1 Thessalonians 2:1-13; Matthew 5:1-12
All Saints Day
St Barbara’s 05.11.2023
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Today is All Saints Day, a day when we remember the saints of the church.
Sainthood is an interesting concept. At the most important level, all of us are saints. Every Christian who has ever lived is a saint, someone who has been called by God to live a holy life, and who is welcomed into the fellowship of heaven.
At another level, there are people that we may want to acknowledge whose lives have been particularly touched by God, people who we recognise to be “saintly”, to be “a real saint”. People who reflect the goodness, the love, the holiness of God. They may be public figures – Mother Teresa comes to mind – or they may be individuals we have known, maybe in the church or at other times in our lives, who have reflected something of the love and presence of God to us. Maybe we can think of those people now.
And then there are those who the church officially names as saints. Some of those were apostles, others martyrs from the early centuries of the church, like St Barbara, others theologians, like St Augustine, and others still kings, queens and leaders. The church’s awarding of sainthood to some is rather controversial. (I for one struggle with Charles I, the only English monarch to have ruled so poorly as to end up being executed by his own Parliament, being named an official saint, but that perhaps says more about my mild republican leanings than it does about Charles himself).
One of the less controversial choices of sainthood is St Paul. After all, he was uniquely touched by Christ on the road to Damascus; he was one of the first to take the gospel to Gentiles; one of the first to cross into Europe and preach the Christian message there; he was key in helping to establish churches across Turkey and Greece; and he was the writer of more than half the letters of the New Testament.
And yet if we are honest, even St Paul divides opinion. Within our own congregation I know that there are people who love St Paul, are inspired by him and feel his letters capture the high points of the Christian gospel. And there are others who find him difficult, censorious, arrogant, self-opionated, judgmental. It is apparent from some of the controversies Luke records in his history of the early church in the book of Acts that Paul divided opinion even in his own day. We know for example that he had such a sharp disagreement with Barnabas about whether to give Mark a second-chance in accompanying them on their missionary journey – Paul was of the opinion that they shouldn’t – that they went their separate ways. We know that some of his letters caused uproar amongst the believers. And we know that riots often broke out when Paul preached. He was a man who stirred things up, who caused a reaction.
So, what I wonder, is the type of reaction Paul stirs up in us? As we read his letters, as we hear the stories of his life, do we find ourselves inspired or put off? It matters what we think about Paul because, consciously or sub-consciously, it affects how we respond to what he writes. Today’s reading from his letter to the Thessalonians, one of the earliest of the letters he wrote, gives us an insight into Paul’s character that may help us begin to reflect on this.
Firstly, Paul was someone who was uniquely confident in his calling. He writes: “We speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel”. Paul was in no doubt that the work he was doing was work God had called him to do. As a result, he was not overly concerned about getting praise from others – his ministry was not about pleasing people but God. That confidence and focus can be a positive – it leads to clarity and decisiveness – but it can also lead to rail-roading others, to ignoring the needs of others.
So it is interesting to note what Paul goes on to say, drawing imagery from that most intimate of relationships, the family. Rather than asserting his authority as an apostle over the Christians in Thessalonica, he says he was like a young child among them. He was not looking to dominate them or control them, but to serve them. He certainly didn’t want to be a burden on them, and never asked for financial aid, paying his own way, a highly unusual attitude for itinerant preachers of the day, who usually looked for donations from their followers.
He goes on to describe himself as a mother and as a father among them, caring for them. He writes: “Because we loved you so much we were delighted to share our lives as well as the gospel with you”. He encouraged them, comforted them, urged them on to live Christian lives. This is someone who deeply loved and cared for the Christian community in Thessalonica.
There is a confidence in his words that can feel somewhat boastful – “you are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you… you accepted the word of God from us, not as human words, but as it actually is, the word of God”.
Such confidence may grate at times, but maybe he is having to defend himself against accusations which we can only guess at. We ourselves may find that we somewhat overstate our case when rebutting unfair accusations.
So, Paul comes across from this letter as someone who is loving, compassionate towards others, but also rock solid in his confidence about who he is and what he believes.
So what does this all mean for us?
Well, for one thing, it means that there are some good things from the way that Paul lives his life that can act as an example and inspiration to us. His love and care for the church in Thessalonica can be an inspiration to us in the way we care for one another. Do we look out for one another, looking to support one another in times of difficulty, grief or need? Do we seek to encourage one another in faith? Who can we support and love today? At the end of this service, over tea and coffee, who can we come alongside, give an encouraging word to? Who during this week could benefit from a phone call, a visit or a message?
And to those in positions of responsibility within the church – Hive leaders, PCC members, small group leaders, clergy – how do we, like Paul, serve with the humility of children, looking to put the needs of others first, and yet with the confidence and seriousness of knowing we are about helping people grow in faith?
Secondly, an appraisal of Paul’s life should mean that our benchmark must always be Jesus. We should view Paul’s actions and words in the light of Christ. It is Christ who is our model for holy, loving living, not Paul. For those who are tempted to put Paul on too high a pedestal we need to be wary. Just like Peter and the other disciples, or with any of the saints who have gone before us, Paul had his failings and short-comings. When at times in church history, people have elevated the teaching of Paul over and above that of Christ, the results have often been a harsh and arid dogmatism. We read Paul’s words, we reflect on his actions, through the lens of Christ’s own words and actions, words such as the Beatitudes we heard this morning.
And thirdly, when we read Paul’s letters, if one danger is to give them more weight than the gospels, the other danger is to dismiss them out of hand because of lazy assumptions about what we think Paul stood for. An example is Paul’s attitude to women. There are a few comments in his letters where Paul says that women should be silent in church. At times over the centuries those words have been taken as prohibiting women from positions of leadership in church. But Paul’s words in those unique occasions need to be balanced with the huge number of times he speaks about the importance of women in ministry in the church.
For example, as our Pilgrim Group has been discovering, he entrusts the delivery and explanation of his extraordinarily long and complex letter to the church in Rome, to Phoebe, a woman and a key leader in the church in Corinth. And in that letter alone, he mentions at least six other women who are doing significant ministry in the church. These are not the words or actions of a misogynist. When we take the time to understand Paul and his context, we get to see a more rounded view of who Paul is.
Indeed, in a week when during the Covid inquiry a spotlight has been shone on the lack of women’s voices in decision-making during the pandemic, and how that led to important insights being completely missed, it is worth reflecting that Paul’s attitudes may have been ahead of our own. Time and again, he included and valued the ministry of women at senior levels in the church. Maybe today’s church and government have still got some catching up to do.
We have the amazing privilege to be able to read the letters of St Paul in the New Testament. Let us do so with eagerness and humility, a desire to learn, and to do so through the lens of Christ’s words and deeds. In doing so, may our lives too be shaped to be the lives of saints.