Strengthened Hearts

I Thessalonians 3
David A. Davis
November 5, 2017

It seems to me that most of us Presbyterians aren’t sure what to do with “saints.” Not as in “For all the saints who from their labors rest, / who thee by faith before the world confessed, / thy name, O Jesus be forever blest, / alleluia, alleluia.” No, we love that one. Presbyterians love to sing that hymn.

But it’s the term “saints,” it’s the understanding of “saints” that makes us uncomfortable. Today is All Saints’ Sunday. The Sunday closest to November 1st, All Saints’ Day. Remembering All Saints’ Day today, remembering it today, because Presbyterians would never come out mid-week to celebrate saints.

To be fair, it’s sort of in our Reformation DNA. Some of what John Calvin wrote in the 16th century about the veneration of saints is so harsh it would be difficult for me to quote here in worship. Here’s a calmer snippet from Calvin and his Institutes of the Christian Religion: “A few centuries ago the saints who had departed this life were elevated into copartnership with God to be honored, and also to be invoked, and praised in his stead. Indeed we support [try to convince ourselves] that by such an abomination God’s majesty is not even obscured while it is [in fact] in great part suppressed and extinguished.”

Presbyterians are supposed to be uncomfortable with saints. Though there will always be those among us who would admit to a quick prayer to St. Anthony when we’ve lost something really important and are in a complete panic. But saints? We know that none of us were ever, are ever, or will ever be that good. Presbyterians tend to prefer “the great cloud of witnesses” to the “communion of saints.” It is as if every time we Presbyterians use the term “saints”, we need a hand gesture to indicate small “s.” All saints’ Day.

But, yet, on the other hand, if we’re honest, if the truth be told, all of us, even us Presbyterians, have known some saints in our lives. Yes, some among us have studied the saints, read lots of work by the saints. But we’ve known a few along the way too. All of us can name those heroes, those big names of faith in our lifetime, just outside our lifetime. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Theresa, Dr. King, Rose Parks, Bishop Tutu. That’s a hall of fame approach to saints.

But we’ve known a few along the way. Even Presbyterians have known a few a saints along the way. People who have, by the content of their lives, shown us the way of Christ. Shown us the way, less by their piety and more by their example. Less by their certainty of faith and more by their enduring relationship to God. Less, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer might put it, by talking to you about Jesus over the years and more because over the years they never gave up talking to Jesus about you. Less by showing you an unwavering, steadfast belief in every season of life and more by showing you the courage of holding on by nothing other than the thread of grace in the darkest of days.

Saints. Not the pillar of the church on Sunday but the example of Christ on Monday. Not the one who writes of a transforming, supernatural vision of Christ but the one who somehow by God’s mercy is able over and over again to see the face of Christ in the face of the other and the stranger and the outcast and the untouchable and the unloved and the last and the least. Saint: someone who in the gritty ordinariness of their life has shown you the holy path of Christ himself.

Many, many years ago I was meeting with a family I did not know in the office at a local funeral home just prior to officiating at the service for the husband, father, and grandfather who had died. I didn’t know them. I didn’t know him. Such meetings were intended for introductions but also to pluck a bit of last minute material for the service, things the family would like said, qualities and experiences and attributes for which the family would like to offer thanks to God related to their loved one.

In this case the man had lived well into his 80s. When I asked his wife what about him she would like me to lift up in the prayer, in the thanks, she couldn’t think of anything. She did want me to know that while he wasn’t religious at all and he wasn’t a church-goer, and he was certainly no saint, he was a man of faith. That’s a refrain we clergy types hear a lot in funeral planning. And she shared that he always said the prayer at every family Thanksgiving dinner and that his favorite Bible verse was “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.”

Their son, who sat with us, didn’t say a word. The meeting wrapped up, they left. I waited the few minutes prior to entering the next room with the casket and the lectern where everyone was gathered. The son came back to me and said, “You can say whatever my mother wants you to say about my father but I need you to know he was a real son of a gun.” And he walked away. The life of faith is more than a table blessing and a favorite Bible verse.

Saint: Someone who has, by the content of their life, shown you the way of Christ. Here in the middle of First Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul continues to expound on the importance of the relationships he has with the believers in Thessalonica. He writes of sending Timothy to see them and offers such gratitude for the reports that came back that told of the “good news of [their] faith and love.” Amid all the thanksgiving and joy, Paul continues to express his concern that they would stay strong in their faith amid suffering and persecution, that God would allow their love for another to increase and abound. Not just their love for one another but their love for all. “And,” as Paul writes, “may the Lord so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

That God would so strengthen their hearts in holiness. The remedy for a struggling faith, the opposite of a weakening faith, Paul’s prayer for them in light of what might be lacking in their faith, is that they would increase and abound in love and have their hearts strengthened in holiness. When struggles and suffering comes, when the world shakes, when your faith is dicey, Paul urges, recommit in your faith, double down in your faith, focus in your faith on love and holiness. Hearts strengthened in holiness.

When John Cavin would administrate church discipline in Geneva in the 16th century, historical records indicate that he would often admonish an individual and them tell them to go to more sermons, to go hear more sermons and to listen better the next time. In one case of follow-up, the person was asked to tell how many sermons had been heard, what had been learned, and then was asked to recite several creeds and catechisms. One might conclude that Calvin was exhorting people to work on the holiness.

But in First Thessalonians, Paul doesn’t go there at all when it comes to strengthening hearts in holiness. In the first part of chapter four, the verses that follow Paul’s prayer for hearts strengthened in holiness, in what is to come next, Paul exhorts the believers to live in a manner that is pleasing to God. Phrases leap from the text about controlling lustful passions, and not wronging or exploiting a sister or brother, and loving more and more, and aspiring to live quietly, and minding your own business, and working with your hands, and behaving properly to outsiders, and being dependent on no one.

Paul does not challenge them to listen more, study more, read more. He writes not just of a Sunday morning holiness but a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday holiness, a Thursday, Friday, Saturday witness. Not just a holiness of the prayer offices at the start of the day and the end of the day, but a holiness that carries throughout the day and carries through the night. Not just a witness of faith in devotion in prayer, but a witness of faith in every relationship, a witness in every context, a witness in every role of life, a witness to everyone.

When their life was shaken, and their faith lacking, Paul doesn’t exhort the church at Thessalonica to get their piety on, to do better at this religion thing, he urges them to be saints: to be people who have, by the content of their lives, shown the world the way of Christ Jesus. He prays for their hearts to be strengthened in holiness.

Years ago at the Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church down near Annapolis, when they did a major renovation they built a columbarium in the rear of the sanctuary. Beautifully done, the niches for ashes were behind large doors that matched the design, the architecture of the now redone sanctuary. When our colleague was showing us, he said that on All Saints’ Sunday, they open those large doors as a way of remembering the saints. My first thought was that it was a bit creepy. But you know, every time we gather at this table, we are joined in the mystery and promise of God’s mercy by such a great a cloud of witnesses…(uh, uh, uh?!)…joined by the communion of saints.

Today, in our bulletin, we have the list of those in our congregation who have died in the last year. We will read that roll of names from the table in just a moment. We Presbyterians might have some trouble with saints, but I have to tell you, some people on that list, some were flat out saints in my life.

Saints, who by the content of their life showed me the way of Christ. We’ve known a few along the way, haven’t we? Come to the Table, and remember all that Christ has done… and remember them too.

© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
Contact the church to obtain reprint permission.