Both Righteous and Sinners

All Saints Sunday,  November 2, 2014

1 John 3:1-3

So it has been another frantic week in Canadian news.
From the tragedy of the previous weeks shooting to the absurdity of our own media sex scandal.  In case anyone is fortunate enough to have missed this, the popular rock star CBC host Gian Ghomeshi has lost his job, his reputation, and apparently most of his friends over allegations that he behaves like a violent creep towards women, to put it mildly.

Now I really don’t want to revisit this this morning.  We have heard more than enough about it already, thank you very much!

I bring it up now because something about the reaction, the media frenzy around this, speaks to what I want to talk about.  A week ago, this man was at the pinnacle of Canadian broadcasting, powerful, respected, with a huge fan base.  Now, a week later, that is gone.  The common cry is that he is a despicable creep, who should be brought to justice for the way he has treated women.

Now I certainly don’t want to argue with that.  But I do have an observation: this sudden backlash seems to me to be typical of the way our culture seems to want to see people in black and white terms.  A week ago he was a superstar, today he is a pariah. And yet people, we know, are not really like that.  No one is all good, and no one is all bad, even if some few individuals have succeeded in choking all their better impulses.
Jian Ghomeshi is not only (apparently) arrogant, selfish, and nasty.  He was also turning into a gifted interviewer, sensitive, intelligent, engaging.  And that’s what makes the revelations of the past week not only a moral outrage, but also profoundly sad.

Heroes and villains are the way we like to tell our stories.  But we know that real life in not like that, that real people are a mixture of both: a little bit heroic, sometimes, or at least decent; a little bit villainous, or at least imperfect.  Mostly we’re just muddling along.

Now maybe we are guilty of a bit of this in the church, as well, wanting to see people as either good or bad, as either saints or sinners.  That would seem to be our reputation, and no doubt it is not unfair, we often do fall into that trap.  But I don’t think that is what the Christian understanding of human nature really teaches us.  It is, rather, the great strength of the Christian view of humanity that it is actually quite realistic and balanced.  It allows us to think both of our strengths and weaknesses, our gifts and our shame, together.

October 31st is not just Halloween, it is also the commemoration of the Reformation. So let’s turn a moment to the great Reformer Martin Luther, himself a gigantically gifted and publicly faulted human being.  He brought it down to a single, simple Latin phrase: we are simul iustus et peccator, at once righteous and sinners.  Not either a hero or a villain, but both.  Not a sinner at one time and a saint at another, but both together, simultaneously.  In our inmost core we are both together.

There is something wonderfully freeing about that insight.  First of all, in the recognition that we are sinners.  Now I know, this isn’t generally looked upon as good news.  Calling people sinners is supposedly what the bad old church did, as a way of making people feel bad about themselves, as a way of destroying their self-esteem.  We modern people don’t like to think of ourselves as sinners.  It rather gets in the way of the story we like to tell of our lives, where we are the hero, not the villain of the piece.  Well, you can take it both ways.  Certainly the fact that we are sinners is often preached in condemnation, with the purpose of eliciting feelings of guilt.  But it can also be freeing.  It can free us from our illusions about ourselves, and from the mental effort that goes into keeping those illusions intact.  It can free us from the compulsion of perfectionism, of constantly beating up on ourselves because we’re not perfect.  We are sinners, Luther tells us: get over it!

Because in the end we are still loved by God, loved in all our imperfection and occasional downright nastiness.  This is the centre of Luther’s message, the core of the Reformation gospel: you’re a sinner, get over it, God still loves you.  Get over your vain and obsessive attempts to make yourself perfect, because it doesn’t work and it’s not necessary. God loves you already, just the way you are.

This is not the same as being smug or complacent about our shortcomings, by the way.  Rather, when we give up the impossible task of changing our very nature, and learn to accept it, we have freed up our energy for the realistic job of working on our specific shortcomings, of becoming not a perfect person, but maybe in the long run a slightly better one.

That’s what it means to confess we are sinners.  But that is only half of who we are.  We are also, at the same time, righteous.  We may be sinners, but our lives have a higher purpose: we have been created, redeemed, called and equipped to do the work of God in this world, the work of loving and caring for one another.  In the language of the New Testament, we are also saints.

That brings us to the theme of this day, All Saints.  When we Anglicans think about saints, we tend to think first of people who live in stained glass windows: Peter and James and Stephen and Mary.  Or we think of the great Christians of history, the heros of the faith: Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King or Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These people are definitely worth hearing about and thinking about, no doubt; but there is something a bit dangerous in our interest in saints, dangerous in that it can buy into the whole business of setting up heroes, which is the first step in seeing people as either black or white, heroes or villains.  The interesting thing about the saints is that they are not perfect, but very much real and faulted human beings who nonetheless have found a way to let God work through them in sometimes amazing ways.

The other problem with singling out a group of Christian superheroes as saints is that it is simply not biblical.  The New Testament knows nothing of a category of special saints.  When the New Testament uses the word, and it does so often, it is to refer to the church as a whole.  When Paul writes his letters to a church, he invariably addresses them to the saints that are in Philippi, or Thessalonika, or Corinth.  The saints of the church are you and me.

“Saint” describes a fundamental aspect of our identity as Christians. It is not an easy identity to understand, or to accept.  We may not want to believe we are sinners, we may be in denial about it, but in our heart of hearts we know it’s true.  But that we are saints: well, we might want to believe it, but in our heart of hearts we may find it difficult to believe.  We know ourselves too well, know the muddle of our lives.  Surely a saint ought to be something special; surely I am not a saint.

But that is exactly what we are.  At its root meaning, the word saint means something that is consecrated, that has been set aside for God.  To say that we are saints does not mean we are perfect or even especially virtuous.  It does mean that Jesus Christ has claimed us as his own.  He claimed us in baptism, when he set his mark of the cross on us, like an invisible brand.  He claimed us as adults, when he called us into the community of this church, and we responded.  But really it goes back further than that, to our very creation.  We were created not just to muddle along, but to do the work of Christ in this world: to love one another, to care for creation, to hunger and thirst for justice, to give praise to God.

There is a haunting line in that short snippet from the first letter of John we heard as our second reading:

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

What we will be has not yet been revealed. We are a work in progress. We are more than what we can already see or know about ourselves, there is more to come. If we have trouble calling ourselves saints, seeing how that could possibly be right, well, Christ is not finished with us yet.

Let me conclude by bringing it back to this place. Because this is also your day, the patronal festival of All Saints Church, a time to celebrate and give thanks for the community of this church. Look around you!  You are surrounded by saints: the saints of All Saints, Kingston, the saints of Holy Trinity, Middleton.  Not perfect people, oh you know that all too well, people who muddle along, yes, but who have been called by Christ to a higher calling. People who care for one another by countless works of patience and diligence and compassion and prayer. And I know as you look around you see others I don’t see, those who have gone before. You see Jessie, in whose memory we have dedicated this window; and Gordie, whose stature in this community can still be clearly felt; and dozens of others, who over the years have done, in their imperfect ways, the work of caring and building this community.

So let us give thanks for this place, with all its gifts and all its imperfections: a hospital for sinners, but also a training centre for saints.