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The Saints on All Saints Day

 

Joshua 24:19-24
Acts 5: 12-16
Matthew 4: 18-22

[1] “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi…”; “to the saints who are at Ephesus”; “to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ at Colosse”; the apostle Paul begins virtually every letter with the same greeting: “to the saints in Schomberg.” Plainly he insists that every Christian is a saint, a holy person. But what about the Christians in Corinth, with their bickering and their party-strife and their cavalier toleration of sexual irregularities? Were they saints too? Yes. The word “saint”, as used in the newer testament, doesn’t have to do with lofty spiritual achievement; the word “saint”, rather, is used there to translate the Latin word sacer, the Greek word hagios, the Hebrew word kadosh – all of which mean the same: “different”, “set apart.” Saints are holy people; holy people are those who are different because set apart.

In the older testament the tithe, or one-tenth of the harvest, is said to be holy in that it is “the Lord’s”; it’s different in that it’s been set apart. Throughout the older testament the Israelite people are said to be holy in that they are different from all other peoples, different because set apart. Different because set apart for unique privilege? No. Different because set apart for a unique purpose.

All Christians are saints or holy in that we’ve been set apart for a special purpose; we’ve been set apart to live as light amidst darkness, as salt amidst what will otherwise rot, as yeast amidst an environment that needs to be leavened. All Christians without exception have been appointed to this and are therefore different, holy, saints.

This is not to say, however, that all Christians are spiritually mature. Peter said that some Christians could digest spiritual meat while others were still at the breast-milk stage of spiritual development. (1 Peter 2:2) It isn’t to say that all Christians are profound. Some are exceedingly shallow, as the legalists in Galatia demonstrated. It isn’t to say that all Christians are a glorious advertisement for their Lord. Some Christians are a disgrace, as the perverse in Corinth demonstrated. Nevertheless, they are Christians, and are rightly addressed “saints.”

[2] At the same time, everyone is aware that throughout the history of the church there have been men and women who stood out and imprinted themselves on others, stamped themselves on others without trying to or even wanting to. To be sure, all Christians are found “in Christ”, to use the little expression that Paul deploys 132 times; still, we all know that some Christians have struck us as particularly transparent to the master himself. All Christians are possessed of the Holy Spirit, the life-bringing presence and power of God; still, we’ve met those who exemplify this fact most tellingly. All Christians are undergoing transformation from fallen creature to someone in whom God’s image shines, a “work in progress”; still, some Christians manifest such transformation right now as to leave us glorifying God. I have met several such people myself, and they have encouraged me unspeakably in my own discipleship, for to know them is to know afresh that God can effect the profoundest alteration, the most concrete alteration, in those who call upon him and love him and live in him. These people have been a lighthouse for me when I’ve been buffeted in the storms of church controversy, or when I’ve been dismayed at the perfidy of denominational leaders, or when I’ve been frustrated as large numbers of the lukewarm lazed about indifferently. The people who have been lighthouse and inspiration and encouragement to me have certainly been saints in the sense that all Christians are saints by definition; in addition, however, they’ve been saints in the way that the church has traditionally understood the term. While I used to groan every time a preacher, desperate for an illustration, used the hackneyed story of the child who looked at the stained glass window and concluded that “saints are those who let the light shine through”, I groan no longer. I have profited immeasurably from many people who let the light shine through, albeit unknowingly, and were used of God to bathe me in a light that I have gloried in knowingly.

[3] About these people who are saints in the latter sense; there are several things we should note concerning them.

They understand themselves to be called of God, awakened by him and awakened to him by grace alone. They never think of themselves as spiritual achievers of any sort. They never boast of spiritual attainment. Like John the Baptist, they are always found pointing away from themselves to their Lord, wanting only to find him exalted.

So far from thinking themselves less sin-riddled than most, they are uncommonly aware of the residual sin that has not yet been burned out of them. Unlike the spiritually immature, they know that the closer anyone is to the light, the darker the shadow that the light casts. It was the man, glowing ever after at the truth and vividness of his Damascus Road encounter, even knowing what it was to be “caught up to the third heaven”; it was this man who could only speak of himself, at life’s end, as “the foremost of sinners.” (1 Tim. 1:15)

If the saints are possessed of anything in uncommon measure, they are possessed of uncommon humility; and because their humility is genuine and not affected, they are humble without knowing it. They would agree with Thomas Watson, my favourite Puritan thinker, who commented, “All Christian growth is finally growth in humility.” They would agree with Watson even as they would never think that they had grown at all. This is not to say they wallow in self-belittlement. Self-belittlement has nothing to do with humility. Self-belittlement is another form (albeit perverse) of self-preoccupation, and self-preoccupation is pride pure-and-simple. Humility is self-forgetfulness. The genuinely humble never think they are. They would blush to be told they are found to be unusually transparent to God’s will and way and work.

Ever since my teenage days I’ve been helped through the many books by and about William Sangster, a Methodist minister in Britain who was born in 1900 and died 59 years later of progressive muscular atrophy. Sangster used to say, “The saints aren’t resigned to the will of God; they aren’t even conformed to the will of God; they are abandoned to it.” There’s nothing more important for any of us than to discern the will of God for us and abandon ourselves to it! There’s nothing that so renders such a person “a city set on a hill that cannot be hid” (Matt. 5:14), in the words of Jesus.

I am moved every time I read Luke’s account of Peter in Jerusalem following the resurrection of our Lord and the incursion of Pentecost. People carried their sick relatives outside and laid them in the street in hope that even the shadow of Peter might fall on them as Peter himself passed by. (Acts 5:15) Jerusalem had been the site of Peter’s disgrace; Jerusalem was now the site of Peter’s acclamation in the early church. Was there an element of superstition in those who laid their sick friends in the street, hoping that Peter’s shadow would fall on them? I think there likely was. Still, they did what they did out of recognition of the Spirit-wrought turn-around that left Peter demonstrably a man of God and a flame that no longer flickered and faltered. The English text reads, “…that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them.” The Greek text reads, “…that as Peter came by his shadow might overshadow them.” “Overshadow”: episkiazein. Luke had already used the verb twice in his written gospel to speak of God’s presence and power. Luke is telling us that people recognized God’s presence and power in Peter as unmistakably as they recognized Peter’s hair-colour and his facial features.

Some Protestants are uncomfortable with all such talk. They point out that the sanctity of any Christian isn’t something that can be measured or transferred or borrowed or leant. But to speak of holiness or godliness or saintliness as the church has used these expressions throughout its history isn’t to speak of a thing in any case. Some Protestants object, “Isn’t everyone a fallen creature, and fallen in equal degree?” Of course. No one is going to dispute this point. “Don’t we all merit condemnation?” Certainly. “Aren’t we all able to survive the present fire of God’s judgement (never mind the future fire) only by clinging to the cross?” Yes. “Then there’s no place for speaking of a greater godliness manifested among those who have abandoned themselves to God’s will and work and way.” Wrong. To be sure, Paul never suggested that the woebegone Christians in Corinth weren’t Christians; but he did insist they were immature, shallow, unwise and a disgrace. Many of us have met Christians who are mature, profound, wise and, so far from a disgrace, bring honour to their Lord. The influence of such people, on me at least, has been incalculable.

I’m always saddened at those who dismiss godly people from other branches of the Christian family on the grounds that the theology of these other people is deficient here or there. I’m the last person to dismiss theology. Yet important as it is, it’s only penultimate. Then what’s ultimate? Godliness is. I shall never forget one of the oral examinations I sat with Professor Jakob Jocz on the way to my doctorate. Jocz, a Lithuanian Hebrew-Christian, knew the difference between the penultimate and the ultimate and insisted on the difference relentlessly. After he and I had jousted intellectually for an hour in the examination he told me I had done well and would report my grade to the registrar. He dismissed me and I began walking away. I was almost out of the building when he hailed me and called me back. Speaking to me now not as examiner but as spiritual advisor he said, “Shepherd, what we’ve done here today is important but not ultimately important; what finally counts is the shape of a person’s life. You be sure to remember this.”

When I was teaching at a seminary in India a few years ago I noticed that the remains of Francis Xavier are buried there. Xavier was one of the six young men who, with their leader, Ignatius Loyola, formed the Jesuit order in the 16th century. They were missionaries who cheerfully embraced the severest hardships for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. Francis Xavier ministered for several years in India, having walked there from Spain. How long a walk is the walk from Spain? What did he encounter? What was the heat like, the danger from animals and snakes, the greater danger from hostile natives, the danger from tropical disease? To be sure, I wouldn’t agree with Xavier’s theology in all respects. But what finally counts is the shape of a person’s life! The saints continue to do more for me than I am able to tell you.

[4] Another man who has done ever so much for me I think of almost every day: Ronald Ward. Ward was a British-trained classics scholar-turned-New Testament scholar who came to Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. An Anglican clergyman, a gentle spirit, a fine preacher with a vivid imagination, a walking lexicon of Greek vocabulary and a master of Greek grammar, Ward could open up a Greek dictionary, comment on any word there, and in commenting on a point in morphology or syntax bring me, at least, before the throne of grace where I could only adore in amazement. Needless to say, I’ve met many New Testament scholars with fine Greek backgrounds who never did this for me. Then how is it Ward could? He was simply the godliest person I have ever met.

I first heard of Ward from my father. For years my father worked in downtown Toronto at the Canada Trust office at Yonge and Temperance streets. The downtown Anglican cathedral hosted Lenten noon-hour services lasting 40 minutes: hymn, prayer, scripture reading, sermon. My father attended every noon-hour in Lent and in time came to hear Ward. My father came home that night astonished at Ward’s scholarship and glowing at the authenticity with which Ward spoke of his life in his Lord. On my 24th birthday my mother (now a widow) gave me a book of Ward’s that expounded the theological significance of the subtlest points in Greek grammar. By now I was afire myself over the Greek grammatical subtleties that were more effective than Elijah’s chariot in bringing one before the face of God reflected in the face of that Lord whom Ward knew and loved. When I was ordained and settled in New Brunswick, the 400-mile round-trip drive to Ward, now a clergyman in Saint John, was nothing. For when I was in his home he would speak to me naturally, unselfconsciously, of matters of the Spirit, and speak so as to leave me craving his immersion in the heart of God.

Ward glowed with the Spirit. Genuinely humble like all the saints of God, he simply spoke from his heart of that gospel whose truth had validated itself in him over and over. Never intending to impress me, he none the less impressed me so thoroughly as to leave me unable to forget him. On one occasion he smiled warmly as he remarked to me, “Victor, if we fear God, genuinely fear God, we shall never have to be afraid of him.” I have pondered this simple statement a thousand times. “Victor, the worst consequence of sin is more sin.” I have proved the truth of this too many times, I’m ashamed to tell you. “Victor, the worst consequence of prayerlessness is the inability to pray.”

That book of his that my mother gave me on my 24th birthday: it discussed imperative and subjunctive moods, peculiar verb tenses like the gnomic aorist and the periphrastic perfect, as well as compound verbs and unusual prepositions. The book electrified me with gospel insights that I use repeatedly to tell my students they can’t afford to bypass Greek. One day, Greek testament in hand, I told Ward I was puzzled by two verses close to each other where Jesus says, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.” The verb is skandalizein, to cause to stumble. In these two verses two different tenses are used. One tense suggests completed action in the past, a single instance only; the other tense suggests an ongoing phenomenon. When I asked Ward about it he replied without hesitation. “Victor, in a moment of carelessness or inattentiveness or outright folly the Christian can be overtaken by sin. Horrified, she says, ‘Never again!’, and it’s done with, one instance only. And then there’s the Christian’s besetting sin with which she has to struggle every day.”

Ward died in 1986 at the age of 78. He’s so deep in my head and heart that he’ll never be out. I glow every time I think of him, and want only that the same Spirit which made him luminous for me might render me luminous for someone else.

[5] Everyone is aware that the saints whom the church catholic recognizes are frequently martyrs as well. Why are so many saints martyrs too? It’s simple: when the gospel meets the world, the gospel collides with lethal hostility. We must never, never think that the gospel is heard and beheld in a world that is spiritually neutral; the gospel is heard and beheld in a world that hates it.

When I was in Korea in 1998 I spoke with an American scholar who had been a missionary in Japan for 20 years from 1955 to 1975 (more or less.) He lit up as he told me he’d shortly be preaching in Japan and would see there a Christian woman, the daughter of a man who had come to faith in Jesus Christ when my friend had been a missionary. He was so very excited about this because a Christian who perseveres is so very rare, given the social stigma the Japanese visit upon anyone who makes a Christian profession. Not only is there social stigma, my friend said, there is right now a social harassment so intense that very few Japanese can withstand it. In years past, of course, there was out-and-out murder.

We shall never comprehend the suffering of Christians in China since the communist takeover of 1948; we shall never know the extent of those murdered in the cultural revolution of the last 30 years. As for Christians in Islamic countries; at this moment Christians in Islamic countries are being slaughtered in unprecedented numbers.

Remembrance Day is soon upon us, and with it all that Remembrance Day recalls. For me it always recalls Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, and his execution at the hands of the Nazis following a two-year imprisonment. When I was in Korea I spoke with some European theologians about Bonhoeffer. What did they think of him? How is he viewed in the academic circles of German theology? “We find him too pietistic”, they said with a supposed superiority that disgusts me, “especially his book The Cost of Discipleship. Too pietistic.” Bonhoeffer wrote the book knowing that the cost of genuine discipleship is no little cost; he wrote it knowing that he himself would pay the price. Bonhoeffer said simply, “It costs everything to follow Jesus.” And university professors of theology, whose predecessors were cowards during the Nazi era and who now enjoy fat-cat salaries and immense social prestige and whose discipleship costs them nothing; they dismiss the man who followed our Lord so closely as never to flee the cross he ordains for his people as surely as our Lord himself has never fled the one ordained for him. Leonhard Goppelt, a Hamburg New Testament scholar who saved his hide during the war by pretending he had never heard of Jesus Christ and whose work I refuse to read, remarked to a friend of mine (Goppelt’s doctoral student), “Bonhoeffer puzzles me; to survive all he had to was keep his mouth shut!” How can a witness to Jesus Christ keep his mouth shut?

To be a witness (martus) is frequently to be a martyr.

[6] Frequently, but not always. Many exemplary witnesses have been spared martyrdom. One such Christian, another fellow to whom I return often, is William Stringfellow, New York lawyer, Anglican layman, extraordinarily perceptive with respect to the principalities and powers. (The principalities and powers are the institutions, ideologies, images and “isms” that enslave people and break them.) Stringfellow acquainted me with the scope and depth of the world’s hostility and its bondage to death. Stringfellow also acquainted me with the scope and depth of God’s love for the world, which love means that God will never abandon it and therefore never should we. Lest we foolishly think that the saints are otherworldly and therefore of no earthly use, we should be aware that the saints love the world just because God loves it and love it with the same sort of love with which God loves it. Stringfellow died in January, 1985, three months before I was to visit him in New York. It was said at his funeral, “In his vocation and by his example he opened up to us the Word of God.” This is the vocation of all the saints, of all God’s people.

In this Presbyterian congregation John Calvin is going to be given the last word today. Calvin said, “The only foundation for that holy living which constitutes genuine righteousness is to cast everything else behind us and embrace the cross…of Christ with both hands.” The saints of every branch of the Christian family know this. They cast everything else behind them just because they want always and everywhere to embrace the cross of Christ with both hands.

Victor Shepherd
October 2001