WHAT OR WHO IS A SAINT?

Do you know any saints? Do you know what a saint is? The second question reminds me of a song we sang as kids defining happiness. You may remember the refrain that proclaimed happiness is “different things to different people.” I think the same could be said about the meaning of saint.

In everyday conversation most people use the word saint to describe someone who is an exceptionally kind, caring, giving, unselfish, and loving person. Not only that, what leads someone to be that kind of person is their holiness that comes from their closeness to God.

In Roman Catholicism a saint is a Christian who has died following a life of exceptional commitment, holiness, and service. In Catholicism a person can only become a saint following their death and going through steps to be officially recognized and honored as such by the church. Mother Teresa is a recent example who most of us would agree was a saint.

The word saint or saints is used in both the Old and New Testaments to describe God’s people and followers of Jesus. The basic meaning of the word saint is “to set apart” and suggests holiness as a quality of those who are members of God’s people. Set apart, however, does not mean that saints should not, or cannot, have contact or involvement with those who are not saints.

Here are a two usages of the word in the Old Testament that underscore what it means to be called a saint. In Psalm 16:3 the NIV renders the word (saints) “holy ones,” and in Psalm 50:5 the NIV renders the word (saints) “consecrated people.” 

The New Testament uses the words saint and saints 67 times, always referring to believers in Jesus. Six of Paul’s letters to churches are addressed to saints: Romans, I and II Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. In these salutations, as elsewhere in the New Testament, the word is never used of a special group of Christians who are more dedicated and holy than other believers. The New Testament is clear that all Christians are saints.

While all Christians are saints, all believers are not at the same place in terms of their growth as followers of Jesus. A new believer cannot be expected to be as mature in living the Christian life as a long time believer. The challenge for every Christian is to continue to grow as a saint.

Two suggestions about the usage of the word saint in the New Testament give us more insight about the meaning. One writer notes, “the Bible views every Christian as someone set apart for God’s work” and cites Ephesians 4:12 to make the point. Every Christian is a saint, and every saint is to be engaged in some way and at some level doing God’s work. Obviously not every saint is serving in the same way, but every saint is called to serve.

Another writer makes a second suggestion: “Christians are called saints because they are called to live set apart from the corruption of the world. Followers of Christ are called to be holy” (see I Corinthians 1:2 and I Peter 15 and 16). Simple stated, the point is that saints (Christians) are different from those who are not Christians. But there is no place for arrogance and an attitude that “I’m better than you are” toward those who are not Christians.

The Oxford Companion to the Bible says in the Old Testament “saints are ‘holy people’—holy, however, not primarily in the moral sense, but in the sense of being specially marked out as God’s people.” And “in the New Testament those who comprise the church are also called holy, ‘saints’, because they too are set apart to God” (p. 668).

My favorite quote from my reading about this subject is from William Barclay. He writes, “a person who is hagios [a saint] in the Christian sense of the term is a person who has separated himself [sic] from the world in order to consecrate himself to God. Sainthood, in the NT sense of the term, is concerned, not so much where a man [sic] is, but with the direction in which he is facing” (New Testament Words, p. 150).

I think I know what a saint is and am pleased to accept the Bible’s term. Barclay’s words encourage and challenge me; I’m not where I want to be, but I am facing in the right direction. How about you?

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DISCIPLES AND DISCIPLESHIP

Yesterday I bought a book in the BARGAIN BOOKS section at our local Christian bookstore; and having read the introduction and first chapter last night I’m pretty sure it was a good buy. (Mere Discipleship by Alister McGrath, Baker Books, 2018)

Usually when we use or hear the word disciple we think of those who are followers of Jesus. While the term most often does refer to a follower of Jesus, disciple is not limited to such usage. One definition of disciple is “a follower or student of a teacher, leader, or philosopher.”

Surprising to me, the word disciple is found in the New Testament only in the Gospels and the book of Acts. And it is the usage of the word in the Gospels that gives us the basic definition of a disciple as a follower. In the Gospels Jesus’ first disciples literally followed him.

Today a Christian is a disciple of Jesus, but obviously is not someone who physically follows him as his first disciples did. Nevertheless, even though we as Christians do not and cannot literally follow him, we are still his followers. To be a disciple of Jesus today means to follow him in ways that go beyond walking with and behind him.

Our following Jesus today as his disciples is where the word discipleship comes in. And I learned last night that the word discipleship is not used in the Bible. However, the way we use the word discipleship today is clearly a biblical concept.

