The Saints of God
A young mother of three, she wanted her children to know that saints are ordinary people who try to do the right thing in every circumstance of life. So, she penned these words, “I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew….They lived not only in ages past; there are hundreds of thousands still; the world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will.”
Today we remember and give thanks for the saints in our lives, our mentors and role models in faith. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun and author writes that saints are “role models of greatness…They give us a taste of the possibilities of greatness in ourselves.” They show us by the way they live their lives that it is possible to put off our old nature, our earthly and base, selfish natures and to be renewed, transformed, to put on a new nature in the likeness of God.
Paul’s description here of what life lived in the likeness of God looks like is not as well-loved as his description to the church at Corinth where he wrote, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” To the church in Ephesus he writes, “…be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,…”
To both churches, he sends moral instructions for how this walk in love is lived when the rubber hits the road. You may be able to quote the one from the letter to Corinth with me, “Love is patient, love is kind, love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Paul’s instructions to the church at Ephesus are not as well-known, or as poetic, but they are practical and useful. Foundational for those who put on the new nature of God’s likeness in their lives is to tell the truth. Falsehood breaks relationship. Where there are lies, there is no trust, and there can be no community. Throughout Scripture we see that God’s vision is community. God is three in one. We are the body of Christ. We await the kingdom of God. That kingdom is life lived in blessed community.
The next instruction is more well-known, but perhaps not understood in the way that the church in Ephesus would have understood Paul’s intention. He writes, “Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” New Testament scholar, Ralph Martin points out that Paul is not telling us to get angry. He writes, “In the…Greek of the day the imperative mood (Be angry) expresses not only a command but also a …concession. So the meaning is: You may be angry…if you can’t help it, but do not sin [because of it].” “Do not let the sun go down on your anger” is poetic, expressing the need to let go of your anger. Something may make you angry, but don’t let it tempt you to sin in your response, and then as sure as the sun sets, let your anger dissipate, don’t hold onto it or fixate on it. Again, the objective is community. “Forgive one another,” writes Paul, “as Christ forgave you.”
I can just imagine the reaction of the Ephesians as they read the next line. “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his hands.” Heads nodding, making eye contact with each other with that eyebrow raised head nod. Theft was a rampant problem in Ephesus. Remember Ephesus was a major port, with all the debauchery and crime that comes with being a port city. Down at the docks, as shipments came in from around the world and goods were loaded for distribution to the world, thieves laid in wait for their opportunity. And at the bath houses, which were the health clubs of the day, it was common for thieves to take your clothes and belongings from the room that is the equivalent of today’s locker rooms. So, when Paul admonishes against stealing and directs them instead to do honest work with their hands for their money, I’m sure it was easy for the ship owners and merchants and the members of those bath houses to hear. “That’s right,” they were bound to be thinking, “get a job. Support yourself.” But that is not what Paul says; that isn’t why we work. “Let him labor,” writes Paul, “doing honest work with his hands, so that he may be able to give to those in need.” Just as we get our heads nodding and our smirks fixed and our eyes steadily case down our noses, Paul shifts the spotlight on us. Why do we work? So that we are able to give to those in need. Not to take care of ourselves, not to be self-sufficient; to live in community, caring for one another’s needs, sharing what we have for the common good.
Be honest; speak the truth. When you are angry, don’t nurse the anger, let it dissipate without acting on it. Work so that you can give to those in need. And finally, use your words to impart grace to those who hear. Don’t speak words that slander, that belittle or backbite that tear down rather than build up. Speak words that build the body of Christ, the community of saints drawn together by the Holy Spirit. “Be kind,” writes Paul, “tenderhearted, forgiving.”
The saints of God are God’s imitators. Can you imagine if God wasn’t truthful? If we couldn’t trust God? Can you imagine if God was angry and held onto resentments and wouldn’t forgive? Can you imagine if God kept all his work for himself. If God was only concerned about making enough to live comfortably? If God didn’t share with us what we need? Can you imagine God whispering about how you are headed for disaster; can you imagine God gossiping about you? No. And because this is not what God is like, it should not be what we are like either. Be imitators of God, saints.
In 1929, Lesbia Scott’s hymn was first published in England for more than her three children to learn what it means to be a saint. “I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true….You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea, for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.” “There’s not any reason, no, not in the least, why [you] shouldn’t be one too.” Amen.