Called to be Saints (I Corinthians 1:1-9)

Happy Halloween!

Today is Halloween because tomorrow, November 1, is “All Hallows Day” on the church calendar.  We don’t use that word “hallow” very often, do we? Oh, sometimes we’ll talk about the “hallowed halls” of a cherished institution like a school.  Abraham Lincoln talked about how they could not “hallow” the sacred fields of Gettysburg because the soldiers who died there already had. J.K. Rowling named the last book in her Harry Potter series “The Deathly Hallows.” And every Sunday morning here in church we pray to the God whose name is “hallowed.” But I can’t think of many other ways that we use or hear that word “hallow.”

“Hallow” is the Old English word for “holy.”  Something is “holy” when it is consecrated, devoted, set apart, or dedicated to the service of a higher power.  We call holy or “hallowed” men and women “saints” because the Latin word for “holy” is “sanctus.”  Saints are people who have been “sanctus-ed.” They’ve been “sanctified,” or “saint-ified,” and for a thousand years now the church has used the first day of November to remember them. “All Hallows’ Day” is “All Saint’s Day” on the church calendar, and today is its “eve.” It’s “Halloween” – “All Hallows’ Eve.”

The church’s traditional prayer for “All Saints Day” is a pretty good primer on what the church means by sainthood.  It thanks God for that part of the church that’s already in heaven with Him, and it asks God to let the memory of their goodness and faithfulness inspire our own journeys into His nearer presence. Saints are those Christians have kept the faith, finished the course, and left us examples to follow. We’re accustomed to thinking of the church’s saints as Christianity’s Hall of Fame. 

Just recently I got to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine to visit the Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. I’ve got pictures on my cell phone of the busts of every Cowboy enshrined there as well as those of my favorite players from other teams from across the years – Earl Campbell, LaDanian Tomlinson, Dan Fouts.   Anybody who wants to can play football in the park or on a beach. Those that love to play football can join an organized team in school. Good high school football players get recruited to play football in college. Great college football players get drafted to play football professionally in the NFL.  And the very best football players of all wind up in the Hall of Fame. 

We think of the “saints” as the very best Christians of all. They’re the spiritual “All Stars.” But it’s important to understand that this isn’t how the Bible uses the word “saint.” Consider our Scripture lesson this morning, I Corinthians 1:1-9. The church at Corinth was Paul’s problem child.  I Corinthians reads like an encyclopedia of the kind of mistakes that immature Christians make.  There was nothing exemplary about them, nothing to point at and say, “that’s what we should all aspire to.”  If anything, the Christians in Corinth were examples of what not to do and who not be as followers of Christ. And yet, twice in the second verse, Paul called the Corinthians “saints.” 

Speaking in the past tense, as something already settled, Paul said that the Corinthians were “sanctified in Christ Jesus.”  To be “sanctified” is to be made holy.  To be “sanctified” is to be a saint, and Paul told the Corinthians, the least “holy” bunch of Christians in the whole New Testament, that because they were “in Christ Jesus,” that they were already “sanctified” – “saint-ified.” According to the first half of I Corinthians 1:2, if you are a Christian by grace through faith, then you are sanctified; you are already a saint.  It’s a done deal.

Then, with his very next breath, Paul told the Corinthians in the second half of I Corinthians 1:2 that because they were already “sanctified in Christ Jesus” that it was time for them to start acting like it because they were “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  One of my teachers along the way said that the best way to understand what it is that we are supposed to be doing as Christians according to the New Testament is to “become what we are,” and that’s what Paul is telling us in I Corinthians 1:2.

He’s telling us that something has already happened. We were sanctified – made saints – in Christ Jesus the moment we first believed. He claimed us.  He gathered us to Himself.  He separated us from the herd. He marked us as His own.  And it’s because all of that has already happened, that there is now something happening in us right now. We are gradually becoming saints. We are slowly becoming holy in our behavior. Our sanctification is a work in progress.

Peter Gillquist called the Christian life “a marathon we are meant to win.”  He ran cross country in high school, and he said that the only thing his coach ever asked him to do was to finish the race.  “If you don’t plan on finishing,” he told Peter, “then I don’t want you to start.” I’ve always been impressed with the runners who finish a marathon first.  What amazing athletes they are!  But the runners who move me are the stragglers, the runners who drag themselves across the finish line last, long after the cheering crowds have left, and the cameras have been turned off, and there’s nobody around except for sanitation workers who are sweeping-up the streamers and confetti from the street where hours before the race had been decided. Their bodies are spent, their minds “scream ‘quit,’” but there they are, still running, finishing the race.  What amazing human beings they are!

Peter Gillquist said that it was his experience as a long-distance runner in high school that gave him his keenest insight as a pastor into what the Christian life entails -“In any race there are three basic and essential components: the start, the race itself, and the finish. And you need all three to win. You can have the fastest exit from the starting blocks known to man, but if you are slow on the turn, or sloppy in the stretch, your record start will not be sufficient for victory. Or, you can be unbeatable on the open track, but if you drop out fifty yards short of the goal, the rest of the effort is for naught.”

God’s saving work in our lives has these same three “basic and essential components.” There are the starting blocks.  Scripture talks about this component of our salvation as “justification.”  It happens in an instant, as the old hymn we love to sing puts it, “how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.” This is how the Christian life begins.  We freely take by faith what it is that God is offering us in Jesus Christ, and in that instant, we are saved.  This is what Paul meant in the first half of I Corinthians 1:2 when he told the Corinthians that they were already “saints,” “sanctified” in Christ Jesus.

