In light of the news from Sutherland Springs, I’m going to do something you might think crazy: go back to scripture.
Today we, like many churches, celebrated All Saints’ Sunday. We read 1 John 3:1-3:
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.
That’s all a saint really is; a child of God who has died. Sadly, at least 24 joined the ranks of the saints today. At first, saints were simply people the church deemed worthy of remembering after their death. As time went on, the standards went up, of course. First, the saints became people of exceptional holiness. Now they have to be credited with an actual miracle.
But it’s worth noting that many of the earliest saints were martyrs: people who died (usually) through state-sponsored violence. Also worth remembering: those martyrs died not just because they claimed Jesus as Lord, but because to do so was to resist the violence of the state. Early Christians were communists—and they were pacifists.
When John says “the world does not know us because it did not know him,” this is part of what he means. The world did not understand the Prince of Peace. And the world rejected that light, the Prince of Peace, in order to walk in darkness.
But back to the saints. The very earliest meaning of the term, found even in Jewish writings, is simply a brother or sister in faith. Saints, then, are part of the past: they’re role models who have died. But they’re also part of the present. Saints, as the song goes, are people you can meet in the shops or at tea.
(In case you don’t know it.)
Saints are people in the here and now who strive to walk in Jesus’ way, to be like him, to purify themselves as he purified himself. No, it’s not about s-e-x. It’s not about drinking, either, or loving somebody the same gender as you. Let John tell it:
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.
So sin is lawlessness, like, oh, say, the lawlessness of murder? Why yes, yes it is:
I know this is going to rock your world, but loving one another involves not murdering one another.
The saints were and always have been those who resist this kind of sin, who resist the ways of violence and death. Blessed are the peacemakers, said Jesus, and he was right. The saints tried to purify themselves from the sin of hate, the sin of violence, the sin of murder. And they tried to strengthen one another to do the same, as should we.
Now, notice what I haven’t said: that the saints tried to introduce legislation or commonsense gun regulation or move votes. It’s not that early Christians (or Christians all along) didn’t try to change the world. They did. But at least in the time of the New Testament, the church was composed of people basically without much, if any, formal power. You didn’t get a vote in the Roman Empire!
So they did what they could: offered passive resistance and engaged in an alternative way of life. In that sense, saints are also of the future. We don’t know what will become of us when Jesus returns, when the world is changed. But we know that we will be like Jesus, who is, remember, the Prince of Peace. And so we work to bring that world into existence. The saints work to create the world of the future proleptically, even knowing that in the end, it is only God who can bring peace. But we know that we are created for love and destined for peace, and so we try to bring those things about even before Jesus comes back.
Let me say it again so you spread the word: We are created for love. We are destined for peace. We make love and peace real in the world. That is what saints do. And you are a saint.
In the end, those who have died today will join the great cloud of witnesses urging us on as we run the race of faith. That is, in our work of establishing love, peace, and justice as the norms of our world. They have joined the ranks of the saints, and I commend you to faith in the Prince of Peace that their deaths not be in vain.
You can do that by living and teaching peace, and/or by picking up the phone and giving your member of Congress an earful. Either way is perfectly legitimate, and perfectly faithful. What is not is to say, “Oh well, the world is evil, whatcha gonna do?”
End of sermon. Go be saints.+ + +