This Holy Fight: What Is A Saint?
For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones. The righteous shall be kept safe forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off. Psalm 37:18.
As I began writing this sermon, it occurred to me that All Saints Day was the Friday before I would preach this message. The Sunday I preached this to my congregation at Brimfield United Methodist Church was All Saints Sunday. It wasn't much of a stretch to start the This Holy Fight series on saints. And honestly, it makes sense because fights, holy or otherwise, always have a target in mind. Why not target sainthood?
We think of a saint and our minds instantly flash to awestruck visions of these unbelievably holy people who are honored by many different Christian denominations. According to the Collins English Dictionary, "A saint is someone who is recognized and honored by the Christian church because his or her life was a perfect example of the way Christians should live." How on earth can we ever match up to the kind of ideal saint we think of on a day like today? That’s what we’re called to do after all. That thought always gave me anxiety, how about you? Maybe it causes you to squirm in your pew, even just a little bit.
American Reformed Baptist pastor John Piper wrote a story about the Samaritan woman from the city of Sychar. We know her better as the woman at the well in John, chapter 4. While I liked his examples of grace here, I was really kind of gut-punched at the judgment Piper exhibited in one of the words he used to describe the woman. Piper identified her as a harlot. Now, if you call the average person's mama a harlot, you better be able to stick, jab, bob, and weave because it's not going to go over well. Calling someone a harlot isn't exactly a term of endearment.
I know the term is generally defined as a prostitute, and I was reasonably confident there was nothing in this passage about being a hooker. Giving Piper the benefit of the doubt, I looked up the reading and all words associated with it in Greek. No mention of any unsavory exchanges there, so Jesus never called her a prostitute. So, in the interest of due diligence, I looked up the word in the dictionary, because there are often meanings we don't realize are associated with words. I discovered the word possibly meant that this woman was given to being rather unselective in the number of men with whom she kept intimate acquaintance. OK, so that kind of fits. After all, she'd had five husbands, and the man she was with now wasn't her husband. So Piper's judgment of her was accurate, yes? Well, not really. She'd been divorced five times, right? Well, we don't know for sure, because it just said she had five husbands, it didn't say how she acquired them. Regardless, I'm pretty sure there's a possibility that she was divorced for a good reason. There's just as good of a chance that she was widowed. Or that her husband put her out for any variety of reasons that would make us cringe. For example, maybe she didn't want to allow him the "benefits of conjugal visitation." Yeah, that means what you think it means, and for us, wouldn't be grounds for a divorce. You could also be divorced if you spoiled dinner for your husband. Maybe she was just a lousy cook? Like, a terrible cook? The point is, we don't know. We jump to conclusions as to what was going on in this woman's life. Just like we do with regular people around us.
We see smiles in the sanctuary that completely hide the lives falling apart behind them. We see lives falling apart, and we don't see the generations of brokenness that have normed the self-destructive behavior that is killing a person. And we blame the person who is broken for their own brokenness. Are they complicit? Yes. But Jesus called us to clothe, feed, water, visit and just generally love on people. He didn't call us to sew scarlet letters on them in sermons on the internet. He actually told us to use the word of God to free the oppressed like the Hebrew people in Babylonian captivity when this Psalm was written.
So was she a prostitute? Was she a woman who slept around? Does it even matter? She was simply a broken woman, looked down upon by her whole community. That might be why she was coming for water at the 6th hour and not at daybreak. After all, it was less hot at dawn... when all the other women of the village were there. Maybe even judging her. She was a woman who was thrilled about the idea of never being thirsty again because that meant she would never have to be shamed at a well again. Ever. Whatever her shortcomings, she wanted this water because she was so over her brokenness. Every step to the well and every step home shattered those little fractured pieces into even smaller pieces. A very broken heart could know peace in that living water. A very defeated woman could find order made of the chaos in her life with that water. The order created out of chaos is what justice means in the Hebrew pictograph here, by the way.
