The Life and Death of Saints – Sermon Detritus #70

Some of you may recognize the name Christopher Hedges. He was a war correspondent for some 20 years. He worked for the New York Times, among other publications, and was a co-recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. In 2002 he published War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. Earlier this year, in an interview with the CBC’s Paul Kennedy, Hedges described the way war can become addictive: “It offers emotional, and physical stimulus that cannot be replicated (except maybe, perhaps with synthetic drugs).” War is horrific, but Hedges points out that there is also a “combat high.” He ways, “When you’re in combat you’re aware in ways you never were aware before.”

I’m not sharing Hedges’ comments to point a finger at those in the military. No, it’s just that he gives us an example of how things that are terrible and destructive can become things we crave. They can give us a certain amount of satisfaction. My guess is that it’s as true of war as it is of gossip, as true of combat as it is of envying other people’s stuff (their manservants or maidservants, or their ox or ass—or wife, as the KJV puts it). But here’s where it goes, says Hedges, “. . . when you step outside the warzone you can’t relate, you can’t function. You have to go back.” And what’s deeply frightening is that for those who can’t extract themselves from this cycle the result is “early death.”

I’m intrigued by what Hedges says in relationship to what some of the biblical writes say about being saints, or the Christian calling to holiness. The Apostle Paul often begins his letters by addressing those “called to be saints” in this city or that, whichever he was writing to. “Called to be saints”—I wonder if any of us are comfortable with that. Most of us probably aren’t. To be a saint, ἅγιος in the Greek, means to be set apart from the normal. It means more than that, but that gives us a place to start. An ancient Egyptian monk, Abba Antony, said that “a time is coming when [people] will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, “you are mad, you are not like us . . .” (Placher, 80). flameThat probably happens in every age, but in every age saints are set apart by God. God interrupts the logical trajectory of our lives and draws us toward a different end.

In the New Testament, specifically in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth (chap. 3), the people of God are said to be a temple: “You are a temple,” Paul writes, with a plural ‘you’. So in addition to being distinct from the normal, whatever that is, being a saint means being a part of a community where God’s presence dwells. When the ancient Israelite wondered, “Where is God?” one way of answering was to point to the temple. And in the biblical imagination of the New Testament one would answer by pointing to the gathered people of God: “here is where God dwells, among the saints.”

I think the observations that Hedges makes about combat illuminates the calling to be saints in another way. It resets our sense of the ambient: to be holy isn’t to be prudish. Being a saint is to be tied to life instead of death. I like the historical fact that many old Mennonite meetinghouses were equipped with spittoons. They worshiped and spat. Some probably depended on that to stay awake. At the same time the front porches of Mennonite churches in Lancaster County, PA would have held men smoking tobacco they grew on their farms. It might not have been the best decision, but it unsettles our sense of holiness. So does the frankness with which the First Testament speaks of food and sex. It reminds us that whatever being God’s holy people means, it isn’t something that would be easier if we didn’t have bodies. To be called to be saints is to be called to true life, to be called away from a cheap, plastic-wrapped satisfaction to something much deeper, something more lovely, something more worn and more creaturely. Saints trade strawberry flavored candy for the wholesomeness of the real thing.

One particularly vivid account of holiness, or more aptly—unholiness, comes from the sixth chapter of Isaiah. The book of Isaiah is a challenging read because chunks of it are written from different perspectives. In chapter 6 we find a memoirist account of Isaiah’s prophetic calling written in the first person. He recalls a grandiose vision, one that might only be surpassed by those of Ezekiel, John or maybe Daniel. Isaiah saw the Lord, “high and lofty,” he says. God was in the temple and the tail of his robe filled the place. Six-winged seraphs attended. They said to each other “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The doorway shook at the sound of their voices. Smoke filled the building. The overall effect of the image is to strike us with awe at the glory of God.

If we’re feeling saintly, that is. If we’re not, we could say it sounds a bit like the way a professional wrestling match might begin: the booming voice of the announcer, smoke machines, and the arena shaking. Isaiah took the vision in full seriousness though. His reaction is perhaps a bit like yours or mine might be when we have a dream in which we’re standing in front of a mass of people . . . and we suddenly realize we aren’t wearing pants. Isaiah cringes, he shrinks back: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

. . . That people are called to be holy, that Scripture refers to Christians as saints, seems to me quite astounding. It’s true even when I’m around older Christians, those who we rightly expect to be a bit more saintly then the rest of us. Some of them are rather . . . well, rather like the rest of us. One part of Scripture that gives us a sense of where this goes is Paul’s letter to Titus. Titus had a problem. His problem was that some of the older folks in his community drank too much. Paul alludes to other issues verses 2-10 of chapter 2. These verses offer instructions on how the household of faith should function.

In the ancient world it was common for philosophers and public intellectuals to provide this sort of advice: they would tell the head-of-the-the-house (a wealthy man) to do this, to have his servants or slaves do that, to be sure his wife does such and such, and to not let the children play too many video games or whatever. These lists were called “household codes.” I’m not convinced that we should live these codes as though they were directed in every instance to us. For example, here in his letter to Titus the apostle Paul refers to the need for slaves to be submissive to their masters, not to talk back, not to steal and so on. I’m quite confident that if Paul were writing today he would affirm our rejection of the whole institution of slavery. It’s something possible now, that was out of reach in his time. What the household codes do, though, is give us helpful examples of what we read in verse twelve, which tells readers to renounce impiety and worldly passions and to live “lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly.”

There are several other collections of household codes in the New Testament. None are identical, and most have lots of overlap with such lists from ancient non-biblical sources. What’s interesting, though, is that the biblical writers don’t just address the head-of-the-household. In the moral imagination of the early church the decisions and actions of every member were important. Everyone had the opportunity to renounce misguided and destructive inclinations. Paul writes to Titus that this is why Jesus gave himself up: to buy people back from the power of death, and to claim us as his own.

This begins to give us a sense of what being a saint involves. In his letter to the Galatians Paul suggests the virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. This is that to which we are called. This is what we should expect of each other in growing portions. We should see that those among us who have spent many years tromping after Jesus are examples of just such virtues. The question, then, is quite clear, it probes the depth of our soul: are we growing in our sainthood? Not, are we more prudish at this stage of life than the last, but where is our capacity for patience, for love, for generosity, for gentleness.

Isaiah’s purification took place with the touch of a live coal, held with tongs in the hands of a seraph. It’s a powerful, other-worldly image. Whatever it was for Isaiah, for us it is a metaphor. Let me suggest that if any six-winged creature tries to burn you with hot tongs, you had best call the relevant authorities. Isaiah’s vision is a metaphor. For us, the live coal that touches our mouths is the Spirit of God, the tongs are other people and the seraphs, the unfolding of our lives. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk. His journey in holiness took place in the context of those monastic vows. Yet Merton recognized, that for many others the way to holiness was through the vows of marriage (Placher, 425). It is the presence of others to whom we are committed—sisters, brothers, spouses, children, friends, even others in the church—that calls love, patience, gentleness and peace from us. And those virtues do not grow easily, for we in one way or another have become tied to early death.

Let me go beyond Merton and suggest that both the vows of a monk and the vows of the married are versions of the commitment we make at our baptism. At our baptisms we committed to turn our backs on destructive behavior, to help others in this same turning, even as they help us. In baptism we received the gift of being cleansed and welcomed into the church community, and in baptism we undertook to respond to God’s call to become saints. The coal drew near to our lips. The fire of God’s Spirit graciously began to draw us from death to life.

We are called to be saints. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.

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