Friday, November 1, 2013

Who are the saints? (All Saints, Nov 3 2013)

Yr C All Saints and Baptism, Nov 3 2013, St. Albans
Readings:  Dan 7:1-3,15-18; Ps 149; Eph 1:11-23; Lk 6:20-31

Today is the day in the church year when we honour all the saints.  It is one of the great festivals of our liturgical year.  We have special prayers and readings, and we put out our best white linens and we remember the saints.

So, who exactly is it that we’re honouring today.  Who is a saint?  Seems like a simple question but it tends to generate a lot of confusion. To be officially canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church, for example, you don’t need a perfect track record, but you do need to have either led an exemplary life worthy of imitation or to have been martyred for the faith, and there needs to be evidence of two miracles through your intercession after your death.  That sets the bar pretty high doesn’t it!

St. Paul, on the other hand, routinely addresses his letters to all the saints, in Corinth, or in Philippi, or, as in today’s reading, in Ephesus.  Presumably, the people who read his letters were still alive.  And we know from some of the other things that Paul wrote to them that they weren’t all leading exemplary lives.

In our text from Daniel, the saints are referred to as “the holy ones”.  And in Daniel’s apocalyptic vision of the end times, the holy ones are those who stand with God and receive God’s kingdom at the end time, after evil has been defeated.  This is the understanding of saints that we sing about when we sing “When the Saints Go Marching In”.

In our Psalm however, here the saints are referred to as “the faithful”, and the faithful are the people of God, the ones who gather in the assembly to praise God.  No reference to any future end-time, the saints are the ones who gather here and now, just as all of us are doing in church here today. According to the psalmist, all of us who are here praising God today are saints.

In the early church, at first the term saints was indeed used the way that St. Paul uses it in his letter to the Ephesians.  The saints were all the members of the Christian community.  But in the years and centuries that followed, Christian communities were faced with wave after wave of persecution.  Many Christians were martyred for their faith, and there arose a real human need within those communities to honour those who had died.  The church started observing All Saints Day as a way of honouring Christian martyrs.  The saints became those who had died for their faith.

But by the fourth century AD, persecution of Christians had greatly declined, and so the honouring of saints was expanded to include not just those who had died, but also those who had lived exemplary lives.  And you can imagine, as with any change, this was very controversial at the time!  But this notion stuck, and has been preserved in the way that the church names “official” saints today.

So who are the Saints?  Martyrs or models?  The living or those who have died?  All of us or just a select few?

The word ‘saints’ in Greek is “hagioi”, or literally “the holy ones”.  The saints are the ones whom God has made holy, the ones he has chosen and set apart, the ones whom God blesses.

To answer the question “who are the saints?” then is to consider who it is that God chooses, and what it means to be blessed by God. These ideas have deep roots in our scriptures and tradition and especially in the Hebrew Old Testament writings.  They involve what theologians like to call the ‘Theology of Election’ and the ‘Theology of Blessing’.

Simply put, these ideas about God are as follows:

The theology of election is the idea that God takes the initiative to choose or ‘elect’ individuals or groups to be his chosen people.

The theology of blessing is the idea that God will bless those whom he has chosen and will look with favour upon those who obey his commandments and lead good lives.

In the Old Testament, the concrete understanding of the idea of election is that God chose the 12 tribes of Israel, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be his chosen people.  The concrete understanding of the idea of blessing is that God gave his law to his chosen people, and if they keep the law they will be blessed.

There is however a problem here.  It is not that these are necessarily bad or incorrect ideas about God.  God may choose and God may bless. The problem is that in the hands of human beings the theologies of election and blessing can be very dangerous.

Because it is very easy and convenient for us to come to the conclusion that God chooses only a select group to be his people, and if that group is chosen then the rest are unchosen, inferior in some way.  If, as was the case in Israel, that selection is understood to be on the basis of race and tribe, then the foreigner, the Gentile, the person who is of a different race becomes inferior, hated, the enemy.  And if we think that this sort of exclusionary behaviour is ancient history and no longer happens today, then we are certainly fooling ourselves.

And in human hands the theology of blessing also becomes a dangerous tool, because we are quick to turn it on its head and use it as a means of judgement.  The idea that God blesses his people is quickly turned into a diagnostic tool for figuring out who is in and who is out, who is a good person and who is a sinner.  Are you ‘blessed’ with wealth, or health or children or any other of the good things of life?  Then you must be a good person.  Are you afflicted with poverty or disease?  Then you must be a sinner.  And once more, if we think that this sort of judgmental, self-justifying behaviour was limited to the Israel of the Old Testament, we are certainly fooling ourselves.

Ideas of blessing and election are often turned into tools of self-justification and exclusion.  They become the underlying assumptions that enable us to treat the one we regard as the other differently from the way we would treat someone who is, well, like us.

This is the situation which Jesus encountered in today’s gospel.  The culture he lived in drew sharp distinctions between Jew and Gentile, between the clean and the sinners.  The social practices were judgmental and exclusionary, and they were supported by the prevailing religious understandings of the theologies of election and blessing. 

In today’s gospel there is a great crowd that has come to Jesus, a great multitude from all Judea and Jerusalem, the Jewish lands, and from the coast of Tyre and Sidon, the Gentile lands.  They were gathered in the countryside of Galilee, that part of Israel that was looked upon with disdain by the Jewish authorities because it was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles.  Those who came to hear Jesus and to be healed by him came from all walks of life, and included the poor, the sick and those who had unclean spirits, people who were labeled as sinners because of their infirmities and endured various degrees of exclusion from the community.

And Luke tells us that Jesus stood with the crowds on a level place, a place where where everyone was on the same level.  And he looks at all these people, and his message to them is clear:

“Your whole life people have been telling you that you are cursed.  But I am telling you that you are blessed by God.”

You who are poor, you who are hungry, you who weep, you who are excluded:  you are blessed by God.

And if anyone tells you otherwise, if anyone tells you that it is only the rich, the well-fed, and the well-regarded who are blessed by God, if anyone tries to exclude you, or denigrate you or make you feel that you are not one of God’s people, then woe to them.

If you have contempt for those you exclude or hatred for those who exclude you, if you persist in dividing people into friends and enemies, then I tell you, Love your enemy.

If you think that they way we treat people should be based on whether they are Jews or foreigners, members of our group or outsiders, good people or bad people, if you think that you are allowed to act differently towards these people that we consider “others”, then I tell you “do unto others as you would have them do to you.”

Today’s gospel is the most revolutionary teaching that the world has ever known, for it calls into question all the assumptions, all the biases that underlie the way we organize ourselves socially and the way we behave in our cultural and economic structures.  The biases of our time and place, the structures of our time and place, are not the same as those that Jesus faced 2000 years ago, but his call to us is the same.  It is a call to overthrow self-justifying and exclusionary practices wherever we find them in our world. 

Who are the saints?  We are all, all of us, every human being, called to be a saint.  In a few minutes Sean will be baptized, and his call to sainthood will be made visible for us in the symbols and sacrament of baptism.  Sean has been chosen by God to be his beloved son, his holy one, chosen and blessed.  Baptism is a calling.  But baptism is not just a call but it is also a response.  It is God’s initiative, but like any relationship, it cannot remain a one way street.  Some sort of mutuality is called for.

The difficult question is not “Who is a saint?”  We are all called to be saints, every one of us.  The difficult question, which is the question addressed to each of us, the question that was addressed to each one of us in our baptism, is “How will you respond?”


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