I have not lived the life of a saint. I could never be a saint by any of those definitions. I don't even know if I could have been as friendly and polite as she was when confronted by Jesus. She answered his questions politely, though the very act of drawing water at that well at that time of day probably spoke volumes to anyone who saw her there. Me personally, I doubt I'd have said a word. I'd have just hunkered down in my shame shed and tried to get past this man's question so I could go about my meaningless day. I've not been what Collins defined as a perfect example of the way Christians should live.
Throughout my life, I have been constantly reminded of that. I've been dissected. I've been disdainfully discussed behind my back when people didn't think I was listening. I've been made to sit and listen to self-righteous people recount what they believe my worst sins are. I love the way George Whitefield addressed this when someone called him out for his failings. "Thank you, sir, for your criticisms. If you knew about me what I know about me, you would have written a longer letter." If they'd have known what I know about me, the sit-downs would have involved blocking out hotel rooms for a week, and perhaps a conference center.
In short, by that definition, I'm no saint. At best, I'm an ain't. Maybe an "ain't plus" on a good day.
There are, however, people out there who have lived really great lives. And maybe that's you. Knowing that honestly makes my heart soar. You've been obedient, and that's awesome. You were born into a family that built you into a stable, ethical, honorable human being. But I wasn't. And that's not the kind of life I've lived. And neither have a lot of people who we're called to reach for the gospel. I told Bob Groeper not long ago that the first four letters of the word "Pastor" spell "Past." All pastors have one, and some of ours aren't pretty.
The perception of broken people, and remember what I taught you about perceptions, is that they will never be good enough for church, so why bother? If they hold that perception, the church is to blame. We get the blame because while we can't define a lot of things, we do get to outline our actions as a body of Christ, and as individual humans.
The difference is, if we can get past this perception issue, we can see the love of Christ bloom in their lives.
We can effectively help them move from a life where there is brokenness to wholeness in the only way they can be whole. A relationship with God.
The Hebrew word that we translate into English as a saint doesn't mean flawlessness or blamelessness like Paul says he has in Philippians 3. By the way, Paul said all the characteristics he could boast on like his blamelessness were garbage and with good reason. The Hebrew word actually means "kind" and "respectful" and is rooted in the Hebrew chasad, which means merciful. Merciful. Kind. Respectful. Paul counted the blamelessness characteristics as garbage because those characteristics don't get it done in the end. You can obey the law and not be truly merciful. You can give a coat to a freezing child and not genuinely care. You can bow to a governmental dignitary and still not respect him. But rooting your actions in mercy, kindness, and respect? That's the hot set up for holiness because that is seeking after God's will. I believe it's interesting to note, these are characteristics of the woman who was giving Jesus water at the well. This "harlot" was displaying the qualities of being a saint. But how? Because in her interaction with Jesus, he didn't address her situation, he approached her heart and brokenness. He effectively said, "Little sister, I don't care where you are or what you have done, I can show you a way out it that is permanent."
We often translate the word here for the saint as righteous. Over the centuries, that idea has shifted from made righteous by God to being made righteous by deeds because, well, let's face it, we're human, and we do stupid stuff. We continuously have to return to the fact that isn't what Jesus said, and it isn't what God said, and that is precisely what people need to hear.
When that little fact really hits you, it's like a freight train of great news. The bad news is we have a whole lot of people who are under the opposite impression being hit by the train that requires human righteousness to be accepted. That impression has been reinforced into a wall that is difficult to get past. Walls are tricky things, though, if you remember Sardis.
Here's the situation they face, in the latter part of that Psalm. The word "wicked" here means "one who has turned from the correct path." It's not that they are living a life of premeditated deliberately evil activity. These people turn from the correct path as a product of their situation. Shoot, some folks didn't even know there was a path.
Still, we use the word "wicked," and it is part of the wall that has been made and placed between God and these people. The church was often the one putting it there. The path they have turned from isn't some works-based path to righteousness; it's the path that Jesus carved for us back to the Father in the dragline of his cross on the way to Calvary. You remember Calvary? That's the hill upon which he would conquer death, hell, and the grave because we sure couldn't. In case any of us have forgotten, it's available to everyone, even harlots. Even pastors with pasts. Even you and even me.
