pray that prayer we always have near the beginning, when we confess our sins and seek God’s forgiveness anew. Surely saints don’t sin, don’t make mistakes? And some of those mistakes were not my fault. It’s not just a case of ‘a wee boy did it and ran away’. We feel pressurised into doing wrong.
Earlier this week I heard a radio discussion about the new press regulations. An official of the National Union of Journalists said that his union had (I think, reluctantly) come to the conclusion that they did want a legal basis for press standards. Of course there have already been voluntary schemes of ethics and standards which journalists were supposed to adhere to. However the unions official claimed that in many newsrooms, proprietors had created a culture of high pressure, even bullying, so that journalists felt they had to things which went against their code of conduct- or even the law of the land. And so phones were bugged, and all the unethical practices which we have heard about recently. Even although they knew it was wrong, others were doing, the bosses were encouraging it, and so people felt they had to do it as well.
It is called peer pressure. It starts at school, goes on in the workplace, and in many other walks of life. If part of being a saint is that you try always to do the right thing- well, that is hard. For it is not just individuals who are sinful. We live in a world which is sinful. The values which dominate, the institutions with power, many of those who lead us and who ought to give an example- all are prone to do wrong, and will give us good reasons why it is OK to do so. As the hymn puts it, ‘by wars and tumults Love is mocked, derided; his conquering cross no nation wills to bear’ (Father eternal, ruler of creation, CH4 261). If nations will not bear the cross, how can we do it? How can we be saints in a fallen world?
Saints are holy people. Holiness consists in both remaining spiritually close to God, but also living how God wants us to live. Both of these things are hard. Today we read Jesus telling the people what it would mean to live holy lives. But he does not want us to be stained-glass saints, for we do not live in a stained glass world. Because this is not a stained glass world, there are people who live in poverty. Because this is not a stained glass world, the are men, women and children who go hungry. Because this is not a stained glass world, people weep from grief, shame, worry, misery. Yet interestingly, the people we most often think of as saints are those who went and did something for the poor, the hungry, the desperately sad. Francis of Assisi renounced his wealth, embraced poverty, and taught and served the poor. Mother Theresa went into the slums of Calcutta. George MacLeod preached on the streets to the unemployed of Govan. Saints may end up in stained glass, but they cannot be made of stained glass, for they usually live in the midst of the world and all its problems and difficulties.
And to them- and any of us who try to emulate them, Jesus says:
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
So of course it is hard trying to be a saint. And we will be reviled and hated and excluded for trying to do the right and being faithful to Christ and his ways. And yet we will be rewarded for it.
And then Luke goes on to relate what Jesus had to say about how his disciples are to live. Here we are close to the heart of Christian ethical teaching:
I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Sometimes these seem almost like ethics for a stained-glass world. We will be hated and reviled, says Jesus. Yet we are to love those who hate us. We are to seek the best for those who want the worst for us. We are to offer non-violence in the face of violence. How do we do this?
There are always two aspects to ethics- the personal, and the social. And it seems to be clear that when it comes to our personal ethics- how we live our daily lives- are almost always to live by the rule of non-violence. There are almost no circumstances in which a Christian, in their personal life, may resort to violence. So- no road-rage when you’re driving your car. No hitting your children, or your wife, or you aged and annoying parent. If drinking alcohol makes you feel violent, try to stop drinking alcohol. Even your words and language should not seem violent. ‘Let your speech always be gracious’ says Paul to the Colossians. And is someone has broken into your house and is off with your TV, let them go, for hurting another person for the sake of some property is not worth it.
But what about non-violence as a social ethic? We Christians have, it seems to me, a clear calling to ensure that violence is not part of our society. I mentioned alcohol earlier, which is a factor in most crimes committed in Scotland. Why wouldn’t be encouraging our politicians to do what is possible to change our culture of alcohol and violence. Can non-violence be part of foreign policy? Absolutely- for we make far more friends in the world by being generous to others than we do if make war against them. Doing to others as we would wish done to us will always make us friends. Treating people as enemies will create even more enemies.
Once again this week we heard about a drone attack against the Taliban in Pakistan. Pakistan is a nation which has suffered far more than most in the so-called war on terror. And as the violence goes on- as people in churches and mosques and marketplaces and at weddings are killed and maimed- it seems to become even more terrible. There is, I can see, something almost appealing to the military or even to our political leaders about this very new drone technology. Using a small, pilotless plane, you can carry the war deep into enemy territory and hit targets with a degree of precision (in theory, at least). It looks to me as if the age of the bomber or the fighter pilot might soon come to an end. Where once a pilot had to risk his life flying over hostile territory, today he can carry out his mission from an anonymous bunker on the edge of an airfield, a continent away. There is no worry about your pilots been shot down, captured or killed.
But as with all technologies, it will get cheaper. The technology will fall into the ‘wrong’ hands. There has been very little debate out whether it is right to strike Afghan villages with drones. But what will happen if- perish the thought- a British city in future is attacked by a drone? We may begin to regret having ever developed this terrible new weapon.
And so it is only right that part of our Christian discipleship should be praying for and working for an end to all violence. Violence on our streets on a weekend night, violence in the privacy of a home, the abuse of children, the elderly or other vulnerable, the violence of war or terrorism- all these things happen in our world, our non-stained glass world. The saints of God are those who live and pray and work for a world- which will come- for it has been promised- when violence and poverty and hunger and weeping and persecution are no more. We may be all sinners in an imperfect world. But we are destined to be saints. And the proof of that is our lives, dedicated to God and to loving our neighbours, even as we would wish to be loved.
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
References from the News Revised Standard Version of the Bible
© 2013 Peter W Nimmo