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"If the church was meant to be perfect, God wouldn't have included people." That's what my dad always said. But God did include people. In fact God made people essential to what the church is. Don't we tell ourselves that the church is not the building, it's the people?
In the Bible these people that make up the church are called saints. And believe you me I know about saints. My mother was a saint. I know that because she lives with my father for 35 years. At least that is what my father used to say.
But all kidding aside: I know that to say that we Christians are "saints" seems pretentious and even self righteous. But the book of Ephesians does not present it that way. It calls the Ephesians "saints" in the opening verses, but it was not by their own actions. It was by God's action of calling them and giving them forgiveness and the Holy Spirit that made them saints. Some like my mother may exhibit patience and love and kindness that seems saintly. But as my father observed we are still not perfect.
I am sure Paul knew that the church in Ephesus was not perfect. Yet our lesson from Ephesians thanks God for these saints. Paul says, "I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and your love for all the saints." And based on this report he thanks God for them and prays for them. He also prays that they would come to know God better. He prays that they might be enlightened.
The specific nature of that enlightenment is that they may know the hope and power of God in them. He is clearly speaking of a "glorious inheritance" in "the heavenly realms." But he sees that as a source of strength in the here and now to serve God.
He concludes this thanksgiving with an interesting phrase. He calls the church, as imperfect as it is, Jesus' "body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way." We the church, flaws and all, are the embodiment of Christ in the world! How can we be the "fullness of him who fills everything in every way?" Jesus is the Son of God who was there before creation, who spoke worlds into existence. How can we be the embodiment of that? How can we be the embodiment of the grace and love and forgiveness of God demonstrated in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection? Yet this passage says that by the grace of God we are.
Maybe that is why the early church invented All Saints Day. To give us an opportunity to remember those shining examples whose lives embodied Christ. To recall the lives of saints and martyrs who lived that love and grace and hope of Christ. And to be inspired by that remembrance. Inspired to be living embodiments of the love and grace of Christ.
So recall the lives of those who have passed on in the last year. Those who have realized, as Ephesians puts it, "the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints." Remember Frank Lyles, Mary Ellen Suitt, Caroline DiMarco, Lockee Becknell, Mildred Fields, Jeanette Young, Irene Moorhead, Ethel Colyer, Golden Ray Ramsey, Rev. Jack Harris, and Jeanne Martin. Remember their love and grace and dedication and perseverance and hope. These saints include preachers, and teachers, and layers, and mothers, and fathers, and artists, and brothers and sisters in the faith.
Remember these saints and recall others who have been saints. Maybe they are people like your parents or teachers or friends. Maybe they are historical figures who lived the faith in the past. What is it about the witness of their lives that touches you? Remember these saints.
Then thank God. Like Paul, thank God for those whose faith in Christ has inspired you. Thank God for their love. Thank God for their faith. Thank God for their example.
And learn from them. Remember how deeply these and other saints knew God. Let the Spirit of wisdom enable you to know God better. Let the eyes of your heart be enlightened but the witness of the saints.
These saints put their hope in God in Christ. They hoped for a glorious inheritance. They believed that God would enable them. They fought the good fight and kept the faith. Remember and grow.
Then ask yourself: How can I seek to embody the hope and grace and love of God in Christ as these saints did? "And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way." Paul, earlier in this chapter, says that Jesus Christ called us "before the creation of the world."(vs. 4) Paul believed that Jesus was there at creation. That Jesus was the incarnation; the manifestation of the Almighty God in human form. So when he writes of Jesus as the one "who fills everything in every way" he is referring to the eternal omnipresence of God in Christ. Jesus was there at creation making the world, and Jesus is a part of the Spirit's ongoing recreation of the world.
How in the world could we, as broken and flawed as we are embody that kind of greatness? The saints are examples of people who did in some way embody that greatness. The Wesleys and Luthers and Theresas and Hildegards and Kings of the ages were glimmers of the fullness of him who fills all in all. They show us how we the church today can be the body of Christ in our age,
These saints that we memorialize today are examples the faith of everyday people. Let them inspire you. Let their lives show you how to be the church. Let them lead you in the way of faith. And like Paul, I pray that we may be "his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way."
Jesus was talking to his disciples. This passage sounds a lot like a similar passage in Matthew known as the beatitudes. But this one is different. In this one Jesus says "Blessed are you who are poor." In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." But here in Luke it is not "The poor" it is "you poor." Jesus is talking directly to his disciples. And it is not "poor in spirit" meaning humble, but just "poor" meaning not having much money. Jesus was telling those disciples who were poor that God would bless them, but how? They would receive the Kingdom of God.
