God is in the business of making something beautiful of us if we will but let Him, and to that end, like a pearl being cultured we all need and should be very grateful for the bits of grit God sends our way.
Jilly was one such bit of grit for me and over several years of parish ministry God used her to work on me. Whenever she came my way, I knew I was in for it. There was something in her bearing, the way she pulled herself up and thrust her shoulders forward, like a bull ready to charge that said “You’re in for it, . . . Again”
On the occasion I have in mind, it concerned a play we were putting on at church. Actually it wasn’t a play, it was a dramatic monologue about Joseph, wonderfully portrayed as he mused on his lot as, well as a bit player in the drama of Salvation. St Joseph and his apparent marginality to the Story of Salvation, gives us much to think about, but another time – for there wasn’t time. Jilly was heading to me like an express train and that meant Trouble. “Have you seen this poster Vicar?!!” She never that I remember referred to me by name. If she was in a good mood it was “My Dear”, if she wasn’t it was Vicar – Have you seen this poster “the Lot of Joseph – a Bloke’s rough deal” – Fancy, calling St Joseph a bloke!! Is there no deference left in this society of ours? I shall most definitely not be going! And off she stormed, probably to tell everyone else that they shouldn’t go either and that calling a St a Bloke, was The Last Straw!!
Jilly, like many others I guess, liked her Saints to be somewhat above the common herd – those whom we can look up to, as if gazing adoringly from afar, someone who will do this whole Christian thing for us so that we who are less worthy may by their efforts sneak in at the last. As if there were two types of Christian, the Saints and then the rest of us, ‘blokes and lasses’ as we said in the Northern English Idiom, as it were muddling along – but you mustn’t confuse the two. Saints had the best seats booked at the heavenly banquet and hopefully we might sneak in on their coat tails. If you like, Saints and common or garden Sinners.
But . . . I think that in some small way she might have a point in her complaint. The word Bloke in Jilly’s ears spoke of disrespect of trying to pull St Joseph Down to Earth – to make him one of the common crowd – like us. And we do like to do this don’t we – to bring people down to Earth. I mean , think of the way we treat Celebrities in our culture, in newspapers and on the television – it seems we like nothing better than to point to imperfections, to knock people of there perch, and we do the same in the church.
If you don’t think so then let me ask you what comes to mind if I say St Peter? My guess is that unlike many of our forebears in faith, our dominant images of Peter are actually pretty negative. I myself have said that I give thanks for Peter, because he is always getting it wrong. Peter is rash, arrogant, and in the end denies Christ – and that is the way we like him, because it affirms us in all our rashness, arrogance and denial. It enables us to trot out the old story ‘we’re all sinners’ Yet, that is to ignore half of Peter’s story, it is to ignore the transforming effect of the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus upon Peter and his life. We prefer Peter the Christ denier to Peter the bold preacher and martyr.
The Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus changes Everything, it transforms Peter and it is intended so to Transform us. A few weeks ago I invited you to look in the mirror and see there a Baptised person. To be Baptised is to be immersed in the Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus – and the whole of the New Testament is a call to live in the light of that, to live in the New Reality that Christ has Brought into being.
It is a commonplace that ‘we are all sinners’ – yet that is not what the Scriptures call Christians, not what those who have been immersed in the Death Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. No. Universally in the New Testament, these people are called Saints. Paul addresses many of his letters ‘To the Saints’ in such and such a place. When he writes to Rome and Corinth he says ‘to those who are called to be saints – Nowhere in Scripture are Christians referred to as Sinners, rather they are referred to as what they are Saints, if Saints in the making, if still being changed from one degree of glory to another, the focus is the Glory and Not the Shame.
The old Sinner mould is discarded at Baptism and a new shape of life is given to grow up into – and our pulling the Saints Down is I think a Symptom of our refusal to undertake the demanding work of Growing up into the Saints we have been made by our Baptism into the Death, resurrection and Ascension of Jesus. It is a refusal of the gift of Life – once more as back in the garden – hiding from God. Trying to undo his work – you see We like to pull our Saints down, but God is in the business of lifting Sinners up.