My own definition of discipleship is that it is the process of becoming more and more the person Jesus has called us to be as his followers. It’s about growing as a Christian and it is a process that is never complete in this life. The teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, and the teachings in the letters in the New Testament, are about walking on the path of discipleship as a follower of Jesus.

I find that to be both challenging and exciting. And if you are like me, sometimes it’s three steps forward and two steps back – but the result is that we are making progress. Discipleship is about learning from the Bible how we are to live and putting what we learn into practice.

I conclude with a quote from McGrath’s opening paragraph about discipleship, “It is about a conscious and committed decision to be followers of Jesus Christ in every way possible, including the way we think, love, and act. It is about growing in our faith, as we quest for wisdom rather than the mere accumulation of information about Christianity” (p. iv).

It’s a journey worth taking.

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A FEW CHALLENGES, REMINDERS, AND PROMISES

The Bible instructs us with so many challenges, reminders, and promises that in all honesty I often forget and fail to put them into practice. This past Sunday I was privileged to preach in our church’s current study of I Peter, and as always when I preach, I got more out of it than anyone who heard the sermon.

The passage begins with instructions to church elders, but then moves to address everyone. The verses in the passage that speak to everyone are I Peter 5:5b-7, “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”

The challenges in this passage are “clothe yourselves with humility” and “humble yourselves under God’s mighty hand.” The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) is filled with calls to be humble. Peter suggests “humility is to be worn like clothing.” One commentator suggests, “When we begin the day and dress, we must also be careful to include an attitude of humility.”

Peter reminds us how important it is by quoting Proverbs 3:34: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” God opposes and resists the proud, but he promises his special favor on those who are humble. Peter tells us if we humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand he will lift us up in due time. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want God opposing me – but I would like his favor on me. Don’t you?

This passage concludes in verse 7 with a much needed suggestion and vital reminder for all of us: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” Peter is borrowing from Psalm 55:22 when he tells us to cast our anxiety on the Lord. Some of us struggle with anxiety more than others, but all of us experience it at times. Looking back over the last few months, and looking ahead to the coming months, these are times of anxiety for many of us. Peter reminds us that we need to take our anxieties to God.

Why does the Psalmist and Peter both urge us to cast our anxieties on the Lord? The answer is so comforting and encouraging: “because he cares for you.” I think it would be helpful and appropriate for us to remind ourselves from time to time that God cares for us. No matter what we are going through, one thing we can always be sure of is that God cares for us.

Challenges: Clothe yourselves with humility and humble yourselves under God.

Reminders: God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.

Promises: God will lift us up and he cares for us.

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AN APP FOR MY PHONE I DON’T NEED

Since I stepped down in October of 2014 from my ministry of 30 years at Discovery Christian Church I have been reading and thinking a lot about aging, dying, and death. At the age of 63 I thought those were some things it would be good for me to learn about.

A few years after retiring from Discovery we moved to Texas to be close to our grandsons. After a few months of attending our new church I was given the opportunity to join the church staff as Pastor of Senior Adult Ministry. That position intensified my thinking and reading about aging, dying, and death.

Since November of 2018 I’ve been sitting on a Christian Century cover story about a smartphone app called WeCroak. Those who get the app are notified five times a day (at different times) of the same thing: Don’t forget, you’re going to die. While the message is true, it’s not something I want or need to be reminded of. Unless Jesus returns first, we all are going to eventually die (see Hebrews 9:27).

Death is something everyone thinks about from time to time and something many think about more often as they age. The Covid-19 pandemic has probably increased thoughts about death among those who are older.

What reminded me of this unneeded app was a visit earlier this week Jan and I had with an 85 year old man in our church who was recently put on hospice care. From the day we first met him when we visited what became our church home he reached out to us and always made us laugh.

During our visit in his home earlier this week he was still upbeat, gracious, and funny. One of the great things about hospice care is the goal of minimizing pain and making the patient comfortable. As I have said many times following such visits, our visit did as much for us as it did for our friend.

Ten months after the issue with the cover story about the death reminder app, Christian Century had an issue with the cover story “Preparing to Die: The conversation no one wants to have.” The headline of the article was We need to talk about death followed by two opening sentences: “It’s not as if it’s a big secret that we’re all going to die. It’s just that for many of us, most of the time, it seems like an event that’s going to happen to someone else, some hypothetical me in the future.”