Then Jesus said, "Blessed are you who hunger now." Not "blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" as in Matthew. Jesus is telling the people who don't have enough food in the crowd that God will bless them. How? They will be satisfied. God will take care of them.
Again Jesus said, "Blessed are you who weep now." Jesus is telling those in the crowd who are weeping that God will wipe away their tears. And Jesus said "Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man," because you are in good company and your reward will be great in Heaven.
Then there is this set of Woes. If the poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted are blessed then woe to their opposites. Woe to the rich, full, happy and popular because they have already gotten theirs.
You are blessed. You see God blesses those who need to be blessed. God blesses the disadvantaged and distraught and hungry with what they need. The rich and full and cheerful don't seem to need a blessing. I guess it all comes down to whether you need to be blessed. Do you need to be blessed?
I think you do and you know you do. That's why you're here. You realize that you need God to provide for you. So you are a Saint!
You might say, "But preacher were no saints," but you are. The biblical word saint means anyone who believes in Jesus. You have been forgiven and been cleansed. You recognized your sin and have been blessed. You acknowledged your need before God and the Son blessed you and made you a saint.
But being a saint is not all about gratification of your needs. It also includes persecution. Jesus was talking to his disciples when he said "blessed are you when people persecute you." Their reward is in heaven. In the same way God provides for you in the here and now but there are also trials for the faithful in this life. But there are even greater rewards in heaven!
We are blessed. But being blessed can be hard; in fact it can be downright difficult. Jesus followed up this news of blessing with a list of difficult commands. Again he is speaking to his disciples: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you."
How do you love your enemies? How do you do good to those who bomb your homeland and kill your country men and women? Bless those who call you the great Satan, how? How do you give to someone who steals you property? I mean to be that good you would have to be a - a saint!
Oh, wait a minute, we are saints aren't we. But I don't know if I can do all that. Perhaps the saints of old did it. Maybe we need to be blessed to be able to do all that. Maybe we can look to people of faith in the past to be inspired by their life and faith. Maybe we can look to God to bless us and enable us to love our enemies and bless those who cures us.
Perhaps we can start by receiving the blessing of this holy meal.
Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Have you ever been waken by a nightmare? Or perhaps by something that went bump in the night. We have all felt that fear before. Sometimes the feeling passes as fast as the dream is forgotten or as we realize that it was just the wind. But sometimes we lie there in the dark and the fear won't go away. Perhaps if we go back to sleep too fast the nightmare will start again or perhaps the sound was an intruder and not just the wind.
We live in a world where a lot of things go bump in the night and frighten us out of our peaceful rest. We worry about loved ones: Children or parents; will they be OK. We were all awaken from unconsciousness by the attacks of 9/11. And the threat of terrorism is still with us. What will become of the war?
What can we do in the face of these fears? A lot of people voted this past week thinking that one or the other candidate could fix the war or social security or national security or …. And perhaps the right or even the wrong candidate can do something. But there is always a new nightmare waiting to go bump in the night and wake us to fear.
The Bible tells us that Daniel had a scary dream. And the dream disturbed him. Daniel lived in a time when God's people were in captivity. Jerusalem had been conquered and the Israelites had been carried off to Babylon. Daniel was among these exiles and he lived and worked in the palace of the king.
It was while he was there in bed in the palace in Babylon that he had what we would call a nightmare. In it were four monsters. One was like a lion with eagle's wings, but it became like a man. Another one was like a bear. It had three tusks and it was told to devour many bodies. The third was like a leopard with four wings and four heads. And the fourth had iron teeth and eleven horns.
Then Daniel saw an Ancient man. He sat on a fiery throne. This ancient one sat in judgment and condemns the fourth beast to death. He also judged the other beasts and spared them but he took away their dominion. Then Daniel saw one like the "son of man" and that one was given dominion of all the earth forever.
Daniel says that these visions troubled him and terrified him. He didn't understand what they meant. So he asked one of the attendants in this courtroom what all this meant. He was told that the four beasts represent four kingdoms.
Now the question that everyone raises is what four kingdoms do they represent? The answers are many. One theory says that they referred to the four major empires that ruled in the near east from Daniel's time on. These would be the Babylonians, the Medes, The Persians and the Greeks in that order. That is the scholarly consensus, but some try to lump the Medes and Persians together and make the fourth kingdom the Roman Empire. Others try to make the beasts correspond to nations existing today.
But what is important is not who the kingdoms are, but what will happen to them and to us. The attendant tells Daniel, "The Holy Ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever - forever and ever." Who are these Holy Ones, these Saints? We are! We and anyone throughout time who has placed their trust in God. The Good News is that in the end God's people, the saints, will inherit God's kingdom for all eternity!
