Sermon - January 16, 2011 - Called to be Saints & Chain-breakers Print


(Preached on Sunday, January 16, 2011)


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:…

                                                                                          -1 Corinthians 1:2


Even in the most barren desert you can find an oasis or two.  In the wasteland of television you can find an oasis of decency and compassion.  Take the commercials sponsored by the “Foundation for a Better Life.”  Here is lifted up such radically righteous behavior as, oh, some young kid giving up his bus seat to an elderly woman, or, more shockingly, a taller man kindly reaching up to grab an out-of-reach package for someone who is vertically challenged.  How sad that such ordinary human activities now rate their own TV commercial because they are perceived as so uncommon and extraordinary.  Even more telling and tragic is that such images move our hearts and souls, as though they were truly exceptional events. 


We parade the pedestrian.  We applaud what should be ordinary.  We are so acclimated to badness that to entertain an expectation of decency and the occasion of excellence is almost beyond our belief.  It is far easier to believe that everyone lies, that everyone is evil, than to open ourselves to the possibility that someone might genuinely be offering us something good.  And what if that “something” was more than simple politeness or momentary care?  What if the “something” being offered to us was a whole new truth, a whole new life, a whole new possibility of being?


This is not easy for us to grasp.  After all, our modern society tells us over and over again that we need to be “fixed.”  Our self-help world offers endless amounts of books and blogs, articles and advice on how to improve ourselves.  We can learn how to eat better, learn more, lose weight, get a perfect credit score, and improve our lives, which, the theory goes, will make us better (or better looking) people.  The underlying message is that we are not yet complete, but with a little bit of work or with the products that are advertised, we will be better off. 


But the apostle Paul says just the opposite.  He begins his letter to the Corinthians with encouragement.  Paul describes the recipients of this letter as “saints,” not because they are especially good people.  They are not.  And he knows just what they are like.  His letter is written in response to one or two other letters which he had received from some of them; letters which detailed such behavior in their church as open, heated, severe disagreements; serious factionalism; insensitivity across social and class lines; ethical impropriety; and the beginnings of a spiritual class-ism. 


Paul addresses them as “saints” not because of what they have done but because of what Jesus had done for them.  In fact, he first refers to them as “those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus.”  That is a passive verb tense.  In other words, it is something done to them, not something they did.  This term comes from the same root word having to do with “holiness.”  It has nothing to do with ethical behavior – how good one is – but rather speaks to one’s relationship to the one who is holy – God.  The concept “holy” refers to that which is “set apart,” to have a dedicated use, by or for God.  Thus, one can have a “holy vessel” solely for ritual use; a “holy sanctuary” set apart for the singular purpose of worshiping God; or a “holy people” who have a divine function beyond the normal function of life.


Paul is telling the Corinthians, and through them, us, that those who have entered the special relationship of following Jesus, his life and teachings, have by virtue of that been “sanctified,” that is, been set aside for a special purpose.  Because of that we are “called to be saints.”  This is the active part of that relationship.  Through Jesus we have been made useful to God, and the scope of our usefulness depends upon our willingness to consciously participate in that new relationship and allow God to use us.


How, and for what, does God want to use us?  Paul suggests that the Corinthians have been strengthened in speech and knowledge so that the testimony of Christ is strengthened among them.  The gospel lesson suggested by the lectionary for today, which we did not read, is the story from John’s gospel where John the Baptizer points to Jesus and proclaims him as the “lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world.”  John is giving testimony to Jesus as the one who brings liberation to people setting them free from that which enslaves them and prevents them reaching their full potential as children of God.  This is the same reality the Psalmist celebrates in Psalm 40 which we heard in our Call to Worship: “I waited patiently for God; who turned to me and heard my cry, who lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; and set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.”


Monk and spiritual writer, Albert Holtz, relates a story of wandering the streets of Toledo, Spain and encountering an interesting sight at the monastery church of San Juan de los Reyes.  High up on the outside wall, hanging in neat rows, are curious ironwork objects about a foot-and-a-half long.  They are ankle chains taken off of Christian slaves freed from their Moslem captors who ruled this Spanish city for over 360 years until liberated by the Spaniards in 1492.  They are grisly reminders of slavery, yet Holtz suggests they are most appropriate hanging on that monastery church.  He reflects: “What more appropriate trophies for Christians than the broken chains of their former captivity?  And what better place to display such trophies than on the side of a church?”  After all, God became flesh, suffered, died, and rose again to free humanity from all that enslaved us.  We are no longer slaves to evil, doubt, and despair, because God has loosed our bonds.  God is in the business of breaking chains.


What if those rusting leg irons belonged not to anonymous slaves but to you and me and all the people we know and love and work with?  What if those broken shackles became souvenirs of all the times God’s saving power has set someone free?  What if the eyes of faith were allowed to see trophies displayed like this on every church wall in the world?  What if every victory over the fetters of pettiness and jealousy, for example, were recorded by hanging up the broken chains somewhere as an encouragement for the rest of us?  What if we could actually see and count up the hundreds, thousands, and millions of times God has delivered some heart from the slavery of pride, hatred, or racial prejudice?  What if we decorated the walls of schools and colleges with the broken bonds of ignorance overcome?  What if the walls of drug and alcohol treatment centers could display to the world the proud trophies of victories over chemical dependence?  What if houses and apartment buildings were decked with the rusty remains of family misunderstandings that have been overcome by love, courage, and God’s grace?  What an encouragement to people who know they are called to holiness but find themselves still struggling with weaknesses, sins, or addictions!


Perhaps just as important, though, is the reminder they would provide that the call to be a saint is the call to be a chain-breaker.  Making chains is much easier, of course – I can do it without even trying!  It only takes an unkind remark toward a person to tighten around his or her ankles the chains of poor self-image.  It only takes a racial or ethnic joke to tighten around my hearer’s ankles the chains of prejudice or racism.  The rusted pieces of iron hanging on the church wall in Toledo remind all saints of their responsibility.


Paul tells us that we have been strengthened for this calling.  It is the power of God that makes us saints.  It is the power of God that breaks our chains and enables us to become “chain-breakers,” too.  We are then called to embrace that truth and that vision for ourselves; to define ourselves in this way.  One hot night, a pastor sat with Dr. S.P. Raju, an engineer and scientist in India.  Dr. Raju had invented the smokeless oven used by Indian villagers.  He had designed a one-room-house that would drastically change the living conditions of the peasants.  He was an official in the Indian government.  As the two men talked, Dr. Raju placed in the pastor’s hands a rumpled piece of paper on which he had paraphrased Paul’s words: “Raju, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an engineer, separated unto the Gospel of God in the evangelism of irrigation research for growing more and more food, and bringing redemption from hunger …. Also separated unto the Gospel of God in the evangelism of housing research for the poor, for bringing ‘preventive redemption’ to them from congestion, dirt and disease, which are the potential sources of moral evil and sin.”  He had defined his identity, and thus his life, in positive ways and had moved in those ways and achieved great things for God.


How would your paraphrase from Corinthians read applied to your own life?  In what ways could you begin to identify your gifts and define yourself as a saint and a chain-breaker?  After all, that is who and what we have been made to be by Jesus.  Let us embrace that truth about ourselves and begin to live out our calling as saints and as those who bring liberation to the world around us.