Looking “With” the Saints

Gregory S. Clapper

In my last two Catalyst essays (see here, and here), I encouraged contemporary United Methodists to embrace the Christian language of “heart religion.” Wesley summarized his essential heart-orientation by focusing on three spiritual-emotional capacities that he saw as necessary for every believer—repentance, faith, and holiness. In my last essay, I discussed repentance, which Wesley termed “the porch of religion.” Here, I will briefly characterize the other two parts of the house—the “door” of faith and “religion itself” or holiness.

If we want people to walk through the “door of faith,” as Wesley understood it, then we must speak of two separate, albeit related, meanings of “faith.” We must speak of the knowledge of who God is and what God has done. This is essentially the gospel. Equally important, we must speak of our heart’s trust in the God of the gospel. This faith-as-trust is transitive; that is, it is grown not by being trusting in general, but by focusing on, and trusting, the God who is described by the gospel.

A large part of such growth in faith is accomplished through catechesis and a regular liturgy that has theological integrity. But orienting people to the object of our faith can also occur, not so much by describing the object directly, but by describing scenes where people are targeting God with their faith. In this sense, one could pay attention to believers, not in order to look at them, but to look with them, to gaze upon the objects that have given them the faith to go on.

One reason why preachers often refer to popular movies to illustrate their sermons is that the characters in these fictions are portrayed in a way that allows people to see where their hearts are fixed. Often, in the artistically condensed character sketches that films provide, we can see the object of peoples hearts more readily than we can in the more subtle ways they are typically evinced in real-time, everyday life. For instance, in It’s a Wonderful Life, the people in Bedford Falls, over a period of many years, caught a glimpse of reality through the eyes of Jimmy Stewarts character, and they were inspired by his life of faith to live such a “wonderful life” themselves. They not only looked at George Bailey, they looked with him, and as we watched this whole process, we were invited to see reality through his eyes as well.

This same pattern can be followed when encouraging Christians to embrace and embody the third part of Wesley’s image of the house of Christianity—the house of holiness. Wesley understood holiness to be nothing but agapē—love. For vivid depictions of this love, we, like Wesley, begin with Scripture.

While many are familiar with 1 Corinthians 13 and its famous description of love, fewer will remember that there is an even more concise definition of love to be found in the NT. This definition is found in 1 John 3:16: “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (NRSV). However, we can understand this self-sacrifical love that we are called to live out not just by reading about it in Scripture. Such love becomes especially compelling when we can point to it as embodied in real lives.

Wesley himself did this by lifting up examples of everyday saints in his own local communities. Wesley published biographies of role-model-Methodists in the early Arminian Magazine of the Methodist movement. Considering the lives of saints is not only a “Roman Catholic” thing to do! When we look at the lives of lovers (agapē) in the world, it is possible to catch a glimpse of God by looking with such lovers, to look where they are looking.

The postal worker who takes time to serve as a “big sister,” the busy lawyer who will make time to cook for a church funeral, the teacher who paints houses of poor people for free—all of these people are “laying down their lives” as the 1 John passage calls us to do. Some lives are laid down all at once, like police and military heroes. But more typically we are called to “lay down our lives” a little bit at a time, on a daily basis, however many years we are granted.

Yet, one thing is clear. When we look at such lives for any time at all, we end up looking with them for the source of their inspiration and power. Looking where the saints look is one powerful way for people to grow in all three aspects of the “house of religion.”

Posted Jul 23, 2018

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