I guess it is appropriate and needed for us from time to time to be reminded of and to think about death. Death is not pleasant, although it is sometimes a blessing, but it is real. And it is probably good to sometimes be reminded it is real.

When talking about death people are often asked about being prepared and ready for it. As a Christian my answer is that I am prepared, but I am not ready. What about you?

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TRY A LITTLE KINDNESS

Readers who are in my age range will probably remember Glen Campbell’s 1970 hit “Try a Little Kindness.” It was a good challenge for people then, and it is still good advice for us today – perhaps especially today!

Kindness is listed by the Apostle Paul in Galatians 5:22 and 23 as one of the nine fruit of the Spirit. Most versions translate the fifth fruit as kindness, but it is obvious that several of the other qualities listed overlap: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

We all know what kindness is when we see it, but how can we define the quality? In The Message Eugene Peterson renders the word “a sense of compassion in the heart.” But it’s more than that, isn’t it? In a 2017 Psychology Today article author Karyn Hall (Ph.D) suggests “Kindness is defined as the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.”

Some synonyms include compassion, gentleness, benevolence, thoughtfulness, mercy, consideration, and helpfulness. Perhaps the root of kindness is “a sense of compassion in the heart,” but kindness is expressed by both words and actions. Kindness can be as simple as smiling at someone or attentively listening to someone.

Kindness is not always automatic, but must be something we choose to practice. For many it becomes a habit that is automatic. We express kindness to our family members, friends, neighbors, and to those we don’t even know. Showing kindness is not contingent upon someone showing us kindness.

“What goes around comes around” is often true, but we do not show kindness with the expectation of something in return. Nevertheless, Jesus’ Golden Rule in Luke 6:31 applies to our expressions of kindness: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

The great example of kindness is seen in God’s actions toward us as well as demonstrated in the life of Jesus. Philip Keller notes “throughout the Scriptures the great theme of God’s unrelenting kindness is great toward us.” One of the reasons we are called to be kind to others is to respond with gratitude for God’s kindness shown to us.

It’s obvious that expressing kindness is important to God when it comes to his children. I like the title of Karyn Hall’s brief article in Psychology Today: The Importance of Kindness. She echoes God’s words in Jeremiah 9:24, “let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the Lord.

It goes without saying that being unkind should never characterize those who are followers of Jesus. I agree with Karyn Hall’s assessment, “While kindness has a connotation of meaning someone is naive or weak, that is not the case. Being kind often requires courage and strength.”

Christopher Wright reminds us that when we are shown kindness we sometimes say to the person “thank you, you’re very kind.” At other times people will say, “that was a very kind thing you did.” Wright summarizes, “Kind deeds are done by people who are themselves kind by nature and character” (Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit, p. 84).

We are called not just to do kind things but to be kind peopleAnd listen again to or check out for the first time Glen Campbell’s song “Try a Little Kindness.”

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THE CHALLENGE, FRUSTRATION, AND SATISFACTION OF PRAYER

I just counted the books in the prayer section on my book shelf and I have over 25 of them. I’m pretty sure I have read all of them, and would think I’d be much better at prayer than I am. The title of one of the books, The Struggle of Prayer by Donald G. Bloesch, probably describes a lot of us in terms of our practice of prayer. It certainly does me.

I can relate to Professor W. David O. Taylor’s assessment, “My own prayer life comes and goes. At times I have prayed faithfully every morning before starting the day’s work. At other times I have managed only tired prayers at the end of the day, and they often have not been very good prayers. At still other times I have found myself without prayer, or, more truthfully, without any desire to pray.”

I want to pray, and I want to pray regularly, but that is a challenge for me. After all these years I have still not settled into a daily and consistent routine of prayer. I think Anthony Delaney’s observation that “we pray a lot more when we are trouble than when everything’s going well” is spot on. And I think he’s right because what he says is true for me.

The Bible says a lot of about prayer as well as gives us a lot of examples of prayer. Jesus clearly expects us to pray as three times in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:5-7) he tells us “when you pray . . .” what to do and what not to do. In verses 9-13 he gives us a model to follow. In his final instructions to the Thessalonians in his first letter the Apostle Paul tells them “pray continually” (I Thessalonians 5:17).

Pastor and author John Starke encourages me with his suggestion that “the Bible imagines prayer to be a very ordinary thing for very ordinary people.” (In other words, you don’t have to be a spiritual giant to pray.) And then he convicts me with his observation that “It’s not an overstatement to say that the most transformative thing you can do is to begin to spend unhurried time with God on a regular basis for the rest of your life.”

