I have been told that I have a tendency to ruin cultural outings with my penchant for theological critique. I try really hard to rein it in, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. It might have happened last month, when I took my 4-year-old son to see “The Wizard of Oz.” It was an Andrew Lloyd Webber production, with many of the classic songs from the 1939 movie and a few new songs written for this play.
One of those new songs is a reflection on home. “Home is a place in your heart,” the cast sings, “every journey leads you back to where you start. Close your eyes, it’s very easy. You’ll find that you’re already home. Yes, there’s no place as good as home.” Coming at the end of the play, the words are intended to help Dorothy see that while she has spent her time in Oz trying to find a way home, her home has always been with her. If she merely closes her eyes, she will be there because home is a place inside of our hearts.
My internal “discernment” gears started turning. As people of Christian faith, can we sing this song? What does it mean to be a people who find our home in Christ here and now, who are members of God’s household with our brothers and sisters in Christ but who also are deeply aware that we are not at home in this world? What does it mean that we are pilgrims on our way to the Heavenly City, as Augustine helps to remind us? We are somehow, amazingly, by the grace of God, even now members of God’s household and fellow citizens with the saints of God’s Kingdom (Ephesians 2).
In light of our Christian sensibilities about home, what is the calling upon families here and now to provide a place of love and security? Do we want our children to close their eyes and know that they are home because our love is with them, that there is no place as good as the home we have provided? How do we connect this desire to provide a place of safety and love for our children with our eschatological hope that we await a better home? How do we connect this desire with the reality that our homes are not all they should be?
And how is a song like this one heard by people who have faced the reality of sin more starkly in our homes than most of us can even imagine? How does it sit with those who have no desire ever to return to the homes in which they began their lives, homes that were not safe?
Similar questions arise when we try to think about the relationship between God our Father and our earthly fathers. It is so tempting to try to explain God the Father by beginning with the fathers in our earthly families. My college students, in trying to explain and understand the Trinity, would sometimes write something like, “Just as your father loves you, provides for you, and would do anything for you, so God our Father loves us, provides for us, and would do anything for us.” Similar to the “there’s no place as good as home” sentiment, this notion assumes a safe, stable, lovable and loving father. It assumes that moving from our notions of a father to our ideas about God is unproblematic and helpful.
As we learn from Procrustes, it is not a good idea to try to fit our understanding of God into our preconceived notions. Procrustes, according to Greek mythology, had an amazing bed that he would offer to travelers, a bed that perfectly fit whoever slept in it. But there was a catch. To make it perfectly fit, Procrustes would either stretch his guests’ bodies until they were long enough or chop off their limbs until they were short enough to be the exact length of the bed. There was an extreme cost to this “perfectly fitting bed.”
This is the danger that arises when we begin with our ideas and try to fit God and other notions of the faith into them. We often try to fit God into the concepts that we already have in our minds, and in so doing unwittingly chop off or stretch parts of who God is to match our convictions or practices. Instead, we are called to let God shape and reshape our ideas, convictions and practices in light of how God makes himself known. And this is actually a huge gift.
We have the tremendous privilege of serving a God who comes to us through Christ and the Spirit and shows us such transforming love, such reconciling grace, that all of our preconceived notions and practices have to be dramatically transformed. Through Christ, God makes himself known as the true and complete Father. God the Father shows us the full extent of his love when he sends into the world his Son, that all of humanity might be invited to know him as Father, to share in the very relationship that Jesus shares with the Father. As the Holy Spirit draws us into the union shared between the Father and the Son, we ourselves live as children of God. Through Christ and the Spirit we have become members of the family of God.
Compared to this gospel vision of family, our imagination for our own families is small at times. We can get trapped in our own cul-de-sacs, viewing ourselves and our immediate families as the center of our lives. We can expend so much energy going around and around to make sure that we have what we need to fulfill our picture of a good family life. We can be haunted by images of what it means to be a good parent that we are trying to live into, trying so hard to achieve. We can be driven by images of what it means to have good children, defined by cultural notions of performance and achievement. In all of this we are relying on our own visions and our own strength, when we could be living by the vision and the grace of God in Christ.
Called to be Saints, Not Heroes
Lately I have been thinking about God’s expansive imagination for his people in terms of what it means that we are called to be saints, not heroes. These reflections are inspired in part by my son, who is just entering his superhero stage. It seems like almost a rite of passage for American kids of a certain background. As with the Wizard of Oz, I am trying not to ruin it for my son with my penchant for cultural and theological critique. I am trying instead to channel my concerns into positive reflections on what it means that as children of God we are called to be saints, not heroes. I am reflecting on what it means for parents to join in the Spirit’s work of forming our children into saints.
Think for a moment about the hero, at least in our contemporary popular imagination. With impeccable timing and just the right combination of skills, strength and knowledge, the hero arrives and saves the day. Without the hero, death or other terrible tragedy would ensue. With the hero, all is well (at least for the moment). The hero usually works alone. And the hero becomes the center of the story, the one who deserves the glory and honor for doing the rescuing.
It might sound desirable to raise children to be heroes – children who save the day, children who deserve praise and admiration for their heroic efforts. But there is a dark side to the hero storyline. If the hero gets the credit when “salvation” happens, then the hero must also take responsibility when the tragedy is not prevented. When the day is not saved, the hero lives with the knowledge that he could and should have saved it. If only the hero’s timing had been better, or her skill set more refined, then tragedy could have been prevented. And let’s face it, in this world, there is a lot of tragedy. Do I want my son and daughter bearing the weight of all that tragedy on their shoulders? Am I supposed to be forming them to think they are called to save the world?