We have to take a message of love and reconciliation to people vs. condemnation. If I translated this passage based on the concepts I read in my sources, it would sound like this. "The same God that loved and created you loves to make order out of chaos, sort things out, and heal the tough hurts you face, no holds barred, no ifs, ands or buts. If you step into a relationship with Him, you will be His personal, unique child. I promise you, you will finally be treated with the love and kindness that you have always wanted. As that kindness grows within you and you heal, it will never be taken away from you so long as you stick with Him. But if you choose not to stick with Him on a path to healing and love, there will come a time when it's too late to go back."
Jesus didn't come to condemn. He was the only one that could condemn, but he never did, even telling us that wasn't his work. Jesus sent us his spirit for a reason. Remember that spirit is translated as his breath for a reason. Adam came to life when God breathed His breath into him. Is our witness one that breathes life? If it's not, then we have some work to do.
I watched a video recently of a man doing some street preaching. This man was preaching in an area known for its LGBTQ population, and his message was very condemning of this group of people. And you know what? They listened intently. Many broke down, cried, exclaimed how foolish they were to have been tricked into sinfulness and repented on the spot.
I'm just kidding. The crowd actually had a horn section play so loud the man could not be heard. I kid you not, trombone, saxophone, and I think a tuba, even. One of them was also riding a bicycle and playing. They played loud, and it didn't matter what this guy said, they didn't hear any of it.
First off, it doesn't matter what we think of this sin or that sin or another sin, sin is all sin to God. It doesn't matter what your opinion is on homosexuality, as there are a host of other sins we all exhibit that convict every last one of us. Secondly, when we try to draw out one person's sin as being evil and point that flaw out in their lives without acknowledging our own, there's a word for that. Hypocrite. You know who used that word? Jesus. You can stand there and tell someone they are a sinner from the perspective of someone covered by the blood of Jesus, and still not be a hypocrite, though. We do this by not so much talking about the sin, but rather about the hurt. If we don't treat the wound where the sin got in, people will just keep medicating it. The first step to treating it is to acknowledge it exists and that it matters. Because people, let me tell you now, we all have hurt, and no one feels like dealing with theirs in the face of someone who is targeting that hurt and carrying a giant salt shaker and a brillo pad.
This definition of sainthood, someone who is kind, literally "bowing the head" in respect, is the type of person people want to be around. For some of us, we've had a hard time with self-critique. Someone told us we weren't up to snuff, and they carried enough cache in our lives for us to adopt that same critique. Many people have taken it to the point that they don't listen to the God who made them and give His words the credence they deserve.
How do we witness then? Just tell your story and share the love Jesus gave you. They're actually the same things. Last week I challenged you to make a point of speaking or doing something in love for every person you come in contact with. If you followed through on that challenge, even once, I want you to realize that your kindness shown to someone else is an extension of God. Let that sink in deeply. Your kindness is God working not just in you, but through you, to create order out of chaos in the life of someone else. Remember, God loves making order out of chaos, and by that, I mean he thoroughly and intimately loves it. This isn't something that He just sort of thinks is cool, this is something into which He puts His whole self. That being said, He doesn't love justice nearly as much as you. Isaiah 30 tells us that God wants justice for us, making order out of the chaos in our lives. When we bring people to the one that can create order in their lives from the chaos of where they are, we're passing on the part of what God gave us.
There's a saying that I love to use regarding my ministry. I'm just a broken bucket carrying God's water. The reason God uses broken buckets to carry His water is that when all the water arrives unspilt, everyone glorifies God, not the bucket.
Let's never forget that we're all just broken buckets. Let's never forget to praise God for still using us in our brokenness. That attitude is where we'll find our mercy, kindness, and respect. Finding those is how you get to be a saint.
Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.