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Here we are at All Saints Day, celebrating those persons in our past history who have contributed to the incredible tradition with which we are blessed, and also those alive today who aim to serve the Lord with the whole of their being.
The following couple of paragraphs is from a newsletter from BarnabasAid, an organization named after Barnabas, the NT Christian who was known for being a conciliator and helpful to those in need. BarnabasAid has a worldwide ministry helping persecuted peoples. We read...
"Tell my brothers that I died well, and am living with Christ. And if we all die, we know that we die for the Lord." These words were spoken by George Orjih, a pastor from Maiduguri, Nigeria, as he was about to be beheaded by an Islamist group on July 27, 2009, for refusing to convert to Islam. An eyewitness says that Orjih was singing and praying all through the ordeal and encouraging the believers not to give up, even unto death.
To die well speaks not just of courage, but also of commitment and of the certain knowledge of what awaits us. It also speaks of testimony -- testifying by that ultimate act, sending the message that I died well, faithful to my Lord.
For the Christian, entrance into glory is a wonderful thing. We know that we will rest in our Lord's beloved arms. In the book of Revelation, the martyrs, together with all the angelic host, sing praises to God. For some, martyrdom speaks of suffering, anguish, and pain. Yet for the early Church and for saints throughout history, martyrdom speaks primarily of glory.
George Orjih was beheaded, and at least seven others were killed also. Three months ago.
With that as a background, I would like to explore the meaning of sainthood. What does it mean to be a saint?
I grew up, as I am sure many do, thinking that the "saints" were a specially gifted breed of human beings, most of whom lived a long, long time ago when things were "different". I was not sure what the "difference" was, except that there were holy people then, and there are not any now.
Well, it was easy to imagine that because the Bible talks about raising the dead, healing the sick, providing loaves and fish for thousands when there was enough only for a few. I did not know of anyone doing that anywhere in the world as I was growing up. My family all went to church, but it was a rather tame and lifeless Christianity compared to what we read about in the Bible.
I used to wonder, well into my adulthood, what Jesus
meant when He told His disciples that "the Kingdom of God is among you..." What
was it among us that constituted the "Kingdom"? Whatever it was, I did not see
much of it when I was growing up. It all fed into my notion that sainthood was
something out of a dim and distant past. When things were different....
I was taught, I do not know by whom, but the message got through to me somehow that Jesus did not do miracles in order to prove who He was, that He was not interested in proving something about Himself, only in helping people. That sounded very humble and holy. It fit the so-called "social gospel" which downplayed evangelism.
The thought was also implanted in my mind that Jesus would not want to do miracles to prove anything because that would hinder the people from believing by "faith". Faith in that context would mean a kind of blind leap, believing without any evidence to show it was true.
But a blind leap is not the Biblical meaning of faith. Sometimes we are forced by circumstances into a blind leap, forced to make a choice before we can know the right answer, but that is not the meaning of faith.
True faith means, first of all, simply to be open to the truth, whatever it is -- to risk that open journey to the truth, to ask honest questions and expect honest answers. That openness is the Biblical "teachable spirit", without which God can do nothing in our lives.
Each of those points which I learned early on is clearly untrue. Jesus tells His disciples and the people over and over that He does these things precisely to give evidence of who He is. Of course He wanted to help people, but the best way for Jesus to help them was for them to find out that He is indeed sent from the Father, that He is the Son of the Father.
For the Gospel of John, the deep secret of life is knowing who Jesus is and having a close personal relationship with Him -- being born again, born into the family of God. Jesus would do things which only God could do -- so that they would know who He was. If Jesus can do these things, then He must be God. He only rarely said that He was God, He mostly just did things, and let them draw their own conclusions. He was not trying to badger or brainwash them, he wanted them to consider the evidence and decide for themselves.
When the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus to inquire whether He were the Christ, Jesus replied, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them."
Jesus is saying to the disciples of John the Baptist,
"Here is what is happening.... What do you conclude?" So Jesus is indeed very
much interested in evidence and proof. He does not show that in an intellectual
way, but by His behavior, doing deeds. That is the kind of proof that just about
anyone can respect. He does not write essays about it, He does not hold a
lecture series on who He is. Those are not bad things to do, they have their
place. But they were not what Jesus was doing. He just shows them that indeed
the Kingdom is among them. The power of God has descended to earth and is able
to help us in any possible problem we might have, including the problem of the
ending of life, the problem of death. "O death, where is thy sting???"
So, what is a saint? A saint is not a painted plaster statue of a person, someone who is a bit out of touch with reality, or one who walks a foot off the ground. A saint is one who is supremely in touch with reality, real reality, power reality, ability to do extraordinary things reality.
But the extraordinariness of those things is only because we in our fallen states are blind to the reality to which Jesus wants to introduce us. In the Kingdom, those kinds of things are very ordinary. Jesus expected His disciples to calm the storm. "O ye of little faith."
Jesus did not mean, "O ye who are not willing to take a blind leap!" Jesus is NOT in favor of us taking blind leaps when there is evidence to be had. He meant rather, "O ye who are not willing to open your eyes to what is right in front of your noses! O ye who are too cowardly to risk a real adventure into reality. O ye who are not willing to risk a challenge from God to get on the road to reality! O ye who are not willing to trust God who created the whole of the cosmos, not even when He does miracles right in front of you!" He was chastising them for failure to follow the evidence.
