November 3, 2019
Charles D. Mayer
Listen again to these words from our epistle lesson: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers” (Eph. 1:16-17). There is a lot packed into these two verses! First, there is the simple word “saints” – in Greek, “hoi hagioi,” literally “holy ones.” There is good evidence to support the idea that “God’s holy ones” was “the most common … form of designation for early Christians” (Preaching Through the Christian Year, Year C, p. 484). “Saints” is what people in the church called each other.
I remember one Sunday when I was a very young boy – I was sitting with the cherub choir in the first pew of the church, so I was probably about seven years old – I was drifting off during the sermon when suddenly I heard a dull thud from somewhere behind me, and our pastor stopped the sermon and said “one of the saints seems to have fainted – will the ushers please assist him?” Well that got my attention. I wanted to get a good look at the saint who was somehow in attendance that morning! Well, I did get a look (and by the way the man in question was fine), but it was a couple of years before I began to understand that he did not have some sort of special holiness that ranked him with Peter and Paul and John and the others I thought of as proper saints.
My pastor was rightly using the word to refer to any member of the Body of Christ. Now I said that there is a lot packed into the two verses I just read for us. Well, when the writer of Ephesians – probably not Paul himself, though we can’t be sure, but certainly someone writing in the name and tradition of Paul – uses the word “saints” in this way, we need to remember that this is a Jewish writer who is writing to Gentile Christians. Not only this, but two verses earlier he has said that these same Gentile Christians “were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit” (Eph. 1:13). The clear suggestion here is that this mark – the seal of the Holy Spirit – has the same significance as the seal of circumcision. It’s difficult for us today to appreciate how extraordinary this is: within just a couple of generations of the life of Jesus, the Jewish man whose first followers were all Jews, Gentiles with no background in Judaism at all are being addressed as holy ones, the spiritual equals of the Jewish community that had produced Jesus of Nazareth. And they are being addressed in this way by a Jewish Christian writer. The amount of change and growth that had to have taken place in a very short period of time is immeasurable.
It’s worth stopping and thinking about on this All Saints Sunday. There could never have been a Jesus movement that was anything other than a small Jewish sect had it not been for the enormous capacity for growth, the great openness to change, of the early Jewish Christian community. To welcome into the community people who were not circumcised, who did not observe Jewish dietary laws, who knew nothing even of the Torah or the Prophets, and see them as fellow saints: this required a tremendous capacity to tolerate discomfort, to overcome prejudice, to be open to the loss of precious traditions. Only this willingness to be stretched to its limits and beyond allowed the Jesus movement to grow. As a result, people who would have had very little in common – ethnically, religiously, socioeconomically – now referred to one another as God’s Holy Ones: that is, saints. All of this happened within about fifty years’ time.
When I try to imagine this phenomenon going on at the time, I think it must have been the case that there were saints in each local community who led the way towards those communities’ opening up to greater inclusivity. And this is the thing that I invite each of us to meditate on today. Who have been the holy ones in your life who have stretched you, challenged you to go outside your comfort zone, helped you to understand just how wide God’s embrace really is?
I’ll share a story from my own life that I hope will trigger your own reflections. I had a maternal step-grandmother whom I called Grandma Catherine, who was a part of the rural Pennsylvania family that many of you have heard me talk about before. Like many of my relatives from that generation on my mother’s side, she had only an elementary school education. She was literally a lifelong member of the local Methodist church, which had been an Evangelical United Brethren church before the merger with the Methodists (there will be no quiz on this history today) – and if you have any knowledge of those old German EUB congregations, you know that they were very conservative, traditional communities. Grandma Catherine joined an Adult Sunday School class when she was eighteen, and had her fifty-year pin, which she wore proudly to the class each week. She loved gospel music, cooked miraculous meals without ever consulting a recipe or using measuring cups, and never once danced or drank in her 97 years of life.
I had a step-cousin who was my age exactly, Grandma Catherine’s grandson Tom. Tom and I were very close, often visiting our grandparents for wonderful summer weeks without our parents or siblings. In college, Tom came out as a gay man, but never to Grandma Catherine. This was in the mid-1970s, and it was impossible for him to imagine that she could embrace and affirm his sexuality.
And then, like so many from the gay community in the 1980s, Tom contracted AIDS and died at the age of twenty-five. He had worked as a journalist for the Atlanta Constitution, which printed a feature article in his memory. I remember being with Grandma Catherine shortly after she read the article, which was the first time she learned of Tom’s sexuality, and which contained details of his life and experience that were completely outside her frame of reference.
I watched her over time as she cried, and struggled, and never spoke a condemning word even as she stretched to understand Tom’s life and story. She had no sophisticated theological or psychological constructs within which to express how much she grew, but guess what: she didn’t need them. She loved her grandson, and it was clear to her that God did too.
And then, a few years later, the AIDS Quilt came to York Pennsylvania, where Grandma Catherine lived. By then, she was almost 80 years old. Tom’s name was on the quilt. And Grandma Catherine went to see it.
I think it is fair to say that ten years earlier it would have been as likely for my Grandma Catherine to imagine visiting the AIDS Quilt as it would have been for a 1st-Century Jewish Christian to imagine worshipping with a Gentile. Yet both happened.
Where has it happened in your life? Who are the saints who rest from their labors today who have shown you what it is to widen your embrace because God’s embrace is as boundlessly wide as it is? Let us praise God for the lives and memories of each one, and pray that we may be such saints ourselves in these times that cry out for love as never before.