Saints under Construction

Second Sunday after Epiphany             January 15, 2017

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Here we find ourselves at the beginning of a new year, at the beginning of the Epiphany season, is a good time to think about beginnings. Last year, the first Sunday of the year, the gospel reading spoke of the baptism of Christ, an opportunity (except for the snow) to reflect on the beginning of his ministry, but also on our own baptism, the beginning of our own particular faith journey. This Sunday a more modest beginning, the opening verses of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Modest, I say, because at first glance it seems very conventional: just the usual polite formula with which Paul begins his letters. Now goodness knows, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of politeness, it seems to be in shorter supply these days – but even in this polite formula, Paul is saying some important things about the church in Corinth, about their true identity in Christ. And in this way he is saying some important things about our true identity in Christ.

Paul addresses his letter:

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.

And here we have that word, “saints”. We have it twice in fact, because the word “sanctified” is just another form of the word saint. Paul begins the letter by addressing the Corinthians as saints. In fact, he begins every one of his letters by addressing it to the saints, it happens so frequently and automatically that we read past it without really thinking about it. Paul is calling the Corinthians, ore the Romans or Philippians or whoever, saints. And by implication he is calling us saints. What does he mean by it?

First of all, it is not just an empty word, a polite formula. Paul was too concerned with what words mean to throw them around that loosely, esp. theological words like saint. Nor is he just flattering the people he is writing to; again, the word is too important for that.

We should also be clear, he is not calling them saints because they were a particularly holy or heroic group of people. As though the church of the New Testament were bathed with such a strong faith that they were totally different than our church today, as though they didn’t have any problems at all. Quite the contrary. We won’t have to read very far in 1 Corinthians to discover that the Corinthians had all kind of issues. They were quarrelsome, divided into factions, vain about some of their spectacular enthusiastic gifts, but lacking in common love for one another, neglectful of the poor, and confused and hopeless when one of their members died. That’s why we have two letters to the Corinthians: it took Paul two long letters (actually probably more) to sort out their most pressing problems. In today’s language, the Corinthians were a deeply dysfunctional church. And yet they are still, in Paul’s eyes, saints.

If Paul calls them saints, it is not because he is describing what he may be seeing in that congregation on a given day. It is not so much a description as an act of faith. And indeed, we too are asked to accept that we are saints, not on the evidence, but as an article of faith. It is right there in the creed, alongside the Trinity and the resurrection of Jesus: we confess “one holy catholic and apostolic church”. “Holy” – and that is, in Greek, and most languages, the same word as saint. Think about it: that the church is holy is an article of blind faith. When we look at the historical church, what do we see: a human institution, bumbling, grumpy, often afraid, occasionally downright evil. If the church is holy, it certainly isn’t on some kind of historical evidence.

Paul calls the Corinthians, calls us, holy, not because that is necessarily what one would see first thing, but because that is what we are. We are holy, we are saints, not because we are spectacularly successful at living the way Jesus showed us how – oh, we do our best, I trust, but we are often much more aware of our failures to live up to his standards than our successes. We are holy, we are saints, because that is who God says we are, because it is our destiny.

We are holy because we have been called to be holy. And that idea of being called, of finding our vocation, is not just a matter of our life taking one turn, at a certain point – of doing one thing for a few years, and then something else for a bit. A vocation is deeper, closer to the essential core of who we are. When we discover our calling, we discover who we are meant to be. And so for the people of the church of Corinth: becoming a Christian was not just a matter of trying out a new religion for a bit. It was a question of discovering who they truly were. That new identity, that call, hangs over our whole lives. In the words of our OT reading:

The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.

Or even before that: Ephesians talks about us being “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” We are saints, we are holy, not because of what we have done and are doing, but because of what God has done and is doing. Because God has chosen and called us in love to enter into a relationship with him. It is an identity that is expressed in our baptism, in the words that God spoke from heaven when Jesus was baptised, words that God speaks anew whenever any of us is baptised: “you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased”.

We have been chosen and called from before our very birth, that is the foundation. But we are also being sanctified by Christ Jesus; on an ongoing basis, as we live our Christian lives, as we meet Christ in the Bible and the sacraments, in prayer and in each other, we continue to glimpse what it really means to be holy, to be a saint. And as we glimpse it, we try to live it. And we are not always as successful as we would like to be, often it feels like one step forward and two steps back. We are very much a work in progress. We ought to go through life with yellow construction tape around ourselves; we ought to wear hard hats to come to church. But the point is, we are a work in progress. God isn’t finished with us yet. And that too is part of what it means to be a saint: not to have arrived at some level of accomplishment and proficiency, with a black belt in Christian living; but to be engaged in the process, in the struggle, to let Jesus sanctify us, let Jesus change our lives into his image.

One final point: when Paul refers to the Christians of his day, and by extention to us, as saints, it is always in the plural. He doesn’t talk about Timothy or Phoebe or Apollo as being a saint, though I suppose they are by implication. We are all of us, individually saints, but we are not saints alone, we are saints by being members of this community of saints. On our bad days, when we are so discouraged we wonder if we have any faith at all, then it is the prayers and care of our brothers and sisters that carry us. And on the days when we are feeling stronger, then perhaps we can reach out to others with an encouraging word.

And so, as we face the challenges of this new year, we do so as a community of saints, of people called to live full lives of holiness and love. We do not need to become saints – that is what we are, by God’s choice. We simply have to seek the grace to live more fully who we truly are.