First Baptist Church of La Crosse, Wisconsin
First Baptist Church of
La Crosse, Wisconsin
1209 Main Street
La Crosse, WI
(608) 782-6553

Being Saints Together

Presented -November 2, 2014

(Gen. 12:1-3; Rev. 79-17; Mt. 5:1-12)

Yesterday 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.” The last four words are crucial. God’s “saints” are never out of touch with the realities of life in the real world. God made the world. According to John 3:16, God loves the world. God puts saints in the world as a blessing to the world. The word “saint” as a noun is found in the New Testament, all but one time, in the plural as a designation for those who are set apart to God in the world. Saints are Christians, disciples of Jesus, etc. The thought of a single individual as a saint is a concept that developed later than the New Testament. “Saints” is a word that means “us” together. We need others to be saints in the biblical sense. I want to think about saints today.

The Old Testament Lesson tell 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, as they say in the UK, “in due course.” 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.” In a way, here we have the call of the first member of that body of saints, and of every one since. 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 that’s our job? 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. At the very least, 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 makes us think about our practice out there in the world when we actually read the Bible.

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 compass of those 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 who look and think and speak as we do. 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.

Many years ago, Maxine and I attended a Congress of the Baptist World Alliance in Toronto, and we all sang together – maybe ten thousand of us at once – the old hymn “Amazing Grace,” each in our mother tongue. This must be just a little like that heavenly vision of saints bringing all their diversity to worship in one song that gives blessing and glory and wisdom and honour to God in Christ. Our unity is in Christ and our mission to bring God’s blessing to every family of the world.

There’s one other piece of this vision that we need 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 blood stained by their struggles. Sometimes we underplay the reality that saints sometimes go through terrible things, things that are uncalled for, things that no one should go through. Sometimes saints experience good things, sometimes bad things. That’s what the Bible passage about the sun rising on the evil and the good and the rain falling on the just and the unjust is all about. 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.

To this point, we have seen that it is God’s purpose to bless the world through the medium, conduit, or agency of a group that we call “saints.” We have seen that the Bible uses the word in the plural that describes not an individual, nor even a number of individuals but as body that cooperates with God for the blessing of all the families of the world, and is more together than each individual is separately. We have also seen that the Bible implies that, as the saints go about the work of being the agents of God’s blessing, they do it, with sensitivity to those blessed, so that both those who send and those who receive blessing may find it relevant to their situation and culture. We have seen that saints embrace all sorts of folks we might overlook and a broad diversity from every “people, nation, and tongue” on earth. We cannot say that saints only speak English or worship one way, or have one kind of theology, or have one colour of skin or hair or eyes. The saints are an outrageously diverse group that we don’t choose. And, yet, with all the diversity, there is the unity that all love and worship God in Christ (albeit in those diverse ways we’ve mentioned). The saints sing one song in many words and ways. We also said that saints don’t live a pain-free, trouble-free existence, but show scars for being the conduits of God’s blessing to the world, alas, sometimes from other saints who would rather bless the families of the earth another way and have thought that diversity is something to be feared rather than embraced.

We, finally, come to the text of Jesus’ beatitudes, which Matthew sets as an introduction to the Sermon on the Mount, which was 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 each of 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. The Old Testament claims mercy as one characteristic of God’s being. 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 in divisive, people-dishonouring ways.

Because of these things, God promises the saints spiritual success in a variety of ways. They will be those who enjoy communion with God and others. But, because these are the values and operational principles of the saints, they will also not be successful in a world which scorns and devalues such ways of thinking and acting, but acts by bullying, power politics, and ways that actively support dependence, not on God, but on institutions and money. In short, saints who live by these values are persecuted. Jesus says, they always have been, back to the Hebrew prophets. Nonetheless living by Jesus’ behavioural profile for saints brings, as a natural outgrowth, face to face communion with God, one another and the blessing of every family on the earth.

Are any of us these things? You know the answer. Are we together? Hardly ever. But it is the goal. This behaviour profile is really the profile of Jesus. To take an old American Baptist theme of a number of years ago, saints are “the hands and feet of Jesus” Saints are those whose values are those of God in Christ and who determine to live those values into our culture by being Christ’s hands and feet. We need people who will think clearly today what needs to be done as the hands and feet of Jesus in the places where he has put each of us. Here in our congregation we need to think clearly about this and identify people who might resonate with the way in which we, in particular, go about being Christ’s hands and feet, and invite them on the pilgrimage with us. We need saints – brilliant saints, creative 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. May all we do here point to that end, and to Jesus who calls us disciples and saints of the Most High.

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, and AMEN.

Sermon created by Rev. Dr. Timothy Ashley