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Reading between the Chapters: How to Become a Saint

November 4, 2007

Matthew 5:1-10; 16:13-25; 28:18-20

Perhaps you remember that last week, we began a series of sermons entitled Reading between the Chapters. We focused on several events that occurred in Matthew 3 and Matthew 4. We also talked about a process identified in the apocryphal book The Wisdom of Solomon, by which a person has authority to speak with wisdom. That source defined the requirements or process for becoming a monarch in ancient Israel: anointing, purifying, receiving the Spirit, and then testing. Once a person had completed those four steps, the Old Testament teaches that a person could speak with authority.

We see those four requirements played out in the life of Jesus through his baptism and wilderness experience. Jesus then took his place on a hillside, just outside of the city of Capernaum, and delivered what we call the Sermon on the Mount to his disciples. He sat down, assuming the position of a rabbi who taught with authority. Jesus began his sermon by listing what we call the Beatitudes.

How does a person become a saint? We do not talk very much about that topic in the Baptist church. The more liturgical churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church, have an established procedure. Over the last 2,000 years, the Roman Catholic Church has sainted about 3,000 people. Pope John XV really defined the official process for canonizing people to the sainthood during the 10th century. The last thousand years have seen several revisions. In 1983, Pope John Paul II made many changes, his most significant being the omission of what was called the Devil’s Advocate. He eliminated the process of appointing a cardinal to argue against the sainthood of the candidate.

We have turned our attention to the canonization process primarily because of Mother Theresa. After her death in 1997, a number of her followers asked the Vatican to waive the five-year waiting period and allow the canonization process to begin. In 1999, Pope John Paul agreed to waive that waiting period. Mother Theresa has quickly moved along in the procedure. Now, she is two-thirds of the way through the process of becoming Saint Theresa of Calcutta.

The first stage in the process is veneration. A panel of theologians discusses how this person has lived a life that is exemplary, a life worthy to serve as a model for other Christians. That happened almost immediately for Mother Theresa. Few of us would argue the fact that she certainly lived a life that deserves to be a model for many Christians.

The second stage in the process, beatification, allows a person to be honored or blessed in a special way among special people. The word beatification means blessed. A person who has been a martyr, a person who has died for their faith, has no problem receiving this blessing. Others must have shown some evidence of miraculous activity. Mother Theresa was granted beatification in 2003. We now refer to her as the Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta.

Canonization is the last step in the process. In order for a person to be considered a saint in the Roman Catholic tradition, evidence of at least two miracles, following the person’s death, must be presented. Already, two such miracles have been presented for Mother Theresa. One that seems most significant to me involves a Palestinian girl diagnosed with cancer. She reported having a vision in which Mother Theresa told her that she would be healed. Soon afterwards, her cancer was cured.

For those of us in the free-church tradition, we can see people who need to be venerated, admired for their traits, their Christian character. We can see people who perhaps have the right to a special blessing, a special place of honor. The process of proving miracles after death becomes a little too sketchy for those of us in the free-church tradition. At that point, we tend to abandon ship. In fact, in our Baptist tradition, we do not talk very much about saints because of that very issue. It seems inappropriate to us. The Scripture says that Jesus Christ is the only mediator between heaven and earth. Affirming that biblical principle makes it difficult for us to think in terms of saints interceding for anyone. We do not put much spiritual stock in the designation of anyone as a saint.

I am taking sermon time to talk about this issue because if we are to have dialogue with Christians of other groups, it seems important to at least understand what is significant to them. Throwing the topic of sainthood out altogether does not seem wise. A better course is to reinterpret this tradition in light of our understanding of the Scriptures. Many saints are designated as patron saints: for scholars and teachers – St. Jerome; musicians – St. Cecilia; bankers and accountants – St. Matthew; physicians – St. Luke; lawyers – St. Thomas Moore; students – St. Ambrose; newspaper reporters and broadcasters – St. Gabriel; carpenters and cabdrivers – St. Joseph; nurses – St. Agatha; homemakers – St. Monica; theologians – St. Thomas Aquinas. Recently, the Vatican has named St. Isadora of Seville, the patron saint of internet users and computer programmers. There is a constant updating of these patron saints.

We might well ask the question, What are the traits of a saint? The book of Leviticus contains a section called The Holiness Code. The key verse is Leviticus 19:2: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” We hear an echo of that in the Sermon on the Mount. “You shall be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” The word there is teleios, which means to be complete. The Greek word for saint is Hagiois. That word actually comes from the word holiness. The word holy means is to be different from other people, to be set apart from others. We understand that distinction is supposed to be true for all Christians. The Apostle Paul refers to all of the saints in this church and that church, a way of thinking that seems foreign to us. Maybe we could identify the traits of a saint by looking at the Fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5. If we take the word beatification, it is not difficult to see that the Beatitudes somehow are identified with the process of beatification. The words beatification and beatitudes come from the same Latin root word.

Let us look at these Beatitudes that appear in the Sermon on the Mount and see how the traits correspond to a saint. The first says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” What does this mean? Jesus is not talking about poverty, about the economically poor. He is talking about those who do not possess an attitude of self-reliance, independence, self-centeredness, self-sufficiency. A person who is “poor in spirit” understands that spiritual poverty can only be met by the grace of Christ Jesus. It is by grace that we are saved. It is by grace that we live our lives. A person who is “poor in spirit” has a heart that is attuned to the grace of God.

