Preached at All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, Sunday, 13 March. Readings for this Sunday: Gen 15:1-12,17-18; Ps 27; Phil 3:17-4:1; Lk 13:31-35
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. (Phil 3:17)
You’ve probably noticed that shortly after I joined you as your interim priest, I’ve started referring to you collectively as “saints”. I say that to remind you of the generosity of God, who in Christ wants us all to be transformed and made better. The Greek word “hagios” means holy ones, and when Paul would write his letters to various churches, he would address them as “holy ones”. Today’s second lesson from Philippians begin with this greeting:
“To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Phillippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 1.1-2).
Paul was using the term “saints” in part to compliment these new Christians and to encourage them to continue in the faith, but he was also using the term to remind these congregation were being remade in the new life and new identities that God in Christ had called them to. The same applies to us.
I think it’s important to keep in mind that God has plans for us, that God wants to improve us and bring us closer to God’s self, and so I like that this parish is named “All Saints”, because the name reminds us that we God has God’s sights on all of us, that we’re all part of God’s improvement plan.
So there are saints – all of us – and then there are “Saints” with a capital S, the heroes of our faith. How do we in the Anglican tradition understand this latter group of saints. Our understanding of them is a little different from that of our Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends, who see them as means or channels of God’s grace.
As Anglicans we think of the saints as role models, as people that we should imitate. One of our prayer books explain it this way:
“… the history of God’s mighty acts of salvation is always a personal history. The Church believe that the divine purpose of justice, mercy, and love is revealed in the story of particular persons. Indeed, it is through the stories of individual saints that the Almighty renews and strengthens the witness of ‘the holy people of God’ (For All the Saints 11).
This idea of the role model is absolutely behind Paul’s exhortation to the Christians in Philippi to “join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us”. This statement might strike you as being quite egotistical, as many often perceive Paul to be. But think about what we all expect of coaches, mentors, and role models. Don’t we want such people to be examples of good practices and skills that we want to adopt?
Imagine if you were going to a gym and wanted to hire a fitness instructor. Wouldn’t you want to hire someone who was clearly in good shape, who had studied disciplines such as anatomy, and who had the experience and the skills to improve you? Just as the same is true of music instructors and college professors, it’s also true of fellow Christians who can be role models of our faith for us.
Before Covid, Joy and I liked to go to the monastery of the Society of St. John in Boston to participate in one of their weekend guided retreats. One of the monks would lead us in several sessions over the weekend, helping us to pray, meditate, and listen to God. That a person would give up their worldly life and travel to devote themselves to prayer and spiritual disciplines gives the brothers authority and credibility.
Paul had the same credibility. Whatever you may think of him (as a Paul fan, I’m in a bit of a minority), remember that Paul used to be Saul, a persecutor of the church, until he was literally transformed by Jesus into Paul, the teacher and evangelist and church planter. When Paul told the Philippians to imitate him, be was pointing to himself as a sign of how God could turn a life around.
If you don’t want to imitate Paul, there are lots of other Christians you can turn to as role models. Some are long dead, such as those we call the Communion of Saints, those Christians whose lives across the centuries have been memorable for their piety, their charity, their bravery, and even their eccentricity! Some of us are currently playing a game called Lent Madness, where we get to learn about 32 saints from across the centuries and vote for our favourite. You can learn more and play along at our parish Facebook page or at www.lentmadness.org.
Your own saint may be someone who was a role model to you in your own life, perhaps a Sunday school teacher, a grandparent, or your confirmation teacher. It may be someone who is sitting here today, who models a particular aspect of the Christian faith for you. For all you know, you may have helped someone else as a role model of the faith. These personal saints can play as transformative a role in our lives as any saint n a stained glass window.
Here’s a final thought on why we need saints as role models. Paul tell the Christians in Philippi to “stand firm in the Lord” (Phl 4.1). Another variant of this thought occurs in our Lenten prayer for the Breaking of the Bread: “if we hold firm, we will reign with him”. What does standing firm mean?
In this season of Lent, we are encouraged to think about the traditional disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and scripture reading that bring us closer to God. We also acknowledge that there are lots of things that are trying to pull us away from God.
Recently I read about a spiritual retreat where “the retreat leader led participants in discerning formational forces at work in our lives. Churches, schools, families, friends, neighborhoods, media, advertising, employers, professional organizations, etc., affect us daily, for better and for worse. At the end, the leader reminded participants, “Remember that as you leave, you will renter the multibillion dollar formation machine that is American media and advertising.”
The leader’s point was that we are exposed to many influences that try to shape our opinions, our personalities, even our souls. Not all of these influences are necessarily what Paul would call “enemies of the cross of Christ”, but many of these influences seek to align us with selfishness, materialism, hatred, and violence.
Looking to the saints is one way of re-aligning ourselves with the values of our faith, whether the saints are historic, stained glass figures, or personal saints who have shaped our lives. In an age where so many forces try to pull us away from God, the saints are like those radar beacons that guide aircraft at night and in fog. In short, the saints are guideposts that lead us home to Jesus.