Texts: Ephesians 1.11-23; Luke 6.20-31
If the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is to be believed, it is really rather difficult to become a saint. There are several requirements. First, one must be dead, which does tend to dampen the ambitions of many a popular preacher! Second, one must have lived a very virtuous and holy life. Not necessarily from birth, but certainly from the time when a person first began to follow Christ in earnest. Third, one must have produced at least two ‘miracles’, that is, unusual phenomena that may not, after careful investigation, be accounted for by reference to the normal processes of what is ‘natural’. It is quite permissible, as it happens, to produce a miracle after you are dead. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, for example, was exhumed from his grave several times over a period of three hundred years, and his body had not decayed in the way that bodies should. To the Roman authorities, that kind of thing will boost your sainthood score enormously.
In the New Testament a saint is simply a disciple, a person who has heard the gracious call of Christ to follow, and chosen to obey that call out of a fundamental faith and trust in God. At one level, then, sainthood should never be understood as something one may ‘earn’ through a life of exemplary virtue or heroic deeds. For sainthood is a gift—the gift of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ. It is also true, nevertheless, that there are those who really believe and trust in this love of God, living their lives out of its power . . . and there are those who don’t. In the passage from Ephesians that we read a moment ago, the writer prays earnestly that his hearers will live out of the enormous power of God, demonstrated in the works God wrought in Christ for our salvation. Note well, the power is God’s, not ours. Yet the writer still feels the need to pray that such power may become the most important fact in his hearer’s lives, which implies that they are not yet the people God has called them to be.
It is in this sense, then, that I can see some point to all the Roman posturing about sainthood. Underneath all the rules and procedures, under all that detritus of centuries, what the canon-law of saints really says is this: that saints are people who shine with faith and trust—not in themselves, their own virtues or achievements—but in the virtues and achievements of Christ on their behalf.
This, then, is the paradox of Sainthood or, if you prefer, discipleship. Disciples live from a power, a virtue, a miracle which they have not generated for themselves. They depend, utterly, upon Christ. Yet, it is precisely that attitude of dependent faith which makes them radiate with goodness, care and compassion. Think about it. If we have died to ourselves in baptism, if we have been crucified to the basic values of this world, then the life we live in faith is not our own life at all. It is God’s. It is the divine life that was made human in Jesus. We rise from the waters to live the life of Christ: to imitate and repeat his life in our own. In this perspective, the amazing faith of the saints is no more than a grace that is actually believed in and received, rather than considered but then put aside when it really counts.
What is the difference, then, between a Mary McKillop and your average church attendee? From God’s perspective, not a great deal! God loves both of them. God forgives both of them. God calls both of them to die, to take up their cross and follow Christ into a quality of life and love that the world cannot give. Yet one of them chooses to live from the power of this gracious call, to trust in its power, and the other (one suspects) chooses to do so only very rarely. One chooses to love as Christ loved, loving the neighbour even to the point of great personal sacrifice, while the other perhaps chooses to put faith aside when the going gets tough or when there is money or status at stake. One really believes that Christ’s life, no matter how difficult, is the only life worth living. The other suspects that Christianity is impractical, a set of admirable ideals mind you, but not to be lived too literally.
This morning you and I are called to be Mary McKillops. To let go of all our hungers for health, wealth, family and security—to surrender such things into the hands of God—and to hunger instead for the commonwealth of peace and justice that Christ will bring. A hunger for the kingdom is exactly like the hunger for food. If you are starving, if you have nothing to eat, you will do almost anything to find nourishment. You will travel hundreds of kilometres over rough and dangerous terrain, like the refugees of South Sudan, in search of the one thing you need to sustain life. So it is with the desire for God’s kingdom. It is a desire that consumes all else, a desire which comes to us as a painful longing that the world might be different than it is, a desire which drives and motivates us as though it came from a place other than ourselves. And so it does, for it is the desire of God!
The saint is not one who gets everything right, who is always successful and admirable. The saint is one who trusts in God, who believes God’s promises, even when the chips are down and there seems little foundation for faith. The saint is one who, in a sense, becomes who he or she is because he or she is first able to allow God to be who God is, and this in the midst of a body and soul given over to God to do with as God wills. This is a calling not simply for the especially intelligent or gifted or capable. It is a calling for us all, because in the end sainthood is not about self-generated achievement or sanctity. It is about trusting that Christ will complete his work in us, even when our sin looms large.