And there’s a finish line.  We call this component of our salvation “glorification.” In verses 7 and 8 of our Scripture reading this morning Paul talked about the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ,” “the end,” and “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  You see, the race of faith does not go on forever.  There will be a moment out there, some say it’s when we die, others say it’s when Christ returns, but either way, there will be a time in the future when the race of faith ends and we enter into a new phase of our relationship with God in Christ, that time when – “The home of God will be among mortals, and God will dwell with us; When we will be God’s people, when God Himself will be with us to wipe away every tear from our eyes. When death will be no more; when mourning and crying and pain will be no more because the first things will have passed away.” (Revelation 21) This too happens in an instant, in the “twinkling of an eye” (I Corinthians 15:52).  God’s Kingdom will come. God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven, and we will finally be face to face with God where we shall understand fully even as we have been fully understood (I Corinthians 13:12).

And in-between those starting blocks and that finish line, there is the long course of the race itself.  Scripture talks about this component of our salvation as “sanctification.” In the second half of I Corinthians 1:2, when Paul told the Corinthians that they were “called to be saints” together with everyone who “call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” to be saved, he was alerting them, and us, to the fact that there is this long process of becoming more and more Christ-like in our behavior that’s involved in being a Christian.  

Scripture speaks of this gradual process of our transformation in a rich variety of ways – we are to grow up in every way into Christ (Ephesians 4:15); we are being conformed to the image of God’s Son (Romans 8:29); we put on Christ (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:12-17); Christ is being formed in us (Galatians 4:19); we are to follow in the steps of Christ who is our example for living (I Peter 2:21).  They’re all saying the same thing. Once we have accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, crossed the starting-line and stepped into the race of faith, there begins a lifelong process of becoming more and more Christlike in our attitudes and actions with every passing day. 

There’s this remarkable statement in Acts 4:13. Peter and John had been arrested in Jerusalem for preaching Christ and ministering to peoples’ needs in His name.  The religious authorities before whom they appeared were about to dismiss them as “uneducated, common men,” when they heard them speak with “boldness,” and “recognized that they had been with Jesus” (4:13). That’s it! That’s what this process of sanctification/ saintifiocation does.  That’s what it means to be a “saint.” People begin to recognize that we have “been with Jesus.”  He shows up in how we think.  He shows up in what we say. He shows up in what we do. He shows up in who we are becoming. 

One of my very first professors in seminary had been a missionary in Nigeria. While the other missionaries lived safely in compounds behind security walls, my professor lived in the village right beside the people he had been called to serve. While the other missionaries ate familiar foods from home, my professor ate the food of his neighbors. While the other missionaries maintained a professional distance from the people, my professor joined in the daily life of the village. Eventually the other missionaries complained about my professor’s unconventional ways, and the missionary society that sent him to Nigeria recalled him.

As he was leaving, the head of the village where he had gone to share Christ told my professor that he had become Christ to them, not in the sense that he had become a substitute for Christ and His saving work, but rather in the sense that he had lived with them in such a way that they had been able to see Christ in Him and had been drawn to Christ through him as a result.

In our Scripture lesson this morning, Paul told the Corinthians that by the grace of God they had been enriched by Christ in every way with all speech and all knowledge (1:4-5).  They were already sanctified in Christ Jesus. His light had shone on them, but what remained was for that light to start shining through them. They were called to be saints, so are we, and the words of a prayer from old hymn just may be clearest explanation of just exactly how this works – “Fill with Thy Spirit till all shall see, Christ only, always living in me.”

Tomorrow is All Saints’ Day, and just so we’re clear about who’s day it is, I want you to take a good look around here this morning. Go ahead, I want you too seer the faces of the people seated beside you and around you this morning.  This is the communion of the saints, at least that part of it that we can see.  It’s because of what Jesus Christ has already done for us that we are saints sitting here this morning.  And it’s because of what Jesus Christ is still doing in us that we who are seated here this morning are in the process of becoming saints.  It’s Christ in us that makes us saints, and Christ showing through us is how we become saints. So, on this Halloween, on this All Hallows’ Eve Sunday, let Him show. Let His light so shine through who we are and what we do so that the world can see Him clearly, and know that He wants to “saint-ify” them too.

Let’s pray –

LORD it’s because of what you have done for is us in Christ that we are here this morning redeemed, reconciled, renewed and restored. You came and sought us when we had lost our way and wandered far away. We are grateful and amazed, LORD, and we want to grow in that grace by which you saved us. By your Spirit continue the work of remaking us into your own image. John the Baptist realized that he must decrease in order for Christ to increase in his life and in his world.  Bring us to that same realization, LORD, and “finish then Thy new creation, pure and spotless may we be.”

LORD, we recognize that we’re not the first or the only ones that you have done this for. Today as the world celebrates Halloween, we here in church are thinking about All Saints’ Day. We sit in a community of saints right here and now in church, LORD, and we understand that we do because there were people who sat here before us, men and women, boys and girls who were claimed by your grace and transformed by your presence.  Thank you for all of those who came before, all those on whose shoulders we stand and from whom we received the treasure of faith. Inspire us by their examples, LORD, and deepen our own confidence in your promises by the ways that you have fulfilled those promises in them.

LORD, you called us the light of the world, reflections of the light of Christ. Shine in us and shine through us. Fill us anew here this morning with your love and power through the Word, in the bread and cup, by the prayer and praise, because of the fellowship of the saints, that when we leave, just like Moses whose face shown for all to see that he had been with you, that we would shine with your glory and grace.  Let people hear the things we say, see the things we do, experience the ways that our hearts and hands are open to them, and find you in the love, acceptance, and forgiveness in which we live and by which we operate in the world, we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior. Amen.

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