The Hands and Feet of Jesus (Genesis 12:1-3; Revelation 7:9-17; Matthew 5:1-12)
Last Wednesday was All Saints Day and today is All Saints Sunday. In the Bible (either Testament) being a saint is being “holy.” To be holy means “set apart to God’s values and service in the real world. These last words are crucial. God’s “saints” are in touch with the realities of life in the real world. The Bible is clear that God made the world (now “how,” but “that”), and, according to John 3:16, God loves the world. God puts saints in the world to be a blessing for the world as an active demonstration of that love. The idea of a single individual as a saint developed later than the New Testament, where the word is all but one time in the plural. We need other disciples of Jesus to be saints in the biblical sense. Saints are Christians, disciples of Jesus, etc. Today we think about saints.
I have commented over recent years, and more so in the last year or two, how disappointed I am that we, as Americans, have become more and more mean-spirited in our public and even our private utterances and thoughts of one another. This shows up at the so-called highest levels of our society, in politics, business, entertainment, etc., all the way down to what each of us writes or says. We are quick to speak ill of each other no matter whom it seems. We have become constant, unrelenting, in our desire to place blame, to find an enemy, to be personal and even intimate in our criticisms. Social media are rife with comments for which our mothers (or mine at least) would have washed out our mouths with soap. We think we can say anything we like because it’s all anonymous. Of course, people respond in kind. And our mothers (or mine) would have said two wrongs don’t make a right. We discover that our most carefully guarded social processes (for example, our elections) have been affected by messages from without and within that set us at one another – purposely so. We can blame those “others” for leading us astray, but we are easily led. And our mothers (or mine) would have said as we point the finger at others, look at all the others pointing back at us. What can ordinary “saints” do about any of this? What does it mean to be saints now” Someone has to intervene. Why not saints?
The Old Testament Lesson tells of a man named Abram. God called him (and his family) to leave where they had been useful, at home, and comfortable, and to go…somewhere…God said, “that I will show you.” No specific word about journey’s end here, just that God will show Abram and Sarai that place. God will bless Abram and Sarai, to be sure, by making them a great people, but their greatness will be measured in how the people descended from them perform as agents of God’s blessing for “every family of the earth.” Here we find an early reference in the Bible to our ancestor in the body of saints. God calls saints out of their comfort zones to be the agents of blessing for every family of the earth. Have we who think of ourselves as heirs of Abram and Sarai’s call and promise always acted as if blessing is our job? And, have we always bothered to find out what those “others” conceive of as blessing before we go charging into their lives to “bless them”? An alternate translation of the verb form that yields the translation: “In you shall all the families of the earth be blessed, is “In you shall all the families of the earth bless themselves.” It can mean either thing. If we add to this that when God renews the promise to Abram (now Abraham) in chapter 22, the words are, “and by your offspring, shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves.” And that verb form does mean exactly what it says. I hope you don’t think that this is just empty grammar. It teaches, at the least, that saints need to take those to whom they are called into the process of blessing and find out what blessing might mean for these others, rather than just imposing what they think a blessing might be. It might mean that we have to talk to those others and value what they say to us. How can we expect to be a blessing unless we do?
Our lessons now turn us from one biblical horizon in the first book of the Bible to the other in the last book – the Book of Revelation. This text recounts a vision of a vast multitude in heaven that is described in a number of ways. First the text says that it was “a great number that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…” (v. 9). The company of God’s saints is broader and bigger than the number we might name, or even want to include. We are not the gatekeepers of the communion of the saints: they are diverse and from all over. We have sometimes conceived of saints as only those like us. This vision, instead, is remarkably inclusive. Folks of all sorts are called to be saints together.
Yet, with all this diversity, and lack of uniformity, rightly celebrated, the saints also celebrate unity at the core. This is captured in the image of all these saints singing this one song:
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Saints sing one song, but they do not all sing it in the same language and the same part. Saints sing in harmony not unison. Like Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” only with infinite parts. Our unity is in Christ and our mission to bring God’s blessing to every family of the world in ways each one understands.
