Sainthood Reframed

Since the earliest days of Christendom, the faithful have gathered to give thanks for the life and ministry of the saints – women and men whose witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ has been a blessing in every generation. The witness of many of these blessed women and men – such as Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Theresa of Avila or Saint Augustine of Hippo – are well known. Their writings have become popular.  Their deeds inspire us to name hospitals and schools and churches for them, and their service to the Church is taught to the faithful in every generation. Yet, for others – such as Saint Simon or Saint Jude – little is known beyond their names.

Regardless of how much or how little we know about these faithful witnesses, one thing is certain: their life and ministry richly blessed the world. Of course, by worldly standards, it would appear that saints don’t know much about blessings. Few knew anything about wealth.  Most lived all or part of their lives in poverty. Notions of status and power couldn’t be more foreign to them.   Few ever knew high-paying or revered jobs, choosing instead to work for little or no money at all, serving the poor and the helpless. And far from instilling fear or subordination, many saints were hated and met untimely deaths precisely because of the faith they so boldly proclaimed.

Of course it wasn’t on worldly standards that saints patterned their lives. They lived by Jesus’ standards revealed in Matthew 5 and Luke 6. And as the Gospel of Luke tells us, Jesus’ standard for what constituted a blessing is radically different from the standards to which the rest of the world is accustomed,

“Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus says, “for yours is the kingdom of God.” “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.”
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”

Poverty, hunger, mourning, hatred, exclusion, revilement and defamation – these things certainly don’t seem like blessings to me! But Jesus is convinced that they are. And most shocking of all, Jesus says that these are the sorts of people to whom the Kingdom of God is entrusted.

In 1772, at the end of a 39 day ocean crossing, John Woolman, the simple tailor from Mount Holly, West Jersey, contracted small pox and died, in London. In his last hours we are told his mind was full of ‘the happiness, the safety, and the beauty of a life devoted to following the Heavenly Shepherd’.

Jay Miller, in a review of Geoffrey Plank’s book John Woolman’s Path To The Peaceable Kingdom, makes a favorable comparison of John Woolman with Dorothy Day the twentieth century writer, social activist and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement who died in 1980. Despite that she was alleged to have said “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily” the case of her beatification is currently open in the Catholic Church. Plank writes that “(t)he effusive praise Woolman has received, both as a saint and as a pioneering opponent of slavery, has unfortunately impeded our ability to comprehend his engagement with other Quakers,” and “the secular currents of eighteenth century life.”  Plank’s book seeks to help us better understand Woolman as a complete person thoroughly embedded in the context of eighteenth-century American Quakerism and the British imperialism.

Plank writes: “Woolman saw the imperial economy as a machine, and… the various parts of the British Empire served specialized functions that supported one another. He argued that purchasing the products of slave labor promoted slave-raiding and warfare in Africa and that concentrating wealth in the hands of the landed elite on the American east coast had the effect of pushing landless whites onto Indian lands in the west. He therefore saw from his home in Mount Holly nearly all the evils of the far-flung empire around him.”

Woolman grew up as one of thirteen children on the family farm in West Jersey surrounded by other Quaker families and meeting houses, a legacy left by earlier Quaker settlers. He went to school with other Quaker and native American children. Industry was beginning to change the agricultural character of the Delaware Valley, diversifying the economy, bringing in non-Quakers to the iron works and creating new wealth. He sought out the affirmation and approval of trusted Friends and their oversight. Our image of him has been created by our learning only of his persistent focus on eradicating slavekeeping among Quakers. The reality is that he was took an active role in the life of his Meeting. He engaged in the concerns of Quarterly and Yearly Meetings across the colonies. He helped maintain the meetinghouse, delivered books and pamphlets to local meetings, mediated disputes between debtors and creditors, counseled young men contemplating marriage, served on clearness committees who met with people interested in Quakerism and more.

In 1746 he traveled some 1,500 miles as far south as North Carolina in the company of Isaac Andrews, speaking with slave-owners about the evils of slavery, but as tradition tells it, “so gentle was his personality that he convinced without offense. Always his hearers felt that he appealed to consciences rather than giving blame.”

