Saints in the hands of a humble heaven

2014 11 02 Heaven's Hands (Website background)

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

--Matthew 23:1-12, NRSV

What is it that we believe about the character of God? Where do we get our images of heaven? What shapes our imagination of holiness? What comes to mind when we hear the word saint?

For many of us, our understanding of heaven and what it means to be holy have been shaped by violent images of an angry god. Heaven, we imagine, is a place set aside exclusively for the saints, those exceptionally holy few who were granted special gifts and have managed to escape the fires of hell and the wrath of an angry and violent god.

Jonathan Edwards, one of America's most important and historically influential preachers from the eighteenth-century, made such claims in his all-too-famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

This fearful image of God is supported even more by the stereotypical nun, "the 'hell on wheels' disciplinarian who enjoys hitting kids with rulers and humiliating them in class." Holiness is a life of fearful obedience to an angry God who looks a lot like that hell-on-wheels nun. Of course, that is until the day, if we get lucky, we might get to hold that ruler and be the disciplinarians ourselves. For many of us, it is images like these that have shaped our view of God, holiness, and sainthood.

All Saints' Day is one of those holy days in the Christian year that provides an opportunity to reevaluate and reshape our imagination of God, heaven, holiness, and the saints. On All Saints' Day we celebrate the communion of the saintsa spiritual communion between the saints in heaven who have gone on before us and those who are living and breathing among us. These are the "company of heaven" who are always acknowledged in our prayers as we gather around the Lord's Table for Communion.

But how should we imagine this company of heaven? And who are these saints we are celebrating?

For many, saints are those who were exceptionally gifted by God to live exemplary, sinless lives. The company of heaven, then, is thought of as a mixture of angels and saints who stand guard over heaven, mediating between us and a holy and unaccessible God.

This image of God and the saints, however, is quite opposed to that which is portrayed in the New Testament. This god looks a lot like the bullies Jesus stood against, who "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them." Jonathan Edward's god "abhors you" and doesn't look anything like Jesus. Jesus, the friend of sinners and the servant of the weak, commanded his disciples to imitate him and not the abusive religious leaders of his day. They were not to stand over and above others, but to live in humility as servants to the world around them. Our passage this week from Matthew 23 reminds us that those around us who are most like God are the humble who live in service to others.

In contrast to Jonathan Edwards's image of a monster god, the God revealed in Jesus Christ has a character of gentleness, humility, and hospitality. Rather than holding us like spiders over the pit of a fiery hell or waiting, ruler in hand, to smite us lest we make a mistake, the God revealed in Jesus reaches down to pull us up. (Of course, one could point out that Jonathan Edwards was apparently quite fond of spiders. See The Scriptorium Daily's post "Spiders, Comics, and Jonathan Edwards.") As the story of Jesus reminds us, this God does not side with the righteous, but with the sinners.

This God knocks kings off of their thrones and raises up the lowly (Luke 1:51).  As revealed in Jesus, this God brings good news to the poor, proclaims freedom to the captives, recovers sight to the blind, and releases the oppressed (Luke 4:14-29). This God proclaims that the poor, the hungry, and the weeping are blessed, but speaks harsh words of warning--"woe!"--to the rich, those who are well fed, the laughing, and those who are spoken well of (Luke 6:17-49).

This God sees something in us worth rescuing, that there is something in us of such unsurpassable value that it is worth going to any length to ensure that we are rescued.

If saints are those who have a holiness to be imitated, their holiness is not the result of some supernatural gifts that made them exceptional when compared to everyone else. Their holiness is not the result of a kind of righteousness in which they stand over and above the rest of us. Rather, their holiness is the mark of lives that were given in humble service to others. Like Jesus, their holiness was the result of their love. Like Jesus, the holiness of the saints is not an over-and-above holiness, but an under-and-in-service holiness. Their holiness came, not from their righteousness, but from their humility. And since they did not live over-and-above lives on earth, we should imagine that even in heaven they remain marked by this same under-and-in-service holiness. In other words, saints are those imitators of Jesus whose lives of service on earth offer us examples of the character of God and glimpses of the beauty of heaven.

So when we gather this Sunday at the sacred table in "the company of heaven," let us not imagine that we have been transported to heaven as a place over and above earth and all the rest of us. We are not coming to a place where we might, at any moment, find ourselves as unwelcome sinners threatened by hell and hanging on for dear life. Instead, let us approach God with freedom and confidence (Ephesians 3:12; Hebrews 4:16). Let us us see the truth, that God does not "abhor us," but has chosen to be in the midst of us. That the saints can be called holy because they gave themselves in service to the world, in witness to a God who is for us and not against us. Let us see that in the fruits of the earth we are enjoying together, heaven is nurturing and nourishing us. That heaven is among us. And let us be inspired by the same Spirit that empowered all of the witnesses before us, so that we no longer live as sinners in the hands of an angry God, but recognize ourselves as saints in the hands of a humble heaven.

How would you describe the character of God? How do you imagine heaven? How would you define holiness? Who is your favorite saint?