Sunday, November 06, 2016

Visions of Salvation

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

“The saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom, and possess the kingdom forever, even forever and ever.”  Daniel 7:18

If the prophet Daniel is correct in his vision, then we must understand that “possession of the Kingdom” does not begin only when we breathe our last in this life.  This possession is marked by how we fit into the narrative of Jesus’ Beatitudes as “saints” of the Church – right here, right now, from this very day and onward.

So what is a “saint”?  Very simply put, a saint is a “steward of The Lord's goods”.  Getting past the not-well-understood and often-maligned Catholic doctrine of the “intercession of the saints”, there is in the Catechism a very good and well-thought-out understanding of how the Bible describes a “saint”.  And the description has little to do with one’s death.  It is much more about how one chooses to live and honor “The Lord’s goods”.

The substance of what makes a saint, according to the Catechism, is found in the Acts of the Apostles; describing those who devote themselves to the apostles’ teachings and who share all they have with one another so there is not be a needy person to be found among them (AA 2:42-45). 

It happened in the aftermath of the Spirit’s Presence at Pentecost, and it must be happening today; for there is a progression from the Beatitudes through the Resurrection, through Pentecost, and finally landing at our feet – the eternity of the Kingdom alive and well in the Church.  To be defined as a biblical saint does not require a miracle to be performed by us nor do we have to wait until we are passed from this life. 

It must be said, however, that the life of a saint – dead or alive – can be nothing short of extraordinary; for there can be no such thing as an “ordinary” saint.  And what makes a saint extraordinary in this life is according to what we choose to pursue.  So a saint cannot be construed as a mere believer; a saint is a “doer of the Word and not a hearer only” (Romans 2:13; James 1:22).

This state of saintly being does not happen in a void, however.  The source of what can make us extraordinary are the Sacraments themselves from which we derive our spiritual nourishment.  Especially as we prepare our hearts and minds to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we must look beyond the ordinary “practice” of Holy Communion as only a thing we do once in a while to remember Jesus’ Extraordinary Death.  We must gain for ourselves and for one another a much better understanding of the great need we have of the Sacraments as much more than a mere memorial, much more than an ‘ordinance’ we are commanded to do only for the sake of doing it.

The saintly life cannot be disconnected from the Sacraments, the Church, or the Scriptures lest we come to believe we can attain genuine sainthood by mindless participation or simple church membership.   Rather, we must understand we are being fed and nourished for much more than just our own sanctification (for our Lord says, “My flesh is real food and My blood real drink”, John 6:55) because a true saint understands his or her place in the Church, not as a passive observer but as an active participant in the life of Christ Jesus intimately connected to the work of His Church.

In other words, we actively practice the Presence of The Lord as if He were physically standing before us.

In our own United Methodist tradition and doctrine, then, we must understand sainthood within the doctrine of sanctification.  And I think it is more important now than ever before that we United Methodist Christians pay very close attention to what sanctification is, how culturally costly it is in terms of living into the sanctified life, and how easily we can be drawn away from it by our own traditions.

Recall St. Stephen (AA 6-7).  The culture into which Stephen was speaking was not open to the idea of an extraordinary life, a life which would draw one away from what had become ordinary.  Stephen came from within this renewed ekklesia which had been kissed by the Spirit of the Living God.  The ordinary culture was so disturbed by what was coming from this renewed Movement that they “instigated some men” to claim they had heard Stephen speaking “blasphemous words against Moses and against The Lord” (AA 6:11) because they “could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke” (AA 6:10).

We know – or should know – what eventually happened to Stephen.  He bore his extraordinary witness to the very ordinary council and ultimately pointed out to them that they were “forever opposing the Holy Spirit – just as your ancestors used to” (AA 7:51); condemning not only their own traditions in their determination to hold on to their ordinary positions of privilege but in their actual opposition to “practicing the very Presence of the Most High God” by their very ordinary and traditional cultural choices – living in the traditions of men rather than in the Spirit of The Lord.

So they murdered Stephen; but before they stoned him to death, they became even more enraged when “visions of salvation” overwhelmed Stephen.  “Look!  I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the Right Hand of God!” (AA 7:56).    

It must be understood, however, that this “vision of salvation” did not come only when Stephen’s death was imminent.  It is written in AA 6 that “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people”.  

It was those extraordinary “wonders and signs” which infuriated the very ordinary people and the very ordinary culture they not only claimed as their own but had perpetuated for generations for themselves, for their own sakes, their own comforts, and their own privileges.  The problem with this ordinary culture, however, even though they still tried to claim the privilege of “God’s chosen”, was that they were unwilling to reach for the extraordinary.  They chose – and settled into – the very ordinary.

Their own “visions of salvation” were contained in their own self-righteousness, but their practices – by the very nature of those practices – necessarily marginalized and minimized those whom Jesus referred to as “the least of these” – as though we cannot be lifted up unless someone is beaten down.  

So when our Lord and Savior lifted these up, He lifted these up, who had been marginalized and exploited by an ordinary culture and an ordinary people, not only to His Favor – He commended these to our care in perpetuity, just as our Lord and Savior also said, “The poor you will always have” (Matthew 26:11) – which must be understood as much more than a cultural reality.  It was – and still is – a charge to the “stewards of The Lord’s goods”.  

If the practices of the Church have become ordinary, then we’re doing Church and the Gospel wrong.  The practices of the Church must be so extraordinary that those of the ordinary culture will either join us – or oppose us.  They will either stand with us – or stand against us.  The Church must never settle for an ordinary response of “meh” – as if the ordinary can take us or leave us!  For it is only the extraordinary from within which we may experience AND SHARE “visions of salvation”!

The Lord’s very Body, the Church, must never again settle for the ordinary traditions of our culture, for Our God is extraordinary; and so is His Good News and the Life we are invited into.  So let us go on faithfully in our stewardship of The Lord’s goods.  It is never too late to reach for the Extraordinary and settle for the ordinary no more. Amen.

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