In castle gift shops and cathedrals alike, I ran into many rosaries for sale. It was surprising to me to find these at castles. But there they were, among magnets and whiskey glasses and t-shirts, ready for sale to remember the castle or cathedral and the trip in general. And to help remember prayers: that’s the function of a rosary; to remember what and for whom to pray.
As I saw them, I couldn’t help but think of my grandmother who passed away a few years ago. She often had a rosary in her hand, not just because she was a good Catholic, but because she earnestly prayed on a regular basis. It was part of her faith, just as was her decades of regular service in the hospice ward of the hospital where I was born. In her prayers, in her service, in her demeanor, she exemplified the life of faith. And now, she has gone on to glory, having left, as our funeral liturgy says, this perishable body behind to put on imperishability.
She has become a saint, just as we remember today on this All Saints Sunday. And while she is now a saint in glory, we can also say that in her prayers and service, she was a saint during her lifetime.
This church has known many saints, three of whom we remember today. This is a high and holy moment in the life of the church as we remember the saints in our lives, both those who have passed on and those among us still. We in this church speak often of folks who have gone before us and touched our lives; individuals who showed tremendous generosity or impacted our lives in a deep and powerful way.
Each All Saints Sunday, we highlight in particular those members of the church who have passed on to glory in the past year. We recall their memories, grieving our loss and yet hopeful in the confidence that they see Christ as he is now and are pure and blameless before the throne, just as 1 John tells us. They showed us Christ in this life, and now they rejoice with Christ forevermore.
The saints showed us Christ. Those we remember this day are saints in our lives because, through them, we know Christ better. Proverbs says “as iron sharpens iron, so one life does another;” (27:17) an apt way to think about the saints in our lives who have sharpened us by cultivating our faith, showing us what it means to be Christ to the world. We honor those lives today because to be a saint is to reveal Christ to the world.
That’s the power of sainthood.
Let’s hear our scripture for this morning, related to sainthood. You may recognize the words from our funeral liturgy. They’re included in the introductory comments at the very beginning of funerals in our Methodist liturgy. Hear now 1 John 3:1-3
The power of sainthood, the power to reveal Christ to the world, was a power well known by the time of the writing of 1 John.
The earliest Christians lived a life radically different from the surrounding society. I can almost hear the people in the streets asking each other “why is that person so kind?” or “why is that group so generous?” when speaking of early house churches. Sometimes, though, questions about Christian communities took on a sinister tone. Christians were brought up in Roman courts on charges of incest, cannibalism, and idolatry: incest because they called each other brother and sister and greeted each other with a kiss; cannibalism because they consumed the body and blood of someone named Christ, and idolatry because they did not worship roman gods.
Clearly, the average Roman did not understand these Christians. And so, John writes “The reason the world does not know us [or does not understand us] is that it did not know [Christ].” (v.1b) How could they understand that these random individuals, gathered together in people’s homes, consuming the body and blood of Christ, called each other brother and sister because they were now children of God, brothers and sisters with Christ?
For that was what they were. Children of God, or, as Paul would say, brothers and sisters of Christ, co-heirs to the Kingdom. They were purifying themselves, a word John uses to describe a process we know well as Methodists: sanctification, the process of becoming more like Christ. As they grew together in faith, they grew to act more and more like Christ, moving toward their ultimate reality: being like Christ, something strived for in this life and realized after death. They did it and we continue to do it today through our spiritual disciplines, church attendance, and service; elements of the journey of sanctification.
We have hope through growing in Christlikeness, representing Christ to the world. 1 John says that all who have this hope purify themselves. By the empowerment of God’s grace, we can labor with Christ to purify ourselves; to restore the image of God now; gradually, through sanctification. That’s what John Wesley called “the one thing needful,” the restoration of the image of God. And for Wesley, the prescription to the sickness of sin marring the image of God was simple: a life of spiritual discipline, empowered by God’s grace, that would gradually restore that image during this lifetime. That’s what we as Methodists call sanctification.
For the saints we remember this day who have gone on to glory, they now radiate with Christ’s glory. They have become like Christ and are gathered with all the saints who have gone before. We rejoice in the victory over death they know, and honor their memory today.
That’s the power of sainthood.
But this brings up a question: why bother with the whole purification process? Why bother to try and become more like Christ? 1 John is clear: when we have passed on to glory, we will become like Christ, what we will be will then be fully revealed. This is the hope we have as Christians: the restoration of the image of God in which we were created. Where sin has defiled that image, Christ’s victory over death means that, when we die and go to heaven, sin will no longer defile and we will be as we were in the garden, before sin.
So why bother with pursuing purity, sanctification, Christlikeness, now? If it’s usually restored after death anyway, why bother in this life? That’s an awful lot of work that could be spared. Discipline, after all, is no fun and sanctification requires a ton of it. If we’re in Christ, secure that we have been justified by God’s grace, then why go to this trouble? And besides, the more we work at this sanctification, this restoration of the image of God, the more likely we are to get ridiculed or otherwise persecuted. Perhaps those earliest Christians would have been better off staying in their homes, not drawing attention to themselves through their kindness and generosity and equality.
1 John, and John Wesley, call us to a life of discipline so that we may purify ourselves, just as Christ is pure. But that work of sanctification, even though empowered by God’s grace, is a lot of work on our part. If it’s going to be fully restored after death anyway, why bother?
Why bother pursuing sanctification, growing in Christlikeness?
