Robert E. Dunham
“Called to Be Saints”
October 30, 2022
1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Introduction to the Reading
Some time back now someone posted online a rather cheeky five-point summary one could use to outline each of the letters of the apostle Paul. Read them all, the post suggested, and you’ll find all the letters have the same repeating five-part pattern:
1. Grace [and peace]
2. I thank God for you.
3. Hold fast to the gospel.
4. For the love of everything holy, stop being stupid
5. Timothy says “hi”
That’s not a bad way to portray some of Paul’s letters, I suppose. But I once heard Tom Long suggest a better key to understanding Paul, and that is to listen for his tone. And a sure way to find the tone in each correspondence is simply look at how he “signs” the letter. The tone varies from letter to letter. For example, as Rick and Sally Osmer reminded some of us, Paul began his letter to the Philippians, “Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus…” and you know right away that this is a letter about humility to a congregation that loves Paul. On the other hand, writing to the Galatians, he begins, “Paul an apostle – sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father…” and already you can feel the tension rising.
We were saying in the Philippians class that in our time we write fewer and fewer letters. More often, we send an e-mail, or even more commonly, a text. The texts we don’t sign at all. We may “sign” our emails if we want to be a bit more formal. But it’s not like letter-writing, in which the complimentary close before the signature often says something about the writer’s frame of mind. In cleaning out our closets while preparing to sell our home last year, Marla and I came across a box full of the letters we had exchanged as undergraduates in the years between our meeting and our marriage. We attended different colleges in different states, neither of us had a car, and each of us had just one pay phone at the end of our residence hall floors. No cell phones. No email. So, we relied heavily on letters to convey news and share thoughts and feelings. Reading those old letters once again, we both noticed the gradual evolution of how we signed the letters – from “Cordially” to “Sincerely” to “Warmly” to “Love.” It’s true that the signature can be a key to understanding the tone and the heart of a letter.
In the letters written by Paul and others, of course, the signatures came not at the end of the letter, but right up front: as the very first words of the text. Signature first …then addressee. So, as we turn now to Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, pay attention to his tone, and listen for what the Spirit is saying to the church this day through this ancient correspondence:
Scripture – 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,
2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the letter that follows these opening words, Paul does indeed follow the outline I mentioned earlier and urges the Corinthians to “stop being stupid,” which in their case means stop dividing yourselves into competing factions and remember your need for one another. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’” Paul tells them, “nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (12:21) But this All Saints’ Sunday, I want to linger over the second verse of the letter for a few minutes, inviting us to look closely at Paul’s reminder that the congregants in Corinth are “called to be saints.”
I suspect it’s a calling many Christians in our time would rather avoid. In humility, most of us would consider ourselves unequal to the title or the task. Being a saint isn’t exactly on many bucket lists. Pastor-author Frederick Buechner once noted that in Greek, saints were “holy ones,” and he asked,
Who [would want] to be holy? The very word has fallen into disrepute—holier-than-thou… holy mess. And “saint” comes to mean … somebody of such stifling moral perfection that we would run screaming in the other direction if our paths ever crossed. …And yet we have our moments…. when we hunger for holiness… even if we would never dream of using the word. There come moments, I think, even in the midst of all our cynicism and worldliness and childishness, maybe especially then, when there is something about the saints of the earth that bowls us over a little. I mean real saints. I mean saints as [those] who are made not out of plaster and platitude and moral perfection but out of human flesh. I mean saints who have their rough edges and their blind spots like everybody else but whose lives are transparent to something so extraordinary that every so often it stops us dead in our tracks.
St. Augustine once famously noted that “There is no saint without a past, and no sinner without a future.” Because that is true, we can all be called to a future of being saints, regardless of our pasts. Consider Paul himself – an early enemy of the church, who became the most significant figure in early Christianity after Jesus.
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Tom Long said once that it’s hard to tell when the Bible is cracking a joke. There are hints of humor all the way through Scripture, he said, but often we miss them. After all, humor is very culturally conditioned. Yet, humor – here in the form of satire – lies close to the heart of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Long contends.
To see it, it may help to remember that Paul wrote this letter in response to an earlier letter the church leaders in Corinth had sent to him, apparently with a laundry list of problems they asked him to address. The church there was fairly small; there likely weren’t more than fifty people in the congregation. But they had a big-church conflict going on. They had divided themselves into factions that were at each other’s throats. There was, for example, the Holy Spirit group, who thought themselves more spiritual than the rest. Then there was the social-action group, the “more-ethical-than-thou” contingent. Then there was the little Wisdom group that just knew more than everybody else. And these groups didn’t just disagree. They were doing battle over everything from the Lord’s Supper to worship, to leadership, to spiritual gifts. If that weren’t enough, there was apparently some sexual immorality going on, causing everyone to blush, and to top things off, there were some in the congregation who were resurrection-deniers. Other than that, the congregation seemed to be doing just great.
