Each year as we recreate our Cloud of Witnesses at All Saints, I am asked some version of, ‘Does my saint need to be Christian?’ Many of us have had significant friendships or encounters with non-Christians which have deepened our Christian faith. So, do these people count as ‘saints’? The short answer is, Yes! For the longer answer, read on.
Let’s start with the obvious: Most people in the Bible are Jewish, Jesus was Jewish, and following Jesus began as a strand of Judaism. Christianity only became its own thing well after Jesus’ death, and this development was hotly contested by the Jesus-followers of the time. So at the very least, Jewish people are absolute shoo-ins for our saints; otherwise, we exclude Jesus himself.
Less obvious, and more interesting, is that the Bible constantly disrupts its own universalising claims. Time and again, characters appear who are not members of the faith, who are praised for their faith, who stretch the faith, and who yet are not in any way expected to join the faith.
For example, way back in the mists of time, Abram (later Abraham) encounters Melchizedek, king of Salem (Jerusalem) and priest of El Elyon (Gen. 14:18-20). El Elyon is Hebrew for ‘God the Most High’; it is also a compound name of Canaanite gods, including El, the sky god. This Canaanite king-priest of El Elyon Melchizedek shares bread and wine, blesses Abram, and receives Abram’s tithe. Centuries later, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews takes this little episode and builds a whole theology around it. He argues Christ is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, who does not belong to their [Jewish] ancestry and yet is of a higher order than the Levite priests (Heb. 6:19ff); and it is to this order that we, as members of the body of Christ, belong. And so Melchizedek, a Canaanite priest living before the faith known as Judaism, not only blesses Abram and receives his tithe, but stretches our understanding of the faith now known as Christianity.
Then there’s Job of Uz: the most righteous man on the face of the earth. He is monotheistic, but not Israelite: yet God praises his faith and, in one of the most stunning poems ever written, engages in a vast cosmic dialogue with him which turns most assumptions about suffering upside down.
Moving to the new covenant, we have Matthew’s gospel, written for Jewish believers. It opens with a fiercely Jewish Jesus who expects disciples to follow Jewish law (Matt. 5:17); who tells disciples on mission to “go nowhere among the Gentiles …” (Matt. 10:5); and who calls a Canaanite woman a bitch (Matt. 15:21-28). Yet a Roman centurion begs Jesus to heal his young man-slave-lover (Matt. 8:5-13; the Greek word includes all these possibilities). After a verbal tussle, Jesus praises the centurion’s faith, such as he has not seen in Israel, and he heals the centurion’s young man. However, nothing suggests the centurion leaves the army, gets circumcised, and begins following Jewish law (which precludes serving in the Roman army).
The Canaanite ‘bitch’ also engages in a verbal tussle with Jesus, so much so that her faith is also praised, her daughter healed, and Jesus’ own sense of vocation is expanded to encompass Gentiles (Matt. 15). In other words, a Gentile woman, whom Jesus has just called a dog, spoke gospel into Jesus’ life: and he had the humility and courage to hear and act on it. Yet, again, there is no expectation that she should become Jewish. What Matthew’s Jewish audience therefore learn, and what we should extrapolate from, is that there are many expressions of faithfulness. People of great faith may lie outside our religious and cultural boundaries, yet speak gospel into our lives and expand our sense of faith and vocation: just as happened to Jesus.
As you ponder these words, you might prayerfully wonder: Who outside the usual boundaries of faith has spoken gospel into my life and pushed me to grow? And you might ask God to open your eyes to someone who is doing this now.
Emailed to Sanctuary 4 November 2020 © Alison Sampson, 2020. Image credit: Jon Tyson on Unsplash.
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