The answer is a resounding “no.” The world has already been saved. “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.” In this short refrain that many Christians say within their worship services on Sunday mornings, we are proclaiming that Jesus Christ has already done all that is necessary for the redemption of the world. We are declaring that Jesus Christ rose from the grave, conquered sin and death and every thing that prevents this world from being what God intended it to be. We are proclaiming that Jesus Christ will return to consummate God’s redemption of the world and fully usher in God’s kingdom in this place. We do not need to live as heroes. Let us not take that burden upon our shoulders or place it on the shoulders of our children. According to Scripture, Jesus tells the weary and the burdened to come to him and receive his rest, for his yoke is easy and his burden light (Matthew 11:28-30). God in Christ has already borne the weight of all the tragedies of this world and redeemed every square inch of God’s broken creation. In Christ we are called to live not as heroes but as saints.
Many of us might not be used to using the language of saints to refer to who we are as God’s people, but this is another place where we need to let God shape and reshape our ideas, convictions and practices. According to the New Testament, in Christ, God’s people are saints. Paul writes to the church in Rome: “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints” (Romans 1:7). To the church in Corinth, he writes, “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). If you read a different translation from the New Revised Standard, you might read “God’s holy people” or sometimes simply “God’s people” where other and older translations have “saints.” In other words, it is not that we are called to be saints as an identity to strive and work toward on our own. As God’s people, we actually are saints, right now. We see this in the passage in Ephesians above, in which we learn that we are members of the very household of God and “citizens with the saints” of God’s Kingdom (Ephesians 2:19).
We are used to looking to Jesus Christ as our Savior, the one who justifies us, the one who sets us free from our past sin. When we look to Scripture, we see that the saving work of God in Christ not only sets us free from past sins and saves us for future glory but also sets us free to live as God’s children here and now. The Reformed tradition has called this “double grace”: we are both justified and sanctified. The saving work of Christ has to do not only with what Christ has done and what Christ will do when he returns, but also with what Christ continues to do in our lives as we are drawn further and further into our identity as children of God through the Spirit. We are sanctified in Christ Jesus, set apart to be God’s holy people, to be saints.
Called Out of the Cul-de-sac
What are we set apart for? Just like with God’s vision for families, God’s vision for his people is not to live in private cul-de-sacs, focused on ourselves, our performance, our achievements, our family time. God calls his people, rooted in union with him, to love and care for the flourishing of all people and all creation. In creation, humans are given the original call to steward God’s creation. In God’s covenant relationship with Israel, God’s people are called to be set apart by reflecting the very loving faithfulness, justice and righteousness of God — so that they treated one another and all the aliens, strangers, orphans and widows in their midst with love and justice.
In Christ, God in the flesh embodies the faithfulness, justice and righteousness of God, condemning and overcoming all the sin and evil that keep humanity and creation from flourishing. In Christ we are reconciled to God and one another, we are justified and sanctified, that we might live as God’s holy people — receiving, living by and offering a witness to the very faithfulness, justice and righteousness of God. As God’s holy people, as God’s saints, in our families, homes and churches, by the grace of God, we ought to be those to whom Christ the king will say upon his return, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35-36).
This doesn’t have to mean huge and heroic efforts on our part. I think of a former student of mine who was baffled to discover that Sunday was a “private, family” day for the churches he visited as a new college student. He noticed that after church, many people retreated to their own homes to eat and fellowship with only those they already knew and to whom they were related. When he was growing up, Sunday had been the most open and inviting day of the week—the day in which his family opened its home after church to whoever needed a place, needed a meal, needed Christ’s rest. This was a gracious and seamless extension of who his family was in Christ, God’s saints living lives of loving faithfulness, righteousness and justice in this world.
By the grace of God they lived not by a private “cul-de-sac” vision in which their family was the center of the story, but as God’s people who generously and openly shared their time, resources and home with any and all. Rather than a grand heroic vision, this was their small, consistent and faithful offering back to God, rooted in their gratitude for all that God had given them.
Saints open their homes because they expect to give in gratitude for God’s generosity in Christ. Heroes have a hard time opening their homes, because other people will expect too much from them. To be saintly is to offer our gifts so that they make us more dependent on God and one another, while to be heroic is to make others more and more dependent on us. Saintliness is about exercising our unique gifts while also receiving and enjoying the gifts of others. Heroism is about exercising our gifts so that others do not have much to contribute. Heroes get others out of trouble; saints share their lives so that they can suffer trouble with others. To be heroic is to be set apart, set apart to live a lonely, parallel life. To be saintly is to be set apart to live in communion with God and others, entering into life together with others rooted in God’s grace and love.
We will not all live into our identity as God’s saints in the same ways. Yet we have the tremendous privilege of serving a God who shapes and reshapes, expands and enlarges our own small, limited notions of what it means to be a family, to have a home. In union with Christ and one another, as the family of God, as God’s saints, may we invite the Holy Spirit to allow us to wrestle together with what it might look like for us. May we live by God’s faithfulness, justice and righteousness in all that we do, by the grace of God offering ourselves, our homes, our families to God with gratitude. May we strive not for heroic actions but for Spirit-led, Kingdom-informed ways of living in this world. May we remember that, even as we are called to love and serve this world that God has made and redeemed, by the grace of God we do not bear the weight of the world upon our shoulders. Thanks be to God.