In responding, Paul employs some dark humor. In effect he says to them, look, before I deal with your questions maybe it would be best if I prayed. So, he offers a little prayer. “Lord, I just want to give you thanks for these people. They are enriched in all speech and wisdom. They are not lacking in any spiritual gift. I’m sure they will be presented morally blameless at the last day ….” Paul’s prayer list, you see, was their laundry list. And surely, they must have winced at the satire.
But the humor actually started before the prayer, Long says. Paul addresses the letter to those “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” To be “sanctified” is to be made holy, and “saints” actually means “holy ones,” so in the Greek Paul is doubling up on the holiness talk. No English translation is bold enough to translate it with its sarcasm, but Paul is essentially saying, “I am writing to all of you holy, holy ones at Corinth.”
It’s not an attack. Paul is using humorous hyperbole to tear down their self-made notion of sainthood in order to build something more useful in its place, replacing their faulty understanding of sainthood with an earnest one. The people of Corinth had misunderstood sainthood to be a position of moral status, a destination to which a person of moral achievement arrived. But Paul says, “no.” Sainthood is not a destination. It’s a journey. You are called to be saints. Sainthood is not something we achieve by our own moral strength; it is summoned from outside. You are called to a journey to be saints…. Even if you didn’t start out that way. But still, in the context, it seems almost laughable.
In August we lost one of my favorite North Carolina writers, Michael Malone. I still remember what he said once about saints. His novel, First Lady, was set here in our state. It was a story full of stars – political stars, rock stars, and social stars – but what I found memorable was not any of those folks, but rather one minor character, an Episcopal priest named Paul Madison, and his differentiation between a “star” and a “saint.” What makes a “star?” the priest asked, “Light, I think. They draw all the light to themselves.” “It’s different with saints,” he said.
“If stars are the light, then I’d say saints are people the light shines through…. Light shines through them and illuminates what they see. The light just goes right through them to what they love so that we can see its beauty. They don’t get in the way, because they’re looking, too.”
“The light just goes right through them to what they love….” What a wonderful way to describe the saints of God! True saints – called saints – are the everyday folks who live and serve along the way, the ones through whom God’s light simply shines.
I have known some of them. I have known them here. You have, too, many of you. Saint Eileen. Saint Warren. Saint Day. Saint Thelma. Saint Ronnie. Saint Don! Saint Jim (those last three sat right back there). So many saints we have known in this room. We’ll call the names of some others later in the service. And if you look closely from week to week, you will see saints being called, formed and equipped here every week – younger saints like Saint Arden, Saint Scarlett, Saint William, Saint Ward – saints rising in this very community.
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Calvin Butts died this week, another of God’s saints. Dr. Butts was for decades the respected pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, up in Harlem in New York City. That historic congregation has steadfastly worked over the years to transform its neighborhood by letting God’s light shine through it to the neighborhood it loved.
It has not been easy, for Abyssinian Church has rested in the middle of some pretty tough problems over the years: crime, poverty, gang wars, substandard housing, and the like. You might think that a church like that would pack it all up and go somewhere else… or even give up. But there they are still, because they remember their calling! They just keep on keeping the faith.
In Friday’s New York Times Sam Roberts wrote about how Butts “helped [the church] revive Harlem with housing … a supermarket and other commercial development, and a high school.” He quoted former mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said “Reverend Butts took the idea of building the kingdom of God literally.”
But I remembered when another Times reporter twenty-some years ago took note of all that the church was doing, and then said to Calvin Butts, the pastor, “Look, you’re doing great stuff, but it’s hard to see what difference it’s making; so, what enables you and your folks to keep going?”
And I remembered what Calvin Butts said. He said, “Here’s what. We’ve read the Bible and we know how it ends. We aren’t at the end yet, but we know how it ends, and [it ends with God].”
And that’s it, isn’t it? That’s what distinguishes the saints – a willingness to tackle the present because the future belongs to God. To join hands with others through whom God’s light shines, to exhibit together Christ’s grace, kindness, and passion for justice in the world. To live with such confidence in God’s future.
No saint without a past, and no sinner without a future. And because that is true, we, too – even we – can claim the calling to be saints. Most days, we may not want to deal with life at such depth. The world seems so discouraging just now. Who knows what it will feel like after Tuesday’s election! So, we get weary.
But the saints urge us on. By their witness and faith, by their love and light, they urge us on. With God’s light shining through them, they encourage us to encourage one another. Don’t get weary. Don’t give up. We know how the story ends. It ends with God.
We call the community of such encouragement the communion of saints. Buechner said that in their company, “we will find… an undergirding peace, a sense that in some unfathomable way, all [will be] well…. Weak as we are, a strength beyond our strength [is pulling] us through…. A love beyond our power to love [is keeping] our hearts alive. We are never [called to this journey] alone.” Do you hear? We are invited to be saints together with one another and with all the saints who have ever lived. What an invitation! And what a remarkable gift!