A saint, then, is one who insists on walking the road into reality, walking the road to truth, wherever it may lead, at any cost to himself. Elijah was a saint when he challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest on Mount Carmel (in I Kings 18). If God had not shown up to light the fire under the bull, the people there would have had no obligation to follow God. The Biblical test for the true God is a very practical, not a theoretical, one, the true God can keep His promises. A false God cannot.
So a saint is one who has found out by his own experience and reasoning -- that indeed, the Kingdom is among us. "Something is happening here which is beyond what the world can account for!" In some way, God shows the saint that He is there, that He can make the difference in the life of the saint. God shows up and proves His own case.
But a saint is more than just someone who has
discovered that mighty truth, that secret hidden from the minds of the worldly.
The saint is the one who is willing to risk the weight of his being on that
truth, and to make sure that everyone else knows that this Kingdom of God is
among us, and is given the chance to find out for himself. The saint will not
stop telling about this truth, about this Kingdom among us, about Jesus, the
Lord of this Kingdom.
I recently received a DVD from a friend produced by someone who had run into (for him) a new kind of Christianity -- a Christianity which was alive with miracles. I do not recall where he came from, but he did mention a church up in Redding, California, where these kinds of miracles were taking place. I had heard of that church some years ago, and have seen a DVD produced by them. And, yes, it is quite astonishing.
This fellow set out on a worldwide quest to locate and film what was happening in these very alive churches around the world. He found people who had gold fillings put into their teeth by the Lord. People who were healed of diseases and injuries. He found an island, the name of which I do not recall, but it had about the lowest poverty level of any country on earth. But in the churches on that island, the dead were being raised with regularity.
One fellow was locking up the gate to his church because dark was coming. He was attacked, beaten, and killed by four men. His body was taken to the hospital. At some point, this dead man woke up. He still looked terribly beaten and scarred. But then, the Lord healed every scar on his body. The police had caught one of the attackers, and had gone to the church to get them to sign the complaint against the attacker. But the now-alive man had called his church and told them not to sign the complaint. He went to the jail and told the police to release the man because he forgave him. The attacker came out, the healed man embraced his attacker and told him that he forgave his wicked deed. The attacker became a Christian and goes around telling how the man he had murdered and was raised from the dead has forgiven him. Wouldn't you like to have such a testimony?
These people are saints.... those who have so given themselves in their personal relation to God that God is able to do such mighty works through them.
I have to confess that my Christian faith has not matured to the point where I have seen such obvious miracles happen. I have not helped raise the dead, I have not, so far as I know, been a part of any physical healings. I have experienced in myself and seen in others some serious emotional and spiritual healings and maturings.
But there is so much more. We in the West have done something to ourselves which makes it very difficult for us to believe that the Kingdom of God is among us. We have effectively been secularized. Then we try to paste our Christian beliefs over a subterranean base which is still secular. It does not work. God has to change that subterranean base, plow it up, and replant it with Gospel seeds to sprout and bear 100 fold increase.
The saints are those who, to some degree, know and
live in the Kingdom of God with of the power to change all things. But that
power is available to anyone who wants it. I want it, and I will do whatever the
Lord tells me to do to get there.
It has to do with being able to die well. We are not to pursue being killed. That is not martyrdom, that is spiritual foolishness. We are to pursue faithfulness to the truth, faithfulness to the Lord of truth, a fearless witness to that truth. If that leads to death, so be it, but we are to pursue loving and truth speaking, not being killed.
But when we do face death, as we all will, we must look forward with vigor and hopefulness, not backward with clinging. We must hold up the banner of our Lord Jesus Christ for all to see. "O death, where is thy sting....?"
Only persons who know how to die well can live well. Only persons who know what they are willing to die for can know what life is worth living for. If there is a point at which we are not willing to die for what we believe, then God (or the devil) will put us right at that point to test us. We will choose either to be faithful to God, or not.
We have two necessary basic stabilities -- our ability to be ourselves, and our moral stability. Persons who are receiving their two basic stabilities from God will be those who are will see the Kingdom among them. Trust and obey. Trust God for your ontological stability and moral stability. Trust God for your stability of being, your ability to be yourself openly and freely. And obey the law of God, your reason for existence -- loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving your neighbor just like you love yourself.
Our problem is trusting and obeying at that deep subterranean level where we have been secularized, allowing God to set His plow that deeply into our souls, to plow up that ground and plant Kingdom seeds.
If we have died to self in that way, then we cannot help but be witnesses to those around us. And it will not matter whether or not we are killed for our witness, our testimony will show the power of the Kingdom, evident for all to see. The word 'martyr' means witness, one who gives testimony. It has taken on the meaning of being killed for one's faith. But the deeper meaning is dying to self, getting off the throne of our lives, allowed God to plow deeply, asking God to sit on that throne. The rest will take care of itself.
"Tell my brothers that I died well." We should all be able to say that, whether or not we are killed for our testimony. The issue is not whether we are killed for our testimony, but whether we give it or not. That is what makes us martyrs, witnesses, And that is what makes us saints who know and express the power of God.
The beatitudes we read this morning, like the Decalogue and every other description of the law and grace of God in the Bible, are pointers to what it is like to be a saint. "Here is the behavior of a saint..." Be poor in spirit, that is, humble, mourn for the dead, be meek, hunger & thirst for righteousness, be merciful, a peacemaker, do not worry if you are persecuted or reviled on account of your faithful witness to Jesus. Witness anyhow.
Those who have come out of the great tribulation have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, not in their own blood. Our job is to trust and obey, and let God decide who gets killed or not. That is the role of the saints all down through history, and that is the life to which God is calling each and every one of us. No exceptions.
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