Attentiveness: The Saints
Dr. Scott W. Sunquist
The strength of a church and even the wholesomeness of Christianity is its connectiveness and contextuality: connected to Jesus and our great Christian tradition and presenting the gospel in contextually appropriate ways.
Christianity is not only an individualistic search for salvation. It is a historic faith where we are part of a family, a historic and global family. It is a glorious and wonderful truth we must embrace. We neglect this to our own impoverishment.
This past week many churches celebrated “All Saints Day,” and then a day later others celebrated “All Souls Day.” There is little difference, but the heritage goes back to remembering the martyrs and being encouraged by their faithfulness, meekness, and their courage.
Many churches today have lost the tradition of remembering. We forget to remember the great saints of the past to our detriment. Through their faithfulness and wisdom, we learn and become more faithful and even courageous today.
Which brings me to seminary. Why do we teach Christian history? Does it really help prepare students to be pastors or missionaries? Is it only of value for learning the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity and (possibly) prevenient grace or total depravity? That is certainly part of the reason: to understand why we have certain doctrines and assumptions as Protestant Christians.
However, I think an equally important reason is to see our connection to the church through time. At the end, time collapses into eternity. We will be in eternal fellowship with all the saints, but we can learn from them now if we will take time to study their faithfulness. It takes humility to learn from imperfect people who have died and who have been honored by others. I have had students “discipled” by the witness of Kagawa of Japan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, St. Francis, St. Claire, and Perpetua and Felicity. For some of these students, their lives were changed by these encounters. The Church exists today in part because of Christian heroes from the past. Can I call them heroes? I think that is how the great saints function for us.
We are wired by God in creation to learn by modeling after others. We will be discipled by someone. Will it be a sports hero or movie star, the pastor of a large church, our parents? I would like to suggest helping our congregations to learn virtues for today from saints of old.
I have come under conviction in this area. I will be teaching my history classes more around biographies and less around themes or movements. Our students and our church members need to have these models before them. This is a noble reason for teaching Christian history.
One final note: this idea of learning from the saints is much stronger in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions. Protestants understandably stepped away from remembering “saints” in part because of Medieval practices of pilgrimage to the dubious sites of bones or relics. However, there is much that we can learn from studying the lives of faithful men and women. Their faith and witness to Christ are worth remembering. Please, take time to listen to and learn from Gregory the Great, as well as Wilberforce, Whitefield, John Sung, Simon Kimbangu, John Cassian, and Mother Teresa. These are our family members, and they have much to teach us. One day we will join them in eternity, these witnesses to Christ.
For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
who thee by faith before the world confessed,
thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed,
Scott W. Sunquist, the President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, writes a weekly blog, “Attentiveness” which is posted each Tuesday on the Gordon-Conwell web site. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.