Unlikely saints

Here is the reading and reflection from today’s Communion service, thinking about two people who are unlikely saints…

A reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. He has been wrestling with the point of the Jewish law for Christians. It’s from the Message version of the Bible:

What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary.

But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.

I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does.

Monday was the feast Day of St. Peter and St. Paul. It seems a bit odd to put these two saints together as if they weren’t important enough to have their own days. And they are such an unlikely pair. Peter, the Galilean fisherman – a blunt speaker, impulsive, over enthusiastic, forgetting to engage his brain before using his mouth. And Paul, a sophisticated Jewish scholar, a debater, a man of deep thought. It’s fascinating to imagine their meetings and their conversations. We know that at least at one point Paul has to rebuke Peter sharply. That can’t have gone down well.

Peter and Paul have one important thing in common – they both remind us what a saint isn’t. A saint is not someone who is especially good. Holiness is not about never getting anything badly wrong.

Peter spent three years with Jesus and then, as we know, denied that he even knew him. And even after that, after he had been shown in a dream that non-Jews – were also now being invited to follow Jesus, he later went back on this and stopped mixing with them. That’s why he and Paul fell out. He was rocky in more ways than one.

Paul had gone further in his past, watching as Stephen was stoned to death for being a Christian, and then setting out himself in pursuit of the followers of Jesus. After his conversion he did amazing work as an apostle, but that didn’t completely change his character. He still had spiky relationships – falling out with his friend Barnabas, and arguing with the churches he founded. In his letters you can see his very human struggles – ‘I don’t want to boast’ he says, in one – and then lists all of his qualifications.

The thing that Peter and Paul share is an awareness of their fallibility. Both could look back on a time when they had done something terrible. Both knew their own capacity for getting things wrong. And both also knew the freedom that came with forgiveness – and the joy of being called by Jesus, in spite of the past. They were both broken vessels for God’s grace.

In the passage I read from Paul’s letter to the Romans, he is tying himself in agonising knots, recognising that he has this ingrained sinful nature that he cannot escape, even when he really wants to.  I find that very encouraging! In the end all he can do is turn to Jesus, to give him the grace that he needs to live out his faith as a very imperfect person.

Originally in the New Testament, ‘the saints’ in a place were simply the Christians there, not people who were especially good. But we humans have a need for heroes. We need someone to project our ideals onto in a muddy and messy world. However, we’re finding out that putting people up on pedestals is problematic. As we discover more about the ones we have made saints, we often discover aspects of their lives which don’t fit so well – Mother Theresa’s depression, Martin Luther King’s relationships, even Jean Vanier now seen to be flawed.

Maybe the whole idea of a hierarchy of goodness is unhelpful, especially if it becomes a yardstick against which we measure ourselves. If you need to be this good to be a saint, where are we? Does God only use the good ones? Can God really care about messed up old me?

Or maybe we find that we have managed to do something good, and then we’re in another danger. We climb the ladder of ‘goodness’ only to slip down the snake of pride.

Like Peter and Paul, our main qualification for serving God comes from our awareness of our flaws and failings. It’s when we come ‘to the end of the rope’ that we discover underneath the arms of grace to catch us.

Last week I had a retreat at home – lots of long walks and sitting on churchyard benches. Retreats are often not really peaceful for me, at least to start with. There’s quite a lot of looking back and examining my life, and that isn’t always comfortable. As the truth of the way I have behaved or thought through much of my life is revealed, layer by layer, I have the same sense of despair as Paul. I wrote in my journal one day: ‘How to live with imperfection and not getting things right?’ And then, ‘What I bring – I am loved and forgiven – God’s grace is working in me’.

That’s the thing that we all bring – and it’s the most important thing we can bring. It led me to think that a good move for me could be from ‘must try harder’ to ‘must try less hard’ , remembering that God often uses our getting it wrong more than he uses our getting it right.

We will all have our particular areas of weakness. We often try to fight them, or suppress them. Maybe the most important thing that Peter and Paul can teach us is that we need to face them, to look right into them, how ever uncomfortable that may be – because as we do, with God’s grace we will rediscover that we are not loved for being good, but just as who we are, and that our utter dependence on God is the one thing that qualifies each of us to be used in the service of his love.

  • Lord Jesus, you know us – you know us better than we know ourselves. You know all our weaknesses, our past failings, and our present frailties. And in all of this you love us – unconditionally, absolutely, reaching out to us with your never failing love.
  • Help us to learn more and more to accept that love. And so give us courage to face ourselves – to face the truth about ourselves – and to let your love and healing into those places deep within us where it is most needed.
  • Help us to believe and trust that although we will always live with our flaws, you will never stop loving us. And we are the very people that you want to use to make your love known in the world.
  • Thank you that we are broken vessels for your grace.  Amen.

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