Upside Down Saints

The Rev. Noah Van Niel

November 5th, 2017

St. John the Evangelist

All Saints’ (A): Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

Earlier this year a YouTube video made the rounds in the churchy corners of the internet of an Eastern Orthodox priest in Georgia (the country) using a rather alarming technique to perform a baptism. He stood in front of a large font about waist high, took the baby (clothed only in a diaper; no fancy baptismal gowns here) and flipped him upside down, head-first into the water three times, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. No one in the video seemed too alarmed by this technique, and the babies were actually pretty amenable to it, but when I showed it to Melinda to ask if she thought I could baptize the babies this way today, she quickly put the kibosh on that idea. So parents, fear not, I won’t be flipping your baby upside down…but I have to warn you, Jesus just might.

Jesus was all about flipping our understanding of the world upside down. His message, over and over to the religious, social, and political hierarchies was that “You have it all wrong. What you think is up is down, because for God, what, and who are down, will be up.”

Nowhere is this clearer than in those famous “Blessed Art Thou’s” of the Beatitudes which served as our Gospel passage this morning. Jesus sits down on top of the mountain with his disciples and enumerates just how inverted things are going to get. Blessed are the poor, the meek and the mournful, and so on. Blessed, he’s saying, are the very people we think are not blessed. It is the radical inversion on display in these verse that I think makes them so famous. Rarely is Jesus so clear about the fact that the things God values and will reward are not often the things we value and reward. In this sense, to be a Christian in this world is to be counter-cultural. It is to be generous when the world tells you to look out only for yourself; to be patient when the world encourages you to rush; to be calm in a world of anxiety; to be hopeful in a world of despair; to be forgiving in a world of grudges; to be merciful and just in a world of vindictiveness and inequality; to serve in a world that encourages people to rule. In all these ways, Christians have to take what the world says they should be and flip it upside down.

I think one of the reasons we glorify Saints, and mark feasts like today All Saints’ Day, is because in a lot of respects, Saints are people who were able to live upside down lives. Somehow the message of Christ knocked them so completely head over heels, that they stayed that way. These are men and women who in many instances found satisfaction in servitude, richness in poverty, pleasure in prayer and peace in sacrifice. They were somehow able to live their faith with such complete commitment—even when the winds of the world blew hard against them—that it inspires us to try and do the same. That kind of authenticity, that synthesis between our faith and our life is something we long for but rarely seem to achieve the way they did.

But every time we baptize someone the opportunity for a new saint arises. The opportunity for a life that will fully follow the example of Christ is offered to us. Whether that life is grounded in the Beatitudes or the baptismal covenant, the question is the same: this is how God would have us be, can we do it? And for parents, Godparents, family, friends, congