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Sainthood - Biblical or Pagan?

F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Audio Version

Trinity XXII All Saints Day - 11/07/10
Dan. 7:23-27; Psalm 1; Rev. 7:2-4, 9-17; Mt. 5:1-12

All Saints' Day. So, what's a saint? Just whom are we celebrating? Why do we celebrate them? What makes them worthy of being celebrated? All questions which need answering if we Christians are to conduct ourselves reasonably and intelligently before the Lord our God (and a suicidal world).

We Christians must get our thinking straight on these issues, or we will not have a consistent or compelling testimony with family & friends.

The word most often associated with saints or sainthood is 'holy' or 'holiness', which signifies one who is close to that which is inherently holy, such as God Himself, or in pagan religion, a state of being, or a state of consciousness, or even a state of non-consciousness.


The notion of holiness underwent a transformation in Biblical history, and perhaps something similar in pagan religions. Holiness for pagan, and probably for the earliest Hebrews had to do with material rituals. One becomes holy by going through a particular rite. Initiation ceremonies were sometimes what made one holy, i.e., put one in touch with the divine.

But holiness in pagan religion nevertheless means something quite different from that in the Bible. Holiness in pagan religion almost always means getting closer to the state of divinity, or getting closer to discovering that one's real nature is divine, that one is already divine, but had lost that knowledge because of a fall -- the solution for which is education, not repentance.  So, the Fall, likewise, for pagan religion is also radically different from the Fall in the Bible.

In pagan religion, the fall is from the state of cosmic consciousness, or from some similar, non-individual, non-personal state of being, into individuality and personhood. The spiritual quest for those religions is to divest oneself of all individuality and to merge back into the original womb of the Great Mother. So in effect, the event of coming into personal existence is the fall.

The struggle with karma in, e.g., Hindu religion, is to exit the reincarnation cycles so that one does not come back again and again.  Hindus and Buddhists do not want to come back -- as Westerners often assume, like a cat with nine lives. 

This world of individuals, time, and space, as Buddha concluded, is a veil of tears, and the only way to stop the suffering is to exit the world of individuality. For Buddha, that meant renunciation of all desire, all connectedness to the world of time, space, and relationship.

Holiness in such a cosmos is not about behavior-in-relationship, it is about the renunciation of all relationship.  But relationship, of course, requires individuality -- individuals to be in relationship -- and therefore also, time and space. Buddhists are not the least interested in the Biblical notion of heaven, and say so.  The world of individuality and personhood is where you can get hurt.  They look for a world without pain. 


The Biblical relationship with an inherently and supremely personal deity led the Hebrews in an opposite direction. Holiness was first connected by the early Hebrews to right sacrifices, especially as Temple religion developed under Solomon and the first Hebrew temple. One became holy by performing certain sacrifices. This might be called the "material mode" for becoming holy because it involved the doing of material acts of sacrifice of animals and crops.

But their relationship with a personal God who wanted relationship with them as defined by His law, soon led them to understand holiness as the result of obedience to that law, much more than temple sacrifices.  The prophets were very clear on that matter. 

The destruction of the first temple and the Exile in Babylon forced the Hebrews to develop their synagogue system, which in fact ministered to their needs in a powerful manner, better than the Temple system in some respects, because it was local, and the strong focus on the local Torah scrolls led to the Hebrews early becoming the most literate people on earth -- a tradition which continues today. God had spoken to them in a written word, and they wanted to know what He was saying to them. You cannot obey what you do not know. They wanted to know the law because knowing the law would enable them to become a holy people. This might be called the "legal mode" for becoming holy.


With the coming of the Messiah, something new blossomed which was already strongly at work among the Hebrews, especially among the prophets -- a realization that life was all about relationship, faithfulness, loyalty, and supremely -- love.

That deep current at work in Old Testament times is illustrated in Micah 6:8, "He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" The prophets saw beyond the dangers of legalism and mechanical worship. Life is about personal relationship.

But that commits Biblical religion directly against pagan religion. Pagan religion does not focus strongly on relationship other than as a tool for successful power struggle. They form alliances, often through marriages, to build their power-pyramids, their empires. Pagan religion is about the power-struggle for survival in an essentially chaotic cosmos.

Biblical religion is about personal relationship with oneís Creator who created an orderly cosmos and loves us, and about building a communion of love between ourselves and our Creator, and among ourselves.

Thus, holiness is a quality of relationship, not a quality of getting close to a state of consciousness, or non-consciousness. Which kind of cosmos we live in makes a huge difference to the kind and quality of life we can live.  So, sainthood in the Bible is quite different from sainthood in pagan religion. 

Buddha was thought to be a loving person, one who cared about his people. And indeed, his whole spiritual quest was to find a way to help the people around him whom he saw suffering and hurting, as well as himself. He reportedly delayed his own entrance into the final placid realm of Nirvana so that he could teach and pass on his way of escaping pain and eternal drudgery.

But there is nothing at all in the Hindu or Buddhist world which makes loving oneís neighbor an obligation. If one gets loved by someone such as Buddha, it is just a matter of luck, not a matter of moral obligation. Nirvana neither says nor implies a command to love. There is no law of God, there is no Creator God who could give a law of love.

So the love that develops in pagan societies emerges, I suppose, mostly out of ordinary family life and loyalty, which God seems to have instilled in the human race, and, out of some common sense understanding that loving oneís neighbor is better than hating him. We work and survive better working together rather than in conflict. But that kind of love did not extend routinely beyond oneís family, except in special and close friendships. The world was too arbitrary, chaotic, and dangerous to permit a general law of love. Survival seemed far more important.

The Biblical world, however, was not naturally chaotic. It was chaotic because of the Fall, which God immediately set about to remedy. The Bible delights in praising God for His benevolence in giving us a beautiful and orderly cosmos.  "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the heavens declare His handiwork..."  (Psalm 19)  The Hebrews understood the law of God to be a powerful part of that orderliness. They understood and said that the gentiles nowhere had such a law as theirs. And they were right.


But it took the coming of the Messiah to bring that all to the fore, and to show that the basic ordering of the whole cosmos, not just human life, is the law of love-- as Jesus does in Matthew 22. Life and holiness are about relationship -- the 3rd way of becoming holy - the relationship mode.

And that means that sainthood and holiness are about relationship, not about attaining some status of consciousness, least of all in denial of our own personhood and relationships in space and time. Space and time is where God is working out His purposes. In Godís world, time is eternity at work -- not at all something contrary to eternity. That means that holiness takes place in its fullness right here among us. "The Kingdom is among you..." Jesus said over and over. God is coming down to dwell in your midst. The miracles by Himself and the disciples and the Christians abroad were evidence of that. Most of all, His resurrection, and the overcoming of death.

Holiness is primarily a dedication to God, a consigning of oneself to the will of God, an allowing God to purify one, to clean out the wrong attitudes, wrong goals and plans which have gotten planted into our souls. Holiness means giving up our investments in the fallen world, and choosing with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength to serve God on His terms, not ours.

Holiness, therefore, should be a quite ordinary thing. In the Kingdom -- it is. The oddity in the Kingdom is rebellion, pride, arrogance, etc. Sainthood in the Kingdom is the way things are -- ordinary, not extraordinary. We think of sainthood as special and beyond us, but that is because we misunderstand holiness, and how it is meant to be expressed as the natural way to live.   In heaven, sin is unnatural, holiness is natural. 

And that happens in us because we are still tied to the world, the flesh, and/or the devil in some aspects of our lives.

In the language of Jesus remarks to Nicodemus in John 3, holiness means that we have been successfully and fully born again -- wholly into the family of God. We are no longer being mothered or fathered by our parents, or by any human resources, but by God Himself. That is, we receive our two fundamental stabilities from God, in the face of any possible circumstances, our ability to be ourselves, and our moral stability. We know who we are because we know Him whose we are. And we know where we are going because we are going with God.

That is sainthood and holiness.

I think we scare ourselves out of seriously trying to be saints by thinking how high and special it is. We ought rather to think of how ordinary in the Kingdom it is. Nothing special.  Everybody is doing it. And, nobody is trying to one-up the other anyhow. That has all been given up.


In Revelation 7, we read about 144,000 of the children of Israel who are sealed on their foreheads with the seal of God, and then uncountable numbers of Gentiles arrayed in white robes from every people and nation. The 144,000 was not a limit on the numbers of Israelites, but rather being a multiple of 12, a symbol of those tribes.

God will dwell among them because they have been cleaned and purified, made whole and holy. They have allowed God to conform them to His own vision of what a person is to be. They have gone through the "great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb". In Christ, they have overcome the chaos of the world.

That tribulation was their purification, their remaking by the Spirit of God into whole and holy persons, their being "reparented" by God, properly mothered and fathered to become children of God Himself. It is a scary thing, because we are being dismantled like a ship, not in a dry dock, but still at sea, and feel that we will sink beneath the waves as we are taken apart and remade. We might not survive the chastening and discipline and reformation.

But the long line of such persons who give evidence of devotion to God at any cost to themselves is one more evidence of the truth of the Christian faith. The world without God cannot produce such persons in such a way as to change whole civilizations for the better. When Christ is truly followed, the results stand out quite plainly. That Christian testimony in public is probably the primary reason why pagan and secular people become Christians. "If having Jesus in your heart does that for you, then I want Jesus in my heart," many conclude. So being a saint, living in the very ordinary Kingdom way, is no small thing.


Jesus describes sainthood in the Beatitudes. To become a part of the Kingdom we have to be willing to behave like this.

We must be "poor in spirit", which does not mean feeling down trodden, but rather humble, not proud,.

We must mourn for those whom we lose, and for others who mourn -- have an open heart for the griefs both of oneself and of others.

We must be meek, again, not proud, not pushing ourselves up the ladder of success. That does not mean being a doormat or wall flower. It means rather, just being your ordinary self, all of your ordinary self. You (the meek, not the proud & powerful) shall inherit the earth -- the place of community and communion.

You must hunger and thirst after righteousness -- both in your own relationships, and among those who have been denied righteousness -- of whom there are so many, for you shall be filled with that righteousness after which you hunger.

Blessed are the merciful.... Blessed are the pure in heart..... Blessed are the peacemakers.... Blessed are those who are persecuted.... Blessed are you when men shall persecute you and revile you.... Rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in heaven.... Great is your reward among those who do in fact love one another.

These words make no sense at all in the Fallen world, but they make perfect sense in a world undergirded by the Hand of God and directed by the Voice of God, whose primary command is that we love.

God is offering us the best of all possible worlds -- a world where people are always faithful, always loving, and always hopeful.

It does not get any better than that. But to get there, we must lay down our lives for our relationship with God, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit, and for one another.  


Question to ask: What can I take home from this sermon which can help inform my conversations with family, friends, and neighbors?

Suppose you ask a potential Christian: "Do you know any better way of living than ordinary Kingdom sainthood under God? Like the beatitudes -- or, as St. Paul describes -- always faithful, always loving, always hopeful" Is there some better way of living? A better 'best of all possible worlds'"?

Or, Explain to them the two stabilities of sainthood - the Hand and Voice of God, & how only God can supply those. And ask: "Would this be of interest to you?"   


Collect for All Saints: BCP, p. 272 --


[See http://www.theroadtoemmaus.org/RdLb/11Phl/WrldV/PannikarHindu&Xty.htm on Eastern religion undermining of Roman Catholicism (and other Christians) by claiming to be saying the "same thing". With commentary.]

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Date Posted - 11/07/2010    -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012