Based on 1 John 3:1-3
Back in July, I was invited to come to the chamber of commerce meeting. I went, eager to meet folks, and wound my way through the chamber building, walls decorated with pictures of a bygone Eastman. There, near the restrooms, is an older picture of our church, and scrawled on the bottom of the picture are a few simple words:
Rev. Hamp Watson, Pastor.
I was transfixed. I started asking folks at the meeting when Hamp Watson was pastor of the church. When they didn’t know, I asked about the dating of the photograph. Eventually, I figured out that Hamp was here in the 1960s. I think some folks thought I was crazy, inquiring so incessantly about Hamp’s tenure, but I am honored to serve a church that Hamp once served and thus walk in his shadow.
I never knew Hamp, but his reputation lives large in our Annual Conference. When he passed away a few years ago, the entire conference grieved the loss of one of the lions of the church, a pastor that everyone respected, someone everyone looked up to. A friend of mine tells the story of meeting Hamp for the first time, just as he was becoming a pastor and long after Hamp had retired. Upon finding out that my friend was becoming a pastor, Hamp offered several of the books from his library and his sermon archive, sending both over the next day. He loved young pastors and wanted to resource them.
And even before I became a pastor, I knew of Hamp through his granddaughter. We went to college together and I heard, through her, of the amazing man her grandfather was.
Hamp Watson, it’s fair to say, is a saint.
This church has known many saints. Today is All Saints Sunday. 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 and touched our lives, families that showed tremendous generosity or individuals who impacted our lives in a deep and powerful way like sunday school teachers, kitchen cooks, people who sat in this pew or that pew, people who loved on us, invested in us, helped us believe in ourselves, helped us know Christ. I have heard your stories and am encouraged by the legacy of sainthood here at our church.
Each All Saints Sunday, we highlight in particular those saints who have passed on to glory in the past year, as we did just a few minutes ago. 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;” 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.
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 against 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 him.” (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.
The saints we remember this day who have gone on to glory have this reality. 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; that is to say, the image of God that marks all of us will be fully restored upon death, free from the mar of sin. This is the hope for all who are justified by having confessed our sin and need for Christ.
But we need not wait. 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.
But why bother? 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?
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 that raised me. 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, but always 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, 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 have met together several times a year for the past five years. She is a treasure in my life, and I regularly experience my soul rejuvenated simply by being together with her, talking about life. Jay is Christ to me.
Last year was a dark and challenging year for our family. Into the midst of that hard time came several members of this annual conference, including members of its leadership, who walked the journey with us, grieved with us, and pointed toward hope for us. That love, the willingness of busy people to share life together with us, to walk the hard journey together, healed us and made us whole. This annual conference was Christ to us.
That’s the power of sainthood. 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 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 purity? 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 spiritual discipline, a life that, through the empowerment of God’s grace, constantly seeks after God. In other words, a life lived seeking to be the hands and feet of Christ; a life lived as a saint.
For all of us, we know Christ because of the saints. Without the lives of those individuals we can think 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 question before us this morning is this: for whom are you a saint?
The call on all of our lives is to live into the example of the saints we know; those we remember today, those whose memories we cherish in our hearts and those who live among us still. These saints we know are farther ahead on the journey of faith, they have run more of the race that is set before us, as Hebrews would say; through God’s grace, more of the image of God in them is revealed to the world.
Because they know Christ better than we do, they set the example for us; an example we are to follow so that, through us, others may see Christ in us.
For whom are you a saint?
In the car on the way home from District Set-Up meeting last June, Jack was asking about heaven. He’s a curious child and he asked me what question I would want to ask God when I got to heaven. I thought about it for a second and, giving an answer I thought would make sense to a seven year old, I said that I’d ask about dinosaurs: what happened to them, how much we have right about them, that kind of thing. Jack said that was cool, but that when he got to heaven, he had a different question.
I took the bait. “What question would you ask God,” I asked Jack. He said, “I’d ask God if I could help make the world a better place.”
While we are all predisposed to think of our children as saints, I can’t think of a better illustration for what sainthood means: to have an outlook on life that we live not for ourselves, but for Christ. We are God’s children, called to live Christ out into the world. We are called to be evangelists, revealing Christ to the world through our very being, as God’s grace reveals more of the image of God in us.
When we desire to make Christ known, we can’t help but choose the path of restoring the image of God, the path of sanctification, the path of spiritual discipline. We can’t help but be a saint.
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.
But 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.
Choose this day to be hope, salt, and light to others. Choose this day to be peace to others. Choose this day to be freedom to others. Choose this day to be Christ to others. Choose this day to be a saint.
We thank God for the saints this day, for their witness, for their encouragement, for their presence in our lives. Today, choose to honor the saints in your life. Emulate their behavior, their disciplines, their example. Run after Christ in the ways they taught you so that you, too, can be saint to others.
The call on our lives is to be a saint, to reveal Christ to the world. For whom are you a saint?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.