Professor Taylor’s definition of prayer also encourages me: “Prayer is a funny thing, of course, it is about talking to God and listening to God. In practice, prayer is anything but simple.” I think praying can be simple, but listening to God in prayer for me is more challenging.

I think for many who pray, what can be frustrating is what we consider no response from God. With simple honesty, in one of his books Scot McKnight notes “we lay ourselves before God and sometimes we get what we want and sometimes we don’t.” As I have heard many believers say, God sometimes says “yes,” sometimes he says “no,” and sometimes he says “wait.” It’s the “no” answer and the “wait” answer that frustrates many who pray.

I would not charge anyone whose prayer answers were “no” or “wait” of being guilty of his warning, but Pastor Dustin Crowe’s words are worth our consideration, “If honest, many of us pray self-centered, self-absorbed, selfish prayers that sound more like ‘my kingdom come, my will be done’ than ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done.”

In his book Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer C.S. Lewis makes a powerful point. He says the clearest asking prayer in the Bible is Jesus’ request in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Lewis writes, “He asked, but did not get what he asked for. But he asked with a reservation—‘nevertheless, not my will but thine.’ This makes an enormous difference.”

I’m thinking the challenge and the frustration of prayer are both real, but my prayer life could be much more satisfying if I would follow Jesus’ example and ask with the reservation he did.

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WHY THE CROSS MEANS SO MUCH

A few weeks ago one of my favorite families in our senior adult ministry called and asked me if they could stop by – they said they had a gift for me. Of course I said yes and when they came the gift was in a bag and very heavy. They told me it was for both Jan and me and so I told them I wouldn’t open it until Jan was home.

When we opened the gift we were taken back by a cross. As you can see in the picture above, it is not anything like what most decorative crosses are. Not only is it heavy, it is rough and rugged. It looks like it is pieced together and it has a smaller cross attached to it.

To Christians the cross is a central symbol of what God did for us through the sending of Jesus to die for us. We sing a variety of hymns, songs, and choruses that say something about the cross. One of our favorites is “The Old Rugged Cross.”

What cannot be seen on the picture above of our cross is the entire collection of Bible verses and sayings all over it. I want to share them with you to encourage, affirm, and challenge you as you give some thought to Why the Cross Means So Much to us:

Strength, Hope, Faith, love, grace

Trust in the Lord

A Friend Loves at all Times

May the Lord bless and keep you

Amazing Grace

Live Laugh Love

Trust in the Lord with all your heart

The Joy of the Lord is my Strength

Lord hear my prayer

Rejoice in THE Lord

Let’s also be reminded of some selected passages in the New Testament that speak to us and our relationship to the cross:

Luke 9:23, “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’

Luke 14:27, “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Galatians 6:14, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

I Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”

Hebrews 12:1 and 2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

I agree with hymn writer George Bennard, I love that old cross!

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HOW WOULD YOU ANSWER?

In a new book (The Art of Dying Well)  I’m reading about getting older, author Katy Butler asked a question that prompted me to do some thinking: “Have you mostly been a ‘taker,’ an ‘exchanger,’ or a ‘giver’?” Most of us I would think have one we would like to claim and one we hope doesn’t describe us.

Butler’s main point in her discussion is about what she calls our interdependence.  She suggests younger people want to be independent, but in later life interdependence is worth cultivation. All of us have probably had moments when we thought we wanted to be independent, but most of us have been interdependent all our lives.

Prior to reading Butler’s question, I don’t think I’d ever heard or thought about the idea of being an exchanger. Her definition of an exchanger is “one who keeps track and returns favors.” Of course all of us have done a lot of exchanging good deeds and help with others, but I doubt as Christians we have kept track of such things.

What most unsettles me about Butler’s question is the idea that some have mostly been takers. I’m sure it is true with some, but it is an ugly word. I would think no Christian would want to be called a taker only. But to be fair with Butler, I don’t think she meant by taker how most of us would understand it.

Rather than using the word taker, I’m more inclined to use either receiver or acceptor. And I would hope we all would be gracious and grateful receivers and acceptors. My sense is that our response to what someone gives us determines whether we are takers or acceptors. As I reflect back on my teenage years I am sorry I wasn’t more grateful and gracious with regard to everything my parents did for me and gave to me. If taker is an ugly word, so also is ungrateful.

