St Andrew’s, Carbondale–John 11:32-44, Wisdom 3:1-9, Revelation 21:1-6a, Psalm 24:1-6
So it’s All Saints Day … or, the Sunday following, at any rate. I don’t know precisely where “All Saints” ranks among the most popular names for Episcopal churches, but it’s in the top five, I would bet. Our diocese has only one—way up in Morton, actually our northernmost parish. The word “saint,” of course, means “holy one,” and one of the ways it’s used in the Christian tradition is to refer to all Christians, all those who have been set apart in baptism and thereby made “holy to the Lord,” to borrow a phrase from the Old Testament, regardless of their particular moral character. But the way we’re using the word today, it has a more specific meaning. It singles out a minority of Christians, all of them now having passed out of this world, who are deemed worthy of remembrance by all, people who get churches named after them, and appear in stained glass windows, and have their own days on the calendar. So, how does one get to be on this list? What are the qualities of those who have “Saint” put in front of their names?
The Psalmist gives us a clue when he writes
3 “Who can ascend the hill of the Lord? *
and who can stand in his holy place?”
4 “Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, *
who have not pledged themselves to falsehood,
nor sworn by what is a fraud.
Like I said, a clue. But it’s kind of an intimidating clue! Who of us can hope to meet that qualification? –basically, never done anything wrong and never wanted to! But the fact is, by virtue of our baptism, we are all called to be saints, and not just the generic kind but the special kind, the kind we’re celebrating today. In words that will cross our lips several times during our closing hymn at this liturgy: “…and I mean to be one too!” Nonetheless, it looks impossible and we are understandably discouraged. We are all very much “works in progress,” and sometimes the progress doesn’t seem all that impressive.
When we look at today’s Old Testament reading from the Book of Wisdom, it doesn’t appear to offer us any help. The portrait of the “righteous” that the author paints doesn’t seem to have room for most of us in it:
God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.
When ore is removed from a gold mine, it has to be refined before it can be of any value. And gold is refined by putting it into a furnace and subjecting it to intense heat, and this separates the impurities from the real thing. We might say that gold “suffers” in the process of being refined, of having its true nature and character revealed, just as the righteousness of the people the passage from Wisdom talks about is revealed as a result of their suffering. And this invariably confronts us with an uncomfortable realization, which is that there is a disconnect—sometimes a huge disconnect—between the character that is revealed in the suffering of the saints and the character that is revealed in our own suffering. The gap between the two can be quite sobering, and lead quickly to despair: How can we possibly be saved when there is such a gulf between our sinfulness and God’s holiness?
There are generally three common theological responses to this question. One of these responses recognizes—correctly, I would say—that we have no righteousness of our own, that God alone is righteous, God alone is holy. Jesus lived a completely sinless life in thought, word, and deed and then offered himself on the cross, satisfying the just demands of God’s holiness. Christ’s righteousness is then “imputed” to us—that is, we get the credit for the life Jesus lived. We don’t deserve it, but when we respond in faith, God gives us that credit anyway. God overlooks our sins, and sees only the blood of Christ, and applies that righteousness to our account.
Another way of understanding the business of how God saves us combines the sovereignty of God—that is, God’s absolute freedom to do whatever He wills—with the grace of God—that is, God’s underlying inclination to shower good things on those whom He has made—and sees the moment of our death, the moment of our passing from this world to the next, as a moment when God miraculously and instantaneously fixes everything that’s wrong with us. All our flaws and foibles suddenly disappear, and we wake up in the likeness of Christ.
Yet another approach solves the problem of the disconnect between the righteousness of the saints and the righteousness of us ordinary Christians by redefining “righteousness.” We are not really captive to the power of sin and death, but have been deceived into thinking and acting as if we are. In truth, each one of us still bears the full and undistorted image of God. Salvation lies in simply remembering and reclaiming this reality.
There is, I believe, an element of truth and hope in each one of these accounts, but I also believe that each one is ultimately a dead end. In each case, both grace and salvation are cheapened in ways that don’t go the distance. They give us short-term spiritual relief without solving our long-term spiritual problem. One of our problems is that we have an innate and habitual desire for quick fixes and shortcuts. It stems from the same impulse that leads us to clean our house for company by indiscriminately gathering up all the clutter, throwing it into a spare room, and shutting the door. It creates the impression of a job getting done without the job actually getting done.
By contrast, the path to sainthood is a journey of actual change, not just throwing the clutter in a spare room. It is important, and a fact for which we should be immensely grateful, that God “imputes” righteousness to us on the basis of what Jesus accomplishes on our behalf. But it’s only a stopgap. It gets us onto the playing field, but we still have to actually play the game. It is important, and a fact for which we should be immensely grateful, that God’s grace is an unmerited gift; we do not, and indeed cannot do anything to earn or deserve it. But it’s never magic, and it always requires our active cooperation. Spiritual therapy is in that respect no different than physical therapy, and anybody who’s had physical therapy can tell you that the therapist is there to help you and guide you, but you’ve got to be the one to actually do the work. And, yes, we have all quite forgotten who we are as creatures in the image of God, and we do need to recall and reclaim our identity in God. But the Fall of humankind, my brothers and sisters, is real, and we only deceive ourselves and others if we ignore that abundant evidence that we live under the power of sin and death just in the interest of making everybody feel better about themselves.
Consider, for a moment, that dramatic and emotionally-charged moment when Jesus calls a very dead Lazarus out of his tomb. After Lazarus complies, what does he instruct those around him to do? He says, “Unbind him, and let him go.” So Lazarus is not only risen from death, he is unbound and let go; the symbolism of that secondary act should not be lost on us. In our reading from Revelation today, God says, “Behold, I make all things new!” The Saints are those who have been made new, who have fully put away the “former things” that they have been, who have been unbound and let go from everything that was holding them captive. The author of the Book of Wisdom tells us that the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God because God has tested them and found them worthy. Well, I suspect they have been found worthy because they have been made worthy.”
So the whole experience of faith in Christ, the whole journey of following Christ as a disciple, the whole process of salvation, is about having our souls taken apart and rebuilt, with the eventual result that the image of God in which we were made, but which has been distorted by sin, is perfectly restored. This begins when we initially come to Christ in faith and are “covered” with his righteousness “credited to our account.” It continues as we cooperate daily with God’s free and abundant grace as we worship and study and serve in community with others who are on the same journey. It concludes when we have fully remembered who are, when we can look God in the eye and not instantly turn to dust, because we “look like” Jesus in every respect. Then we will have joined the company of the saints in light whose heroic witness to the gospel we celebrate today. Praised be Jesus Christ in his angels and in his saints. Amen.