THE EXAMPLE OF THE SAINTS
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
November 6, 2016
Third Sunday Before Advent
Lections: Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; Psalm 24; 1 John: 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12a
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man
could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples
and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb,
clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands,
and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God
who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”
In the Eastern Orthodox church, at my chrismation, which is a ceremony comparable to confirmation, I was given the name John, after Saint John Chrysostom, the 4th century Archbishop of Constantinople. Chrysostom means “golden-mouthed,” and Saint John was known, among other things, for his preaching skills. Today, on the Sunday after All Saints Day, we remember the many thousands of people whose lives, like John Chrysostom’s, serve as powerful examples for us, as we strive to live our Christian lives. The God who calls each of us in a particular way to discipleship does not leave us alone, to make our way through the very human challenges of living Christian lives; rather, he gives us the example of fellow human beings “to show us the way.” “By word and example,” one Franciscan reflects, John Chrysostom’s preaching “exemplifies the role of the prophet to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. For his honesty and courage, he paid the price of a turbulent ministry as bishop, personal vilification, and exile.”[i]
Let’s talk about three ways the example of the saints can “lead us to sanctity.” Earlier this morning, as we do on every communion Sunday, each of us made a public confession of our sins, and when we hear and read about the saints, we are reminded that, unlike Jesus, saints did not live sinless lives. Yet step by step, from one day to the next, they were perfected in holiness, and they grew more able to successfully resist the temptations they faced. We know that we sin outwardly, in our relation with others, and inwardly, in the habits of our mind, and long after we stop sinning outwardly, we continue to sin inwardly. So the first thing the saints can show us is how to face inward temptations, instead of avoiding them. The saints give us an example of how we can benefit from temptation, by being “humbled, cleansed and instructed.”[ii]
A second way we can learn from the saints is always to put God first. Saints model for us the habits of personal prayer and generous, unselfish behavior that grow out of a strong relationship with God. When we desire more than anything else to please God, o this shows in our relationships with our spouses and families, in our work and social environments, and in the Church. We become more compassionate and merciful, and the image of God is gradually restored in us. Saints show us how prioritizing prayer will make each of us into a stronger image of God in the world, so we can become agents of his grace.
Here we may pause for a moment and ask, who are the saints? For centuries the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Roman Catholic church, and the Church of England have canonized saints; all three canonized John Chrysostom,[iii] who I mention because God has lodged his memory in my life. Yet at different times in our lives and for different reasons, we will be drawn to different saints. Some 20th century saints who are important to me are Oscar Romero, for his refusal to be silenced in the midst of oppression and injustice; Josemaria Escriva, for his ministry to ordinary working people in their daily lives, and Teresa of Calcutta, who founded the Missionaries of Charity. Recently, I began to learn about Maximilian Kolbe, who was martyred in Auschwitz. There are also people like Dorothy Day, who are not canonized, but who showed in their lives the qualities of saints and who are exemplary models of “living out the Gospel” and dedicating our entire life to God. We may know people like this, people who we try to emulate; we “call people “saints” because they exemplified the Christian life.”[iv] Anytime we inspire and encourage one another, and faithfully answer God’s call for us, we are being “saint-like.” Our voices of praise and thanksgiving here on earth are then joined with the great choir of heavenly saints and angels. So even as we do not want to over-exaggerate the distinction of sainthood from the life of the ordinary Christian, neither do we want to diminish the extraordinary accomplishment of the heavenly saints. While we all have a vocation to sanctity, we have not yet perfected our holiness.
The third thing, then, that we can learn from the saints is persistence. Every saint is different, but they do share common traits: suffering, dignity, strength, humility, discipline. Saints demonstrate a strong allegiance to the Gospel, justice and charity, the poor and the oppressed. Saints also show us the difficulties we can expect from our allegiance. Many were vilified, persecuted, and scorned for their faith. Yet they persisted in overcoming these difficulties and fulfilling the purpose of their lives on earth. Some were martyred, others lived as ascetics; some were devoted to solitary prayer life, others to their labor in the world; some were scholars, others missionaries. So It is good for us, as a pastime, to read about the lives of the saints, and to be “pleased and edified” by their example. Then we will be better able to answer God’s call in the unique way that is his will for us.
In summary, we have said saints “are examples to imitate,” and we have singled out three ways their lives “show us the way” to live Christian lives. First, saints show us how we can benefit from temptations, by facing them, and not avoiding them. Saints benefit from temptation, by being “humbled, cleansed and instructed.” Second, we learn always to put God first, through habits of personal prayer and generous, unselfish behavior, so we can become agents of God’s grace. And third, we learn persistence; allegiance to the Gospel is a difficult way of life, but each and every saint is able to overcome the difficulties that confront him and her. By hearing and reading about the lives of the saints, we can be “pleased and edified” and moved, as John Wesley said, to give “solemn thanks for the lives and deaths” of God’s saints!” Those who came before us in the church have provided in a very real way for our well-being. Their sacrifices lead us to Jesus and share with us his gospel.[v] They show us how to answer God’s call in the unique way that is his will for each of us.
Therefore, as we prepare to celebrate communion, where we remember the gift of the life which Jesus the Christ gave for us, and we are once again emboldened to follow his example in our lives, let us give thanks for the glorious promise of our calling and for the hope of one day joining in the company of heaven, where the saints are dressed in white and marked by the “seal of God.” Let us pray, that following their example and strengthened by their fellowship, we may run with perseverance the race that is set before us, and with them receive the unfading crown of glory. Amen
[ii] Thomas A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Bk 1, Ch. 13
[iii] John Chrysostom is remembered in the Orthodox church on November 13 and in the Church of England and Roman Catholic churches on September 13.