Of the three possible answers Butler gives us to choose from, most of us would like to say we have mostly been givers. That does not rule out that we have been exchangers and receivers, only that we have also been givers. As I read Butler’s reflection I could not help but be reminded of what the Apostle Paul quoted from Jesus in Acts 20:35, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ All of us have been blessed by both, haven’t we? I have one more thought on being givers. When we give, and those to whom we have given thank us, don’t discount their gratitude by telling them something along the lines of “it wasn’t a big deal.”

I’m thinking all of us are interdependent in a variety of ways. How would you answer the question, “Have you mostly been a ‘taker,’ an ‘exchanger,’ or a ‘giver’?”

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DID JESUS CONTRADICT HIMSELF?

If you are reading this post I’m guessing the title probably got your attention. To clear the air I want to answer the question with an emphatic NO! Jesus did not contradict himself, but there are two passages in the Sermon on the Mount that some have thought to be contradictory.

The first teaching in Matthew 5:14-16 and is well known by Christians and those who are somewhat familiar with the Bible. Speaking to his followers Jesus explains, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” On first reading it seems pretty clear what Jesus was saying.

The second teaching is in Matthew 6:1 and at first reading seems to contradict Jesus’ previous teaching: “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” Again, it seems pretty clear what Jesus was saying.

Which is it? Are we not to practice our righteousness in front of others or are we to let our light shine before others? Are we to hide or show? I know to some it will sound like what is called “situation ethics,” but the answer is it all depends! What does it depend on? Jesus is saying in both these passages it depends on our motive.

Note the difference between what Jesus says in each of the two teachings. The first passage suggests if our motive is right we should show. Look again at Matthew 5:16, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. Matthew 6:1 suggests if our motive is wrong we should hide.

If our motive is to draw attention to our self, to be seen by others in order to be complimented, what we do is not pleasing to God. On the other hand, if our motive is not about drawing attention to our self but to bringing glory to God, we have the right motive.

Not only that, if we have the right motive – we are not doing it to draw attention to our self, but to honor our Father – and someone compliments us, it seems to me we should simply thank them and not necessarily downplay what we have done.

On a personal note, through the years as a pastor I have been thanked and complimented for things I have done more times than I could ever count. I never downplay what someone is complimenting me for so as not to detract from their appreciation. While I’ve not done what I did to draw attention to myself, I think it would be rude to rebuff their expression of appreciation.

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GRACE: IT REALLY IS AMAZING!

This week I’ve been focusing on a passage of Scripture in which the Apostle Paul challenges his protégé Timothy in II Timothy 2:1 to “be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (NIV). The New Living Bible translates Paul’s words “be strong through the grace that God gives you in Christ Jesus” and The English Standard Version reads “be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”

Paul is encouraging Timothy with regard to his work for the Lord, but I think Paul’s instruction is applicable to all of us in terms of living the Christian life. Paul is telling Timothy he can’t fulfill his calling from his own resources, but needs Christ’s grace.

Exactly what is grace? The first definition I learned years ago for the meaning is “unmerited favor.” The idea is that we can’t do anything to win, earn, or deserve God’s grace; it is his gift through Jesus to us. And oh how we need it!

Our need for God’s grace does not end when we accept Christ, are forgiven, and become his follower. The reality is that even though we are saved by God’s amazing grace, we still need to be strong in it.

In the Old Testament there are many examples of people of God who turned their backs on him in a variety of ways including Eve, Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, and many others. Perhaps the best known example in the New Testament is Peter’s denials of Jesus following his arrest.

God’s grace was poured out on Peter regarding his denials following Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. John 21 records the occasion when Peter and the other apostles met Jesus on the shore and shared breakfast. Three times Jesus asked Peter if he loved him and Peter told him he did. Jesus reinstated and recommissioned him.

Peter’s denials of Jesus is surprising to some given his promises not to, but apparently not to Jesus. What took place at that morning breakfast on the shore is a model of forgiveness and restoration for Christians who have failed.

Christians, you and I, regularly need God’s grace because of our shortcomings and failures. We need to be strong in grace facing up to and admitting our sins knowing that the Lord will forgive us. Being strong in grace does not mean we can be cavalier about our sin, but it does mean repentance from our broken hearts brings God’s forgiveness.

John Gill, a professor at California Baptist University makes a powerful point when he observes, “No Christian, not even a pastor, is a stranger to sin.” He then makes a humble statement with which we all can identify: “I will never outgrow my need for the Lord’s grace.”

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