I guess for many of us – that work of allowing ourselves to be made into Saints has stalled. I know it often can do so in my life. The Jilly’s of this world, those ‘who are sent to try us’ as those of old wisely put it, are not understood as God’s gift to us. Our first response to them is not ‘How is God using this to create something beautiful in me?’ but often ‘why doesn’t God get them out of my way??’
And in pondering that we may perhaps come to see that in truth there is no way but the way of Love as Jo began to reveal to us last week – but in particular, Love of God and this is exemplified for us in Jesus. His Death, resurrection and Ascension, open the way, and He is the Way. Perfectly expressed in the Beatitudes – these express what it means to keep the first commandment – and they express the Life of Christ.
Blessed are the poor in Spirit – those whose only hope is God
Blessed are those who mourn – whose only true comfort is God
Blessed are the meek – who allow themselves to be led by God
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst – for the Life of God
Blessed are the merciful – who are revealing the Life of God
Blessed are the Pure in heart – who only have eyes for God
Blessed are the peacemakers – who are involved in the work of God
As we look out upon the world – we see so much that is wrong and we fail to see so much more. Wars, rumours of wars, economic collapse, environmental degradation on a level that suggests that the planet may soon wish to spew out those who were sent to till and keep it. We may well look out at all of that and say – how on earth can being made into Saints help any of that?? What this world really needs is millions of . . . Saints. In other words it needs people who are wholly given over to God – Living Sacrifices which is the meaning of our baptism. Our immersion in His Life.
What this world needs is the Life of God – by baptism You and I are made part of the church, the Body of Christ in the world – we are called to be Saints and to live this New life we have been given in Christ, and thus to be God's transforming Life in the World.
The Beatitudes express the Life of Christ, they express The Way we are to go. They express this total devotion to God, or as we have it – they express what it means to Love God with all our heart soul, mind and strength.
When we think of the Great Commandment – we tend to focus on the second, not the first – If I say Love to you, you will almost certainly think about how do I Love my neighbour as myself rather than How do I love God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength? Yet we struggle to answer the question ‘How do we love our neighbour as ourselves’, perhaps because we have not begun to try to answer the first question ‘How do I love the Lord my God with all my heart and soul and mind and strength?’. It is only when we begin the work of Loving God with all we have and all we are – learning and living the beatitudes and trusting his work in us - that we begin to learn what it is to Love our neighbours
My sister Jilly, for by baptism that is what she is, had a point. Saints are distinctive, they stick out, they are not the same, they have stepped out of the common herd. As Jesus sits down to preach he sees the crowds, His disciples Came to him, they began the walk to being Saints. The disciples step out of the crowd. In a culture where True distinctiveness that goes beyond narcissistic ‘Self Expression’ is Very Rare, this is a Hard Call, it is easier to try and drag the disciples back into the crowd than to follow them – it is easier to look at the Saints and say, come back down to earth to be Sinners with us, than to hear them say ‘No. You too have been raised with Christ – come to be Saints with us!’
Our brothers and sister in Christ are God’s gift to us in this Way of Christ - for they are God’s grit to our pearl, as we are to theirs. Seeing them as gift transforms everything, and I am glad to say that Jilly and I parted on better terms than we’d met as we’d both been grit to one another as God did his work on each of us.
Saying ‘I am a piece of Grit’ as we look at our brothers and sisters and at ourselves in the mirror is not a good idea. Perhaps if we saw them as God sees them – that when he looks on us He sees Christ. That they are in Christ, Saints – all Saints our eyes might be opened to that which we are also in God’s eyes, ‘they are Saints and I too am called to be a Saint’ – In Loving God with all we have and all we are – our eyes are fixed on Him – all we see is Him, when we look at others and when we look at ourselves. All Saints, for the Salvation of the World and for the Greater Glory of God.