Sunday, November 3, 2013

We are 'All Saints' - a sermon for Sunday November 3rd

If I were to ask you this morning, “Are you a saint?” I expect that most of your would say “Of course not!” This is because you’ve accepted the popular definition of the word ‘saint’ as ‘a particularly good and holy Christian’, a person whose way of life is superior to the ordinary, run of the mill believers like you or me. Saints are monks and nuns who spend their whole lives in prayer and self-denial. We, on the other hand, work our jobs, collect our wages and pay the bills; we fight rush hour traffic to get to work and shuttle kids back and forth to hockey. Of course we’re not saints; we’re only human, after all!

But here’s the shocker: to a New Testament Christian, to say “I’m not a saint” would have been the same as saying “I’m not a Christian”. In the New Testament, you don’t become a saint by being a cut above the rest; rather, you become a saint by putting your faith in Jesus and being baptised. The word ‘saint’ in the Bible describes any member of God’s people. The Old Testament book of Daniel describes God’s people as ‘the saints of the Most High’, and the New Testament letters of Paul are regularly addressed to ‘the saints of God in such and such a town’ - meaning all of them. If you are a Christian, then in New Testament language you are a saint.

This is especially appropriate for us today as we celebrate the baptisms of Ryker, Keegan, Jessica, Autumn, Mackenzie and Austin this morning. Baptism has many meanings in the New Testament, but one of them is surely this: in baptism we become part of God’s people, the family of the Church, the people who follow Jesus. So today we celebrate with those who are being baptized as they become saints; that’s part of what’s going on this morning. So as we celebrate this Feast of All Saints, 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.

Now, you might object to this by saying “Surely all people belong to God”. The Bible supports this idea: Psalm 24, that we read this morning, says
‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
the world and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers” (vv.1-2).
This makes perfect sense to us; God is the one who made everything, and he hasn’t given it away to anyone else, therefore everything belongs to its maker – including human beings like you and me.

But of course, not everyone acknowledges that. Many people in Edmonton today believe that their lives belong to themselves and no one else. No one has the right to tell them what they’re going to do, what career they’re going to follow, what moral choices they’re going to make, how much they’re going to commit themselves to being part of a church community, or even when and how they’re going to die. This goes all the way back to the garden of Eden story in the Old Testament, which tells us that we human beings have declared independence from God and decided to become the gods of our own lives. And because God has bound himself to respecting our free will, he has allowed us to do that.

So what are the saints? The saints are the people who have voluntarily given up the illusion of independence; they have stepped off the throne of their own lives and said to God, “I’m sorry, Lord; I appear to be sitting on your seat”. And then they have willingly acknowledged God as their Creator and the one to whom they belong.

Why would they do this? Well, as John says in one of his letters, “We love, because he first loved us”. Let me unpack this for a minute.

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). Jesus is using an illustration from 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. 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 the ransom price for you so that I can set you free”.

That’s the image Jesus is using here. We humans are slaves of evil, sin and death. But Jesus has paid the ransom price for us - the price of his death on the Cross - and now we belong to him. But to serve him is not degrading and humiliating; on the contrary, ‘his service is perfect freedom’.

So we baptized Christians are saints because Jesus has given himself on the cross to purchase us for his heavenly Father. He loved us so much that he paid the ultimate price for our freedom, and, in a wonderful paradox, it’s as we serve him that we discover how to be really free. All people belong to God, but the saints have willingly acknowledged that: “I am a Christian; I am a person who belongs, not to myself, but to the God who created me and loves me”.

The second thing the word ‘saints’ tells us is 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.

The late Jon Wimber was the founding pastor of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship in California, a church that grew into a worldwide movement. One day after one of their Sunday services a member of the church approached Jon Wimber and told him that he had met a homeless man that week, a man who was in great need. He said, “This man needs a place to stay; he needs food, and support while he gets on his feet and looks for a job. I am really frustrated. I tried telephoning the church office to get some help for him, 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?”

Jon Wimber thought for a moment, and then he said, “It sounds like the Church did!”

This, you see, is what we mean when we say that the saints of God, who belong to God, are to be available for God’s use. God is at work bringing healing to his world, and he’s doing it through the people who have willingly acknowledged that they belong to him – the saints, the people of Jesus, the Christian Church. But as one of our songs says,
“I am the Church, you are the Church,we are the Church together;all who follow Jesus, all around the world –yes, we’re the church together”.
So, as a certain famous politician has said, we’re called to ‘be the change we want to see’. God is at work to change the world, and every one of us is on his team.

So the word ‘saints’ teaches us first, that we belong to God, and second, 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?

Well, we Christians believe that Jesus is the best picture we have of God’s will for us. Jesus is described in the New Testament as ‘the Word of God’; in other words, he’s a visible representation of God’s thoughts and God’s will. So when we read about his way of life and the things he says, we’re reading God’s thoughts on what human life is all about and what it was designed to look like.

But of course there are other biblical passages that help us as well. Listen to these words from Paul’s letter to the Romans:
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 I need to say one more thing about this: remember that this is 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. Saints are works in progress; we have not yet arrived at perfection. We will fall short, and we will have to ask God to forgive us and give us the strength to try again. That’s a normal, daily part of the Christian life.

Some have you have heard me use the phrase ‘Remember whose you are’. It’s a phrase my mum likes to use when she’s saying goodbye to my brother and me. 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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