It is no wonder that Daniel was troubled by his vision. I am sure that many of his fellow Israelites were troubled too. What would become of them. Would the Babylonians or any of the other great empires of the ancient world destroy them? Would God's people cease to exist? Would their faith and way of life die out?
In the same way we often have troubling vision and night mares. These nightmares include beasts both terrifying and real. One is a beast of terrorism that destroys and threatened our freedom. Another is a beast of war that threatens our peace and families. Another is the beast of an unknown future that threatens our well being. And these visions bump us out of our rest and leave us in the dark, frightened and disturbed.
Holy Gifts for Holy People! In the Methodist Church we don't usually talk much about communion. We think it's important because Jesus said to do it in remembrance of him. But we don't take much time to talk about it. We just do it. One of the reasons we don't talk about it is that Christians have different ideas about what is actually going on when we say that the bread and the juice are the body and blood of Christ. And we don't want to get bogged down in theological questions; we just want to enjoy remembering Jesus and his disciples. We want to enjoy the experience.
But let's talk about communion today. The elements of communions, bread and grape juice, are essentially common everyday things. It's food. We eat bread and drink juice practically every day. In fact we take such things for granted. In any other setting these things would go unnoticed. But not here. Here the bread and cup are treated special. We place them in a prominent place in the sanctuary. We drape white cloths over them and speak religiously about them. We surrounded them with candles, crosses, and other religious symbols.
Why are this bread and the contents of this cup different? They are special because one day Jesus the Son of God took an ordinary piece of bread, and after blessing it he broke it. He gave it to his disciples and said, "This is my body broken for you." This grape juice is special because one day Jesus took a cup of wine and said, "This is my blood." That food was holy because Jesus made it holy. He chose to transform it from common food that fills the belly to spiritual food that fills the soul. And he gave that food to his disciples to bless them. This bread and grape juice represents that food. Jesus told us to break bread and share a cup in remembrance of him. And when we do that his Holy Spirit feeds us. Holy gifts! Not because they are intrinsically different from other food in and of themselves. They are holy gifts because God has set them aside for a holy purpose.
God is in the business of taking ordinary thing and turning them into holy things. God takes ordinary things like bread, wine, nails, boards, and stables and turns them into something holy. Likewise, God takes ordinary people and turns them into holy people. Last Thursday was All Saints Day. All Saints Day is the day when we remember and celebrate the contributions of the saints, or holy people. People like Peter and Paul the apostles. Or Ruth and Deborah in the Old Testament. Or John, Charles, and Susannah Wesley. Consider for a moment Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary was an ordinary girl. She may have been only 13 or 14. Her family was not powerful or rich. She was promised to a carpenter, not to a king or leader.
Yet we honor this ordinary first century Jewish girl. We call her "Saint" or "blessed." The Eastern Orthodox paint pictures of her. The Roman Catholics venerate her. We Christians do not treat her as an ordinary girl.
Why is she special? She is special because one day an angel from God came to her and said, "You are favored, God is with you." She is special because God chose her to give birth to the Savior of the world. She is holy because God made her holy. God took a young Jewish girl and transformed her into Saint Mary the Mother of Jesus the Savior of the World.
God takes ordinary people and makes them holy by speaking a word to them and setting them aside for a holy purpose. That is what God has done to us; made us holy people, saints. We're ordinary people. We're not kings or billionaires or world leaders. We're just normal people.
But one day God sent his Son to ordinary people. And Jesus spoke to ordinary people and said, "Blessed are the Poor." You can't get much more ordinary than the poor and God blessed them. He said, "Blessed are those that hunger and weep." Have you ever hungered or wept? Then you are blessed by God! When we receive Jesus, the author of the blessings, we receive the blessings themselves. Through Christ ordinary people in common situations are blessed by God!
Paul made this same point in different words in his letter to the Ephesians. He said, "When you...believed in him, [you] were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit."(1:13) When we first believed we were blessed or graced with the Holy Spirit the presence of God with us. And through that Holy Spirit God gives us wisdom and guidance. Then Paul prays that they may know what is the immeasurable power that is in Christ Jesus. Paul goes on, "God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places."(1:20) The power of God's blessing was demonstrated in Jesus resurrection and ascension and now this power dwells in us who believe in Jesus.
Holy Gifts for Holy People. Sainthood is not only for people who lived in Bible times. It's not only for those who have gone on to glory. Sainthood is available to all. When we give our lives to Christ, he comes and lives in our hearts. And he gives us the power of God like the power that was demonstrated at his resurrection.
Claim your Sainthood. Ask Christ to come into your hearts if you never have. If you have already given your life to Christ then claim the eternal power and glory that is yours in Christ Jesus.
Holy gifts for holy people. When you come today to receive communion, don't come as the world comes to receive bread for the stomach. But come as Saints to receive Christ who fills and nourishes the soul.