Do you Qualify for Heaven?

Last Friday was All Saints day. But what does it take to become a saint? By the way, this is nothing to do with the 1960’s spy thriller TV series ‘The Saint’! Earlier last month, Pope Francis made or canonised 4 new saints, one of which was John Henry Newman who was largely responsible for the Oxford Movement in the Anglican church which saw the introduction of vestments and robed choirs in the nineteenth century. He later converted to Catholicism.
So, do you have to be a Roman Catholic and dead to become a saint? In fact, following the example of Paul in the new testament, the Roman Catholic church along with Anglicans and Orthodox recognise that all Christian believers are in fact saints but they canonise those they deem to be especially holy, exemplary in their faith and around whose remains miracles are deemed to have happened. I am not so concerned about whether we become that kind of saint with our own day in the calendar and etched in a stained-glass window. I am more interested in being a saint in the Pauline sense of the word: the saints in Christ Jesus. To be numbered amongst the multitude from every nation that no one could number standing before the throne of the lamb as John describes them in Revelation (7. 4 & 9) To have a place in heaven. What qualifications do we need to be this kind of saint? Is it hard to get in?
To play for a top football team, you need to pass the trial. You can only be in the Welsh rugby team if you are linked by birth in someway to Wales. To enter many professions, you must undertake the relevant vocational training engage in continuing education and maintain your registration. Think for a moment of the most difficult thing you have ever applied to do. May be some one here has really interesting qualification; a closet ski jumper or a secret astronaut. We can often spend a lot of time and money getting what we want in our lives or encouraging children or grandchildren to achieve their goals in life. But what about being a saint? Is that a presumptuous thing to want to be? Or is it actually really vital because it’s not just about this life. It’s about God and it’s about eternity.
Our readings today, taken from very different segments of the bible help us towards an answer to the question of what makes a saint. The prophet Isaiah speaks to Judah and Jerusalem some 750 years before Christ. He makes it clear that God’s people, the Jews, were very religious. There was plenty of sacrificing going on. There were solemn assemblies, a plethora of festivals and the people appeared to be saying many prayers. (Isaiah 1. 11,13,15) What’s not to like? Surely God was happy with them and they would all be saints! Everyone appeared to be praying and going to church and making sacrifices to cover their sins, everything that God had told them to be doing. You would think they would qualify based on all that religion.
But God, through his prophet Isaiah, is scathing. ‘I have had more than enough of burnt offerings…. I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. Stop bringing meaningless offerings! I cannot bear your evil assemblies. I will not listen to your prayers.’ Isaiah 10. 11, 13, 15) Why is God so unhappy? Why are the people not being commended for all their religion? What’s the problem?
Verse 16 makes it abundantly clear: ‘Take your evil deeds out of my sight!’ God cannot not ignore or forget the wicked things in their lives. Their sin, their disobedience of God is the problem. In the opening words of the reading, they are likened to Sodom and Gomorrah, cities which were a by word for turning against God. We can sometimes be mistaken in thinking that if we come to church, receive communion, sing our hymns and say our prayers that God will overlook the bad stuff lurking in our hearts; the careless words, the grudges held, our lack patience or generosity. These things don’t go away and God is not mocked and fooled by a veneer of religious practice which is only skin deep. There needs to be a goodness within our hearts which is self-sacrificial. ‘Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.’ (Isaiah 1.17) So urges God through his prophet. But does that mean sinners can’t be saints?
In our gospel reading, (Luke 19.1-10) Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, going up with a large crowd of pilgrims for the Passover where he would be the sacrificial lamb crucified on the cross. Jericho, an oasis in the heat of the Jordan valley, was a last stopping place before the ascent up to Jerusalem. A little tax man called Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore tree to get a good look at Jesus. Zacchaeus would have been the last person that anyone would have considered as a candidate to be a saint. He sided with the Romans; the enemy and embezzled money. He and his like were regarded in much the same light as people traffickers or drug barons. But Jesus true to form passes the time of day with Zacchaeus up the tree. He does much more than that, he invites himself to lodge at his house.
What transpires between Jesus and the sinner Zacchaeus is not told. When they emerge again in public, Zacchaeus says ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount’ (Luke 19.8) Zacchaeus is pledging to do those things which God asked of his people through his prophet all those years before. Jesus can now proclaim that ‘salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house, that he too is a son of Abraham.’ (Luke 19.9) Zacchaeus has morphed from sinner to saint. How did that happen? Jesus is the key to this transformation. ‘The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’ The fact that all of us, every human being is a sinner before God does not bar us from being saints. The key thing is that we honestly seek the forgiveness of those sins. No animal sacrifice is required on our part. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem to be the Passover lamb was sufficient for the sin of Zacchaeus, you and me and the whole world. Just as Zacchaeus was happy for Jesus to be his guest, so we too must accept Christ’s sacrifice of himself and like Zacchaeus become a sacrificial people. Sainthood is possible. The only qualifications are to be human, to accept what the Son of Man has done and then to serve humanity as was Jesus’ example.
Finally, the reading from Paul’s 2nd letter to the Thessalonians speaks of the importance of accepting and obeying the gospel. There is punishment and destruction for those who don’t. The bible only has two categories of human beings: saints and sinners. As we have seen, the way is open for all to qualify as saints. That way was achieved not at our expense but God’s in Christ. To reject it, to allow sin to remain is put ourselves in the greatest peril imaginable.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul gives thanks to the father ‘who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.’ (Colossians 1.12) While you think about all the effort required on your part to qualify you for all manner of things which may not last for long, see that you do not pass up the gift of qualifying for sainthood, for the kingdom of God, for heaven in Christ and see that your life is, through the Holy Spirit, worthy of the that great gift.
Kingdom 1 03.11.2019

Rev'd Jonathan Smith

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