Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Sermon for All Saints' Day (9.00 service)

We Belong to God

In popular Christian vocabulary the word ‘saint’ is used to mean a particularly good Christian, one whose way of life is superior to the ordinary, run of the mill believers like you or me. Indeed, for us to presume to sainthood might even be seen by some as egotistical; “I’m no saint!” is a popular form of self-derogation. We think of a ‘saint’ as a special kind of Christian – one who is especially holy and important in God’s plan for the world.

But the Bible uses the word ‘saint’ differently; in the New Testament, you become a saint by putting your faith in Jesus and being baptised. The word ‘saint’ in the New Testament doesn’t describe a special kind of Christian - rather, it describes any member of God’s people. The letters of Paul are regularly addressed to ‘the saints of God in such and such a town’ - meaning not the especially holy minority, but all of them. If you are a Christian, then in New Testament language you are a saint. So as we celebrate the Feast of All Saints this morning, I want to explore with you what this language tells us about ourselves.

Firstly, it tells us that we belong to God. There are several words in our English Bibles that all come from the same root word in the original language - words like ‘saint’, ‘holy’, ‘sanctify’ and ‘consecrate’ all translate the same word or root. The underlying meaning of this word is ‘to set something apart from ordinary use so that it belongs completely to God’. God’s people are understood as being set apart from evil and as belonging exclusively to God, under his protection and care and available for him to use for his purposes in the world.

In the New Testament Jesus says of himself that ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). The picture here is the slave market in the ancient world; you have been sold into slavery in order to pay your debts. You are being forced to stand naked and humiliated on the auction block for prospective slave owners to size you up as a potential tool. Then they start to bid on you. Suddenly, to your surprise, you hear a familiar voice. It’s an uncle you haven’t seen in a long time; he starts to compete with the other bidders, until eventually you are sold to him. As he takes you away he says “Now don’t worry - legally you belong to me, but I’ve paid for you so that I can set you free”.

That’s the image Jesus is using here. We humans are enslaved by evil, sin and death. But Jesus has paid the price for us - the price of his death on the Cross - and now we belong to him. However, as the old Prayer Book tells us, to serve him is not degrading and humiliating; rather, ‘his service is perfect freedom’.

And to belong to him is also to belong to the Christian community, the Church. I find it really interesting that in the English New Testament the singular word ‘saint’ appears only once, but the plural form ‘saints’ appears sixty-four times! This business of following Jesus is something we do as a Christian community, where we learn and grow and serve God together.

So the fact that we are called ‘saints’ tells us that we belong to God and to his Church. Secondly, it tells us that we are to be available for God’s use. Think of a soldier who has received his notice of conscription, but has not yet actually been called up to join the Army. When that call up notice is finally sent out, the Army doesn’t expect to find that our young man has committed himself irrevocably to a business venture that will occupy all of his time for the next ten years. He belongs to the Army, and he is expected to be available for the Army’s purposes whenever he is needed.

In the same way, when God purchases a people for himself he expects to be able to use them to accomplish his purposes in the world. What are those purposes? The Bible tells us that God is at work to heal the world, to eradicate evil and to restore creation to its original state of goodness and peace. This is what we pray for every day when we say, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’. We announce this and we demonstrate it by our life together as a community of Christians. We are called to be a tool in God’s hands for the healing of the world.

Some of you have read Philip Yancey’s excellent book Where is God When it Hurts? At one point in the book he says that what that question often means is ‘Where is the Church when it hurts?’ After all, God has decided to work through his Church to announce the good news and to bring his healing into the world. Of course, when I say that God wants to work through ‘the church’, I don’t mean only an institution like St. Margaret’s, or the members of the clergy; I mean ordinary Christians working together for God.

A pastor was approached after church one Sunday by a member of his church who had met somebody in great need. The church member said, “This man needs a place to stay, food, and support while he gets on his feet and looks for a job. I am really frustrated. I tried telephoning the church office, but no one could see me, and they couldn’t help me. I finally ended up having to let him stay with me for the week! Don’t you think the Church should take care of people like this?” The pastor thought for a moment and then said, “It sounds like the Church did!”

So the fact that we are called ‘saints’ teaches us that we belong to God and that we are called to be available for God to use for his purposes. Thirdly, it tells us that we are to live a way of life that is appropriate for people who belong to God.

What kind of life is appropriate for people who have been bought at the price of Christ’s blood and who now belong to God? What is an appropriate way of living for us saints? Listen to these words of scripture:

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9-21).

That’s as good a description of how to live as a follower of Jesus as any I’ve heard.

But we need to remind ourselves that this is going to be a lifelong journey for us; a long process of fighting the evil we find in our hearts and of learning to live the new life of God’s kingdom. We are called ‘saints’, but we are also called ‘disciples’, a word that means ‘apprentices’. We have been apprenticed to Jesus and we are in the process of learning from him how to see life as he sees it and to live life as he taught it. None of us has arrived at that destination yet; we’re all on the journey.

My Mum has a phrase she sometimes uses when she says goodbye to my brother and me. She says ‘Remember whose you are’. She isn’t asking us to remember that we belong to her; rather, she’s asking us to remember that we are saints: people who belong to God. So I say to you this morning: remember whose you are. You belong to God; you are to be available for God to use in his plan to heal the world; you are called to learn the new way of life that is appropriate for God’s saints. That is the call of every one of us here today, given to us in our baptism into Jesus Christ.

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