In the Company of Saints

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Throughout the month of August, we’re taking a close look at 23 verses of the New Testament.  They comprise Ephesians chapter one, which paints one of the Bible’s most comprehensive pictures of what it means for ordinary people to be “in Christ.”  
The irreverent British comedians known as Monty Python became famous, in part, because they never hesitated to take on sacred subjects. 
That included the life of Jesus.
The result was their controversial 1979 film The Life of Brian.  Do you remember when Jesus presents the Beatitudes as part of his Sermon on the Mount?  Here’s the Pythons’ take on that signature moment in spiritual history:
An old woman looks toward the top of the hill and shouts, “Speak up!  I can’t hear you.  What’s he saying?”  A raggedy old man turns to her and says, “I think he said, ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.’” Another woman seems confused.  “Blessed are the cheesemakers?  Whatever does that mean?”  Her husband answers confidently, “He doesn’t literally mean cheesemakers.  He’s referring to makers of any dairy products.”
The goat farmer standing next to him then says, “Hey Big Nose, keep it down.  I can’t hear what he’s saying!”  “Don’t call my husband Big Nose,” the wife snaps back. “You shut up, too,” retorts the goat farmer.  “Don’t tell my wife to shut up or I’ll shut you up.” The raggedy man glares at all of them and says, “Shhhh!”  The goat farmer then nods, “All right, let’s listen up; there might be a part about blessed are the big noses.” 
The old woman who initiated this whole ruckus finally sighs and gives up.  “Let’s go to the stoning,” she says.
Since this isn’t exactly the way the Bible reads, The Life of Brian took a beating from Christians around the world. 
It’s no surprise that numerous church leaders condemned it as blasphemous.  But since most of them never actually went to see the movie, they overlooked something significant: The Life of Brian has nothing bad to say about Jesus.  In fact, in the group’s authorized biography – The Pythons on Python – Eric Idle points out that the comedians took the time to read the gospel accounts before making their movie.  They were deeply impressed with Jesus.  How could you possibly make a funny movie about him?
Director Terry Jones said, “The humor lay in somebody preaching and talking about peace and love, and then in people who spend the next 2,000 years killing and torturing each other because they can’t quite decide how he said it.”  John Cleese adds, “What is absurd is not the teachings of the founders of religion; it’s what the followers subsequently make of it.  And I was always astonished that people didn’t get that.”
In other words, The Life of Brian isn’t a put-down of Jesus.  It’s a movie that exuberantly makes fun of the people who follow him. 
Over the centuries, people have been unfailingly impressed with Jesus.  They just aren’t very impressed with us
The book of Ephesians opens with these words:  “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God; to the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus” (1:1).
The most jarring of those words is “saints.”  To whom exactly is Paul addressing this letter? 
The word “saint” has had an interesting history.  During Christianity’s early centuries it came to represent a woman or a man of exceptional spiritual maturity.  Well into the Middle Ages, in the Roman Catholic tradition, the word “saint” designated a deceased Christian of such purity and virtue that he or she could actually intercede for struggling Christians here on earth. 
It seems clear that the apostle Paul has something different in mind.  The saints in Ephesus were ordinary followers of Jesus.  They were rank and file disciples, including beginners, stragglers, and strugglers.
It’s worth noting that the word “saint” in the New Testament never applies to someone who is dead, but always to those who are living – and always to a group of living persons at that.  The literal translation of the Greek word is “holy one.”  On the pages of the Bible, holiness is closely connected with the idea of separation.  Someone who follows Jesus is therefore one who is separate, or set apart, from the world with regard to priorities, thinking, and behavior. 
So look around the next time you’re at a gathering of people who have enrolled as lifelong learners of Jesus.  You are in the company of saints – God’s set-apart ones.
The concern, of course, is that the people whom the Bible calls “saints” do not seem to be particularly saintly.  It’s ironic that Paul himself goes out of his way in several of his letters to admit that he had previously tracked down and presumably murdered some of Jesus’ earliest followers.  He labels himself “the chief of sinners.” 
God tells us, and he tells the world, that we are his holy ones.  Yet stunningly often our behavior is unholy.  Take a deep breath.  This is it.  We are God’s Plan A to fulfill his mission on earth.  We are the saints entrusted with getting it done.
An increasing number of American saints appear to have concluded that it’s not all that crucial to hang around with other saints.  More than 40% of self-described Christians report that they seldom, rarely, or never attend church – a trend that was in play even before the pandemic. 
So why can’t I simply walk away from the messed-up people and hypocrites who inevitably surround me wherever I go to church? 
The simple answer is that the Bible tells me that I am not myself by myself.  It pleases God to accomplish my spiritual transformation by means of other broken people – through their partnerships, their prayers, and even (in ways we often cannot foresee) their most grievous failures.  The book of Ephesians goes on to tell us how that can happen.
In the movie Gladiator, the central character Maximus stands in the Colosseum arena surrounded by a small group of frightened men with drawn swords.  He says to them, “Whatever comes through those gates, if we stay together, we can survive.” 
That is God’s word to all of his set-apart ones.  We cannot stand by ourselves.   
But by the power and grace of the God who unites us, we can increasingly become the saints he has called us to be.