On a worksite, I kept dropping the hammer and nails. I was up on top of a house, learning how to roof as a ninth grader, with Mr. Finley, a curmudgeonly member of the church of my childhood. I was a disaster. I was clumsy, inattentive, and unbalanced, which meant I kept dropping things off the roof. At one point, I got so clumsy and off balance I knocked the ladder down, stranding all of us on the roof for a bit. Through it all, Mr. Finley kept shaking his head at me, kept ordering me to go back down the ladder and fish out whatever I had dropped, let out the occasional curse word in his frustration with me, but still patiently showed me how to roof. After that encounter, Mr. Finley always looked after me, always checked in on me, always encouraged me whenever I saw him at church. I’m sure I annoyed him greatly that day on the roof, but he was always trying to mentor me in one way or another. Mr. Finley was Christ to me.
When I had recently returned to faith after abandoning it, I encountered the love of a church through the love of a church committee. A few in particular loved on me and, when I was discussing some difficult challenges Dana and I faced during a hard season of our lives, they interrupted the business of the meeting, came around me and laid hands on me, and prayed for me and my family. After that, they were always checking in on me and Dana, asking how things were going, offering help where they could. That committee was Christ to me.
After leaving my job at Mercer to answer the call to ministry, my former supervisor called me up and asked to meet. She explained that she needed to fulfill some requirements for her annual conference, as she is also a Methodist minister. In her funny way, she asked if she could be my mentor. I readily agreed and we met together several times a year for several years until she moved to Florida. She is a treasure in my life, and I regularly experience my soul rejuvenated simply by being together with her, talking about life. She is Christ to me.
There are many examples like this from my life. I bet there are many examples like this in your life: times where someone or several people have been Christ to you when you needed help or support. Times where you have known hope, joy, peace, and love through people in your life. Times where this church has been good to you, helped you, supported you. Times where you have experienced someone who is growing in Christlikeness and comes to share Christ with you. That’s the power of pursuing sanctification.
That’s the power of sainthood. For to be a saint is to be Christ to the world.
The folks I mentioned could be saints, could be Christ to me because they are on the journey of sanctification: they are disciplined and working to restore the image of God. The saints you know in your hearts, both those who have gone on to glory and those who are with you still, are saints because they have chosen the hard and disciplined work of sanctification: a life of spiritual discipline that gradually restores the image of God so it becomes easier and easier for folks to see Christ. In these saints, we have seen Christ and we thus know Christ.
The world knows Christ because of the saints of the church. That’s the answer to our question of why. Why be disciplined? Why pursue a life of spiritual practice? Why bother with sanctification? So that the world may know Christ.
The call on our lives is to reveal Christ to the world. We are all evangelists, for the great commission applies to all who claim the name of Christ. We spread the good news through our actions, through our attitudes, through our disposition, through our care and concern, through quiet actions like those I described above that speak volumes to the recipient.
And the only way we can be Christ to the world, the only way we can be empowered to have the right attitude, the right disposition, is through a life of sanctification, a life of spiritual discipline; a life that, through the empowerment of God’s grace, constantly seeks after God. In this way, we reveal Christ to the world. In this way, we act as saints in this life.
For all of us, we know Christ because of the saints who went before us; the people we hold near and dear in our hearts. Without the lives of those individuals we are thinking of this morning, our faith would be missing vital pieces. The best tribute we can give to those saints, the best honor we can bestow upon them, is to be a saint to others.
So, then, the task before us this morning is two fold. First, it’s to remember the saints who came before us. Who revealed Christ to you? Whose memory lives on within you? Second, it’s to live into their memory by being saints to others. For whom are you a saint today?
We remember the saints who went before us on this Sunday; mindful that a part of them lives on within us. They instilled within us a part of who we are and we honor their memory and their lives by doing as they taught us to do. Many of us today remember how Carminta, Helen, and Jessie did just that for us. We also remember other saints who have gone before us, some recently, some many years ago, but whose memory is still very much alive within us. When we come to receive communion, we will have a chance to light a candle in their memory at the rail; a sign of the great cloud of saints who are always with us, always around us, encouraging us to live as they did, being Christ to others.
So let us remember the saints. And then, let the memory of those saints empower us to be Christ to others, to live as they lived. Whom are you remembering right now? What did they teach you? How can you live that out into the world?
We can live that out into the world by living lives of spiritual discipline, pursuing what 1 John calls purity and what we Methodists call sanctification. Seek always to become more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, more patient, more kind, more generous, more faithful, more gentle, and more self-controlled. Attend to your prayer life, serve others as you have opportunity and ability, make a regular habit of coming to church. In this way, we grow in Christlikeness and reveal Christ to the world. And in this way, we become saints for others; examples for them to look up to such that, when we are gone, they will think of us on a future All Saints Sunday.
For whom are you a saint?
If you can’t easily answer that question, it’s time to take up spiritual disciplines with a renewed vigor. Set aside time daily to be with God, spend time reading your bible, pray, do all the things you know are good to do but can be difficult to commit to. Come to church regularly, for nothing can replace being in worship and study together as we seek to know Christ more deeply and be purified as Christ is pure. Please, come talk to me one on one for encouragement and aid in establishing spiritual disciplines that will stick, that fit your personality, for it’s disciplines like prayer and worshipping together that will help us be saints to others.
And if you can easily answer the question for whom are you a saint, keep running the race with perseverance. Keep up the spiritual disciplines, for they can easily wane and we can all too easily tire of the journey of faith that requires such discipline and attention to our habits and actions. Stay strong by staying in love with Christ and in community with this church.
Today, we remember the saints and emulate the saints. Whom are you remembering today? How did they reveal Christ to you? Then, for whom are you a saint? Who will carry on your memory when you are gone, remembering how you revealed Christ to them?
As you come forward for communion, you’ll have the opportunity to light one of the votives on the rail in memory of saint in your life. As you light, give God a prayer of thanks for the life of that saint. Then, as you depart, let their witness be an encouragement to live life as a saint.
That’s the call on your lives: remember and emulate the saints. As we move toward communion, let us do just that.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.