Being troubled by the wars between the English and the French and the continual threat of wars with native Americans he made a difficult and dangerous trip into the north-central part of Pennsylvania. He stayed for four days among the Minesink tribe, feeling, as he says, “the current of love run strong.” At one point he poured out his heart in prayer, disregarding his translators. When he had finished, the tribe’s chief, Papunehang, put his hand on his own breast and said, “I love to feel where words come from.”

We’ve learned that for a while Woolman was engaged in selling pork to the Caribbean through a Philadelphia broker. His ledgers show that this business stopped abruptly, raising the question of whether there was some connection between it and the slave trade. His business interests then began to be more locally focused as he grew grain and did tailoring for his neighbors. It must have been difficult for his contemporaries to understand this man who wore conspicuously white clothes rather than use dyes which had to be produced by slave labor. But most of all it was his writings which made a larger social critique of the luxury experienced by some at the expense of others’ labor that truly set him apart.

This fuller picture of John Woolman, seeing him in the context of his home, of the politics and economics of colonial America, his concern for humanity regardless of race and even his grasp of the consequences of the most simple of choices, requires us to re-frame our understanding of sainthood, not as the endeavor of a few who transcend but the real vocation of all who follow the path of Christ.

So who or what is a saint? Paul often addressed his epistles to “the saints” of a particular city as in Ephesians 1:1 and 2 Corinthians 1:1, and Luke in Acts 9:2 talks about Peter going to visit “the saints in Lydda”. The Greek word hagios means “to set apart”, “to sanctify” or “to make holy.” It gets translated into English as the word saint. It appears 229 times in the Greek New Testament in which it refers to persons who are “in Christ” and in whom Christ dwells. The assumption is that women and men who follow Christ have been transformed so that they are now somehow “different” from others, set apart for the work of the Kingdom and are thus considered saints. In his book, Making Saints, Kenneth Woodward writes: “A saint is always someone through whom we catch a glimpse of what God is like—and of what we are called to be. Only God “makes” saints, of course. The church merely identifies from time to time a few of these for emulation. The church then tells the story. But the author is the Source of the grace by which saints live.

I still like the story which I’ve told before of the little girl from a rural Friends Meeting who visited a grand cathedral in the big city and was mesmerized by the stain glass windows. When she got home she said that she now knew what a saint was. It is someone through whom the light shines.

Does that come as a challenge to you? I know it’s a tough call and humility and integrity might cause you to refrain from answering but, what kind of saint are you?   In a Mennonite church members of a men’s group decided that they needed to find a way to be accountable to each other. They did their taxes together. When one of them was asked about whether he was a follower of Christ his response was – don’t ask me ask the other members of the men’s group. Has the presence of Christ in your life transformed you? The work of building the Kingdom isn’t easy. But then again, as Jesus reminds us in Luke’s gospel, life with God isn’t easy, either. Life with God means that we will know what it is to be poor, hungry, sorrowful and cursed. Life with God means that we will know what it is to be unpopular – to be discounted and overlooked. And life with God means that we will know what it is to be hated.

But the Good News is that the Kingdom of God is built – brick by brick, stone by stone – by common people : people who know what poverty and hunger and sorrow and being cursed looks and feels like. People who know how it feels to be overlooked and discounted. People who know what being hated feels like. The challenge is to begin to live by a different set of standards. Instead of worldly standards, let us begin seeking to live by the standards of the Kingdom. It starts today. It starts by loving our enemies. It starts by showing kindness to people who don’t deserve it. It grows into the ability to bless those who curse us; to pray for those who mistreat and take advantage of us. It manifests itself in the ability to listen and show honor to those who are forced to beg. It is lived out in our homes, places of work and play and everywhere we encounter the poor and the hungry and the sorrowful and the hated; because, after all, the Kingdom of God belongs to them.

Ephesians 1: 11-19 Paul writes: In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

15I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.


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