The second Beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn,” does not refer to people who have lost a job or a loved one. It is not referring to the terminally sick or the divorced. All of those people mourn, but this kind of mourning is different. This is mourning because we live in a broken world. A person who mourns in this regard has a broken heart about what is happening in a country like the Sudan. The person mourns because the world is full of strife and conflict, because little children suffer. This second beatitude refers to those who have a broken heart because of a broken world.

The third Beatitude, “Blessed are the meek,” is one of the most easily misunderstood. The word for meek described a domesticated animal. For example, a powerful and strong horse was thought to be meek if it had been trained. Meekness does not mean passiveness, indecisiveness, or weakness. It does not mean the inability to take action. Meekness means that a person uses his or her strengths to serve the Master. Meekness refers to the fact that a person has received training, discipline.

The fourth Beatitude, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” refers to individuals who have a passion for justice. They want to see people treated with honor, dignity. They want people to react to others in an ethical way. They want their own life to be noble and virtuous. This does not mean that they are quick to decide what is right and wrong about every situation. Rather, this means that they are willing to enter into a struggle about ethical issues. They try to discern what is best, right, just, and godly.

The fifth Beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful,” is a companion to the fourth. The prophet Micah makes it clear that a balance exists between those who seek justice and those who love mercy. A person who is merciful has a heart of compassion, a deep concern for other people. In this tenderhearted way, a person develops a sense of empathy for those who suffer in any circumstance. We have a responsibility and a willingness to forgive, to understand that we are all sinners saved by grace, and to restore a person caught in sin in a spirit of gentleness, as the Apostle Paul wrote. We must understand the relationship between our ability to forgive other people and God’s forgiveness of us.

“Blessed are the pure in heart.” Psalm 119 asks, “How can a believer keep his heart pure?” The answer is to keep it according to the Word of God. Jesus said that we are to seek first God’s kingdom and His righteousness; then everything else will fall into place. Our focus, our priority, must be on the things of God. Some Christians have tried in extraordinary ways to bring themselves into submission by living in solitude, by living in permanent silence, by beating their bodies with whips and clubs, by trying to cleanse themselves through celibacy, fasting, or prayer. That kind of asceticism is not the way. Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish theologian, said that the way to be pure in heart is to will one thing: decide that our will must be completely aligned with the will of God. We must make His will and His purpose our own.

The seventh Beatitude is “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Peacemakers long for peace. They want to be part of the solution during times of conflict. I think of Paul’s idea that we have a ministry of reconciliation, a responsibility to try to bring people together, to help them find a way to get along, to accept each other, and to acknowledge each other, even in their differences. The peacemakers know that real peace on earth has to begin with them. “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me,” as the song states. It is a matter of the heart, finding that elusive Shalom in our own spirit.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” These people do not suffer because they deserve to suffer. They suffer because the circumstances in their lives put them in a position of suffering. They find a way to interpret their suffering in a redemptive posture. Suffering does not need to be wasted. It needs to serve some creative purpose. Using our misery in a redemptive way means that we find a way to use our pain to respond to the sufferings of others. Doing so helps us understand what it means to be blessed. We endure for the sake of the kingdom.

When Jesus gave these teachings, he must have astounded those who heard him. His message really turned things upside-down. Some people have called his sermon the Great Inversion. Jesus has blessed the very people in his society who were considered cursed. These characteristics were not touted as the way to be in the elite group in first century Palestine. In our day, some of them have come into more favor. When I read these Beatitudes, I think of the words of Simon and Garfunkle: “people who have been sat on, spat on, and ratted on.” That is exactly the way they were regarded in the first century. Jesus says that people who live this way are the ones who receive the blessing.

Who can be a saint? According to the Apostle Paul, every Christian can be a saint. According to the teachings of Jesus, we are all expected to live with these traits. Paul writes about the saints in Corinth, the saints in Ephesus. Would he write about saints at Morningside? Can you imagine St. Mike Hensley? St. Holly Irvin? Can you imagine St. Carole, St. Jack, or St. Nathan? What about St. Wayne? My goodness, that is a stretch! Put your own name in the blank. Can you imagine being called a saint? That is exactly the way the Bible refers to all Christians. This is our free-church interpretation of a long-standing tradition in the church universal. These traits define the way we are to live. Does that mean that we are going to be perfect?

My brother-in-law, Steve Suits, had a Jeep Cherokee. He bought one of those vanity license tags for his vehicle and chose to put on it the word for saint, Hagiois. Very few people knew what that word meant. People driving around town wondered about this weird word on his license tag. One day, he was trying to merge into traffic on Pine Street when a car moved over and sideswiped his Jeep. I saw his vehicle and the license tag after that accident and thought, That is just the way it is with all the saints I know. They all have a few scrapes, some dented fenders, some peeling paint. No one is perfect. Every Christian I know has something wrong, yet we are the saints of God. God has called us.

Jesus was not speaking just to those disciples on the hillside at Capernaum. He was also speaking to us, saying, “Look at the eight characteristics of those who are blessed. This is the way I want you to live.” Like a good teacher who went beyond just telling his students how to live, Jesus demonstrated these characteristics in his own life. Jesus wants us to live this way if we are his followers. It begins when you acknowledge him as the Lord of your life. If you have never done that, we give you the opportunity to accept him as your Savior, to acknowledge him as your Lord. Some of you perhaps have other decisions to make. You have been visiting Morningside, and you know that God has led you to this place. You know He wants you to be a part of this church. Whatever decision God lays on your heart, we invite you to make it as we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “More Love to Thee, O Christ.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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