Instances of Saintly Perfection
Fumbling through All Saints Day
Today is All Saints Day and as Non- Roman Catholics, I notice that we fumble around the notion of sainthood. Mainline protestants get that it’s important to remember those who have died over the last year. And we do cherish the chance remember those for whom we still mourn over time. I think we have a reasonable handle on that, but as for Saintly perfection we tend to fumble that ball.
The problem is that it’s difficult for us to imagine saintly perfection, the idiom nobody’s perfect wins the day.
This is odd because we United Methodist’s have a deep heritage when it comes to striving for saintly perfection.
John Wesley described a process of becoming a saint. In the 18 century the notion of becoming a saint was referred to as “sanctification” or being made holy.
JW wrote in his sermon the Scripture Way of Salvation,
“And at the same time that we are justified, yea, in that very moment, sanctification begins.” -The Scripture Way of Salvation
Justification was the 18 Century word for realizing both spiritually and intellectually that the good news of Jesus Christ was for you. (That is, God sent Jesus to live, die and be resurrected so we all could be freed from sin). So JW is saying the very moment that you get that that good news of Jesus is for you, is the very moment when the process of transforming you into a saint begins!
JW further describes this method of sainthood in a letter written in 1760.
“Every one, though born of God in an instant, yea and sanctified in an instant, yet undoubtedly grows by slow degrees…” -Letter, 27 June 1760
While Wesley argues that the method of sainthood is a long process. He seem to also leave room for instantaneous saintly transformation? This leaves the reader wondering if some of us achieve instant sainthood and others get there over a longer process.
Pastor Galen’s opening greeting is helpful here. “Good morning Saints, good morning Sinners” points out we United Methodist are a community of both Saints and Sinners. And I would argue that at any given instant it’s not easy to tell us apart.
This seems to crystallize JWs process of sainthood. There is this continuum of saint manufacturing that begins at the moment we get that we get that the good news of Jesus is for us and then the process continues instance by instance by instance.
It may be too hard for us to imagine entire sanctification, and thus we write saintly perfection off. But what if we celebrated the incremental instances of saintly perfection rather than waiting for the whole kit and caboodle?
The point is God can use each instance of saintly perfection to encourage those who need encouraging. And we lovers of God can do great things with God in these instances of saintly perfection as we rehearse the habits of heaven in the world.
“Go Bill” Sign.
I want to share an instance of saintly perfection that encouraged me during the Chicago Marathon. I was on mile 15.75 and I was wondering why I decided to run this race. I was completely captivated by the pain and fatigue. I could not even imagine the finish. When I saw a sign. By 15.75 I wasn’t running that fast so I had plenty of time to read the “GO BILL” sign. I even had time to recognize that I had no idea who was wielding this blessed placard. I said hey thanks for the sign. The guy said are you Bill? I said yes. He said well GO BILL!
That guy didn’t know me and I didn’t know him for all I know he could have been a pagan serial killer. But he and the GO BILL! sign was a instant of saintly perfection that encouraged out of my captivity and helped me to imagine the finish.
Ezekiel as Captive
Ezekiel was a captive when he wrote his book. The book of Ezekiel presents itself as having been delivered in exile during the Babylonian captivity. Based on the dating formulas in 1:2 and 40:1, Ezekiel's prophecies extend for approximately, twenty years, from 593 to 571 B.C.E.
Ezekiel went into exile in 597 BCE with the eight thousand nobility, craftspeople, priests and religious personnel who were sent to Babylonia with king Jehoiachin during the first deportation (2 Kings 24: 14-16). He was a victim of common policy of the Babylonians: the practice of selective deportation. By removing political, spiritual, and economic leadership, the Babylonians aimed to break down national resistance, prevent any possibility of revolt, and bolster the economy and military machine of the conqueror’s homeland.
While Ezekiel writes this book in as a prisoner of war, he is able to summon instances of saintly perfection that enable him to write a sign of encouragement that read “GO Israel”
The passage that we read today. What were the instances of saintly perfection that encouraged Ezekiel inspiring him to write...
Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes salt water fresh (47: 9a).
Ezekiel describes a miraculous torrent that will produce an ecological renewal of the Dead Sea and the entire desert region south of Jerusalem. In designating “the river” the Hebrew uses the dual nah a layim (two rivers or two streams). Yet there is only one River Jordan that flow into the Dead Sea Valley.
Babylonian iconography would often present gods with flowing vessels in hand. These are generally depicted with two stream flowing from the vessels that deities hold. This references the two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates that define the region of Babylonian Empire.
One can imagine how these ever present icons could have inspired Ezekiel and been integrated into his vision becoming an instance of hope for Israel. While these icons were meant to break Ezekiel’s spirit, God used them to inspire him to imagine an end to his captivity. God use the Pagan icons as an instance of saintly perfection; as a sign that read “GO Ezekiel”. The text continues...
There leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail… Their fruit will serve of food and their leaves for healing. (47: 12) This verse describes a sustainable plant that will be used to bring healing to all those with share it.
This facet of Ezekiel’s vision echos The Epic of Gilgamesh a narrative cherished in Babylon during Ezekiel’s captivity.
Gilgamesh set out in his quest for immortality to the place where (OOO-Nap-Ish-tim) Utnapishtim lives, “at the mouth of two rivers. There he obtains the plant of immortality, allowing the old man to grow young again (Gilg 11.195-96)
So one can imagine that God used a narrative that could have broken Ezekiel to encourage him and in instant Ezekiel saw the plant of renewal and healing as a sign from God, Go Ezekiel!
God used instances of pagan captivity meant to break Ezekiel in ways that encourage him. Ezekiel integrates these instances of saintly perfection in his own testimony as a sign to encourage the people of God. Though Babylonian captivity was meant to break him, Ezekiel remained unbroken.
Lauren Hillenbrand's book Unbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini, Olympic Athlete, and World War 2 prisoner of war. This is a remarkable story of survival, resilience and redemption. Louis encounters several instances of saintly perfection along his journey. I would like to share three with you.
In high school Louis was a troublemaker who got into lots of fights. His older brother Pete was a popular track star. Pete encouraged Louis to take up running. Louis began to train with his brother. Pete would regularly spur Louis on with the saying “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of victory”. Pete’s words helped Louis to qualify for the 1936 Olympics and turn in one of the fastest finishes and set the American record in 1936 for the 5k. God used Pete’s instance of saintly perfection as a sign that read “Go Louis”.
During WW2 Louis Zamperini’s plane was shot down after several weeks at sea was captured by the Japanese where he spent the rest of the war as a prisoner. In the early days, of his captivity. Louis met Kawamura a japanese prison guard. Kawamura told Louis that he was a Christian. The prisoners understood almost nothing of what Kawamura said, but his goodwill needed no translation. Kawamura could do nothing to improved the physical conditions in which the captives lived, but his kindness was lifesaving. God used Kawamura’s instance of saintly perfection as a sign that read “Go Louis”!
Following the end of the war, Louis still struggled with is captivity. Louis abused alcohol, suffered from anger management issues and was plagued with nightmares. One terrible evening Louis dreamed that he was fighting with the worst of his tormentors Wantiabi. He woke realizing that he was strangling his wife Cynthia Zamperini. Cynthia saw the good in Louis and resisted leaving him. She relentlessly encouraged Louis to turn his life around. Cynthia got Louis to attend a weekend revival of Billy Graham. On the second night Louis was able to receive God’s forgiveness and encouragement. He went home and pour out all the booze and began a quest to forgive his captors. God used Cynthia Zamperini in several instances of saintly perfection as a sign that read “Go Louis”.
“Everyone needs that support-even if at first you don't think you do. Look around. See who's on your side and in your corner. You don't have to go it alone.” ― Louis Zamperini, Don't Give Up, Don't Give In: Lessons from an Extraordinary Life
So today is all saints day. How will you make the most of the instances of saintly perfection that God seeks to accomplish through you?