Who our heroes are tell us a lot about ourselves. The heroes of a culture are the people we look up to, the people who inspire us. They are the people we want to be like and try to imitate. Judging from money and attention paid to people in our culture, and judging from commercials and magazine covers, our heroes are pop stars from the entertainment world of music and movies, and athletes. I know that I want my kids to grow up to be like Miley Cyrus, Kim Kardashian, and Justin Bieber! I find it interesting that they used to call movie stars “movie idols,” perhaps a more telling description.
Growing up, my hero was Jim Ryun who held the world record in the mile at 3 minutes and 51.1 seconds, and to a lesser degree, Gill Dodds, the “Flying Parson” who held the indoor record mile in the 1940s, refused to run on Sundays, and coached my dad at Wheaton College.
My heroes now are people like St. Paul, St. Athanasius, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, and John Keble, as well as a whole book of saints that I know personally.
But this morning, I’m interested in something even deeper than knowing who your personal heroes are. I want to challenge you to ask yourself the question: “Am I a hero?”
Webster’s definition of “hero” is (and I quote directly):
- “A mythological or legendary figure, often of divine ancestry, who is favored of the gods, endowed with great courage and strength, and celebrated for his bold exploits.”
No, that’s not quite right – though parts of it are good.
- “A man noted for his courageous acts or nobility of purpose, esp. one who has risked or sacrificed his life.”
That’s more like it. Isn’t that the kind of hero that God is, in fact, asking all of you to be? I believe God is calling each of you to be a hero. There are two kinds of Christian heroes, and God is calling each of you to be both of them: Saints and Martyrs.
Unfortunately, both of these are misunderstood words. “Saint” comes from the Latin
santa for “holy.” This is the sense in which the Bible calls all Christians “saints.” But the meaning of a saint has been distorted by the Roman Catholic view of saints, in which a certain Christian is declared to be so holy that he or she goes directly to heaven and doesn’t pass through purgatory.
If you’ve ever wanted to know what you needed to do to be a saint, here are some of the criteria. You have to have been dead for 5 years. Sorry, none of you can be saints yet! Actually, this is the easiest requirement, and eventually we’ll all qualify. But you must also have been proven to have had “heroic virtue.” A miracle attributed to you must be verified after the saint is dead. I’m not sure why it shouldn’t be required that the miracle should have been verified while the saint was living – but I guess that would be much more difficult! The miracle must be attributed to the intercession of the Blessed, after he or she is beatified. As I understand it, however, there are only around 3000 canonized saints in the Roman Catholic Church.
But I believe there are far more saints, and many are still walking on the earth, ministering in Christ’s name.
Biblically speaking, a saint is a “holy one,” made holy not by the miraculous things he or she has done but by the miracle of salvation which is Christ’s alone. We are saints, holy, because Jesus Christ has washed us in His Blood, and we are now clean before God. For this reason, Paul addresses his letter to Romans “to all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be his saints.” Likewise, in his letters to the Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, he addresses all the saints in those churches.
St. John gives us a picture of these saints in Revelation 7, even though he doesn’t use the word. While he appears to be speaking only of those who came out of great tribulation, I believe they symbolize all the saints. In verse 14 we learn that they “have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” And that is the biblical definition of a saint: one who has been sanctified (“saintified”), one who has been made holy by the blood of Jesus Christ.
What if we re-defined “saint” so that it is not exclusively those in heaven or those few who were extraordinary in some way. Webster’s 1st definition of “saint” was: “A mythological or legendary figure, often of divine ancestry, who is favored of the gods, endowed with great courage and strength, and celebrated for his bold exploits.” What if we changed it slightly: “A Christian, born of God, who is favored by God, endowed by the Holy Spirit with great courage and strength, and celebrated for his bold exploits of faith.”
The church for which Jesus Christ had once ordained me to be the under-shepherd was not just St. Chrysostom’s Church but also St. Charles’s Church. It was also St. Jacqueline’s Church, St. Edward’s Church, St. Pat’s Church, St. Thomas and St. Judith’s Church, St. Lewis and St. Nita’s Church, and even St. O.J.’s Church (I wish I had time to name them all!)
You, if you have been made holy by the blood of Jesus Christ, through a true and living faith in His name, you are a saint. Blessed are all you saints (those pure in heart) here this morning: for you shall see God!
You are also to be “martyrs,” another word that is misunderstood. Growing up as a kid, my siblings used to tease me (none too gently), whenever I started to lose a game, that I was in my “martyr stage.” The word “martyr” has come to be applied to those who die for the faith, and they are certainly to be honored. But again, biblically, martyr comes from the Greek word for “witness,” and martyrs are witnesses to the truth in Jesus Christ.
God has appointed some few to be a witness to Christ by their death but has appointed most of us to be witnesses by our entire lives. Some will face persecution and tribulation, but not all (although I believe even in the U.S. it is likely to be more common in the future.)
But I’m more concerned with a Christian whose life is so bland, so uncontroversial, and so inoffensive to those who hate God, that they are not willing to suffer a moment’s discomfort for the sake of Christ and His kingdom.
You are all called to witness boldly and courageously for the one you say is your God and Lord, regardless of what men may say or do to you. That is a true saint; that is a true martyr; and that is a true hero. What the Church needs today is a new version of the ancient church in which each of us is willing to courageously offer our lives to Christ, even if only in small, invisible ways. You may not feel like a hero, and you may not feel like a saint or a martyr. But God is calling you to be all three.
Who are some of the heroes, saints, and martyrs that I see every day? It’s not those wearing white robes in heaven, and it’s not those being burned at the stake for Christ’s sake. But I see heroes, saints, and martyrs, wherever I see God’s people living holy lives and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ with their tongues.
I see parents who deny themselves for their children. Parents who sacrifice a higher paying job or give up a second job and higher income so they can spend more time discipling their kids. Parents who give up their leisure pursuits for the good of their children. Such people are heroes.
I see a child who says “No” to peers for the sake of Jesus Christ. A child who is willing to be ridiculed or risk not being considered “cool” for righteousness’ sake. Such a person is a martyr.
I see one who offers up her suffering to the Lord. One who suffers without grumbling or blaming God or others, but suffers with joy, knowing that she is suffering for and through and with Jesus Christ. And I see one who denies himself something each day for the good of God or others. Such people are truly saints – those made holy by God.
Look around you in your life: there is a crowd of potential heroes, saints, and martyrs. And they’re still walking the earth, here in Tyler, Texas and there in your town. They are the ones who are clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, crying out with a loud voice, saying: “Salvation (and holiness!) belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” They are the ones who sing with the four living creatures and angels and archangels. And they are the ones who one day will neither hunger nor thirst anymore, for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Prayer: O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord; Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Point for Meditation: Meditate on one person who is a hero, a saint or martyr, to you. What is praiseworthy in this person? What do you see in this person that you can and should emulate?
Resolution: I resolve to consider my calling to be a hero, a saint, and a martyr today. I further resolve to find one way to consciously put this calling into effect today.
© 2015 Fr. Charles Erlandson