There’s one other piece of this vision to hold onto today. Toward the end of the passage, these folk are identified as those who have come through a great ordeal. They are beat up by struggle. Sometimes we underplay the reality that saints may go through terrible things, things that are uncalled for, things that no one should go through. There are sunny days and stormy ones. It’s called life in the world. Saints are in the world in this way, too. To assume that, because we’re saints, we will escape, is to miss the point of Genesis 12 that says that blessing begins in getting out of the comfortable, and issues in the blessing of every family of the earth. It costs to be saints.
We, finally, come to the text of Jesus’ beatitudes, which Matthew sets as an introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, which is a collection of Jesus’ teachings on how to live an ethical life as his disciples. The key cultural value-categories in Jesus’ day had to do with honour and shame rather than the values of guilt, freedom or economic affluence that seem to shape our own values today. These eight (or nine) statements were designed to tell disciples of Jesus as a group the kinds of behaviour that brings honour both to and from God. One reading of these ought to tell us how far they are from giving a recipe for success for a powerful institutional church. This morning, I would read these statements as a corporate personality profile of “the saints.” I can only say a word about these values.
Saints begin by knowing their spiritual poverty before God. They are spiritually poor in themselves, and are in need of God’s help and power for all they do. If saints get to the point where they simply say that their own resources are “enough,” then they have ceased to be saints.
Saints, then, are those who actually mourn because God’s cause in the world is eclipsed and justice is not done, and, because they know their need of God, are patient in their trust that, one day, God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Saints are gentle people. They do not force themselves into the centre of the stage, they don’t always need to hear their own voice or get their own way. It’s not because they are too weak, but because, with God’s grace, they are strong enough to know that they’re more together with others than all alone.
Saints have a “visceral” longing to see the right prevail. We have said they “mourn” when it doesn’t, and wait for it.
Saints are merciful. In the Old Testament mercy is one of God’s most important characteristics. Saints see God being merciful in the world, and they imitate God’s merciful actions and deeds.
Saints have clear motives that are up front and clear. They do not operate behind others’ backs with hidden agendas that would deny their dependence on God, their longing to see the right done, their gentleness and mercy.
Saints are those who do what makes for peace, in the sense of shalom – wholeness. They are bridge and consensus builders and act in ways that make for positive unity and the health of the community. They do not operate ways that demean people’s integrity and dishonour them, when they disagree.
Jesus says saints enjoy the natural outcome (which is what the word “reward” means in this text) of their lifestyle, which I would summarize as face-to-face communion with God in Christ. They also, getting back to our Old Testament text, are agents of blessing for the world. But, they will not be successful in a world which scorns and devalues such ways of thinking and acting, but prefers rudeness, bullying, power politics, and dependence upon institutions and money. Although they have communion with God, saints have always been misfits and persecuted, Jesus says, all the way back to our ancestors the prophets (not to mention Abram and Sarai).
What do these things mean specifically for saints in this day and this world, full, as I lamented at the first, of a lack of civility and respect, personal meanness and threats against others born of fear? I think that, put negatively, it means resisting with all our spiritual resources the urges to play into or join the retaliation, unkindness, insults and hurts. Saints just don’t play!
Positively, and more importantly, it means to do all we do to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our community. It means to think of ways of building consensus and being positive in our world, rather than siding with those who are negative in thought word, and deed, and only think of winning for “their side.” It means having values are those of God in Christ and who determine to live those values into our culture by doing Christ’s work in the world. What will it take to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the places he has put us? To be saints in 2017 means to offer positive, helpful, words and listening ears, when others are tearing one another to shreds and screaming insults. Here at First Baptist, we need saints – brilliant saints, creative saints, everyday saints – to help us think through, plan, and execute ways of going forward as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ at the core of this city.Now, of course, we don’t always do well at any of this, and we will continue to make mistakes, but our goal is to get it right and to be the hands and feet of Jesus here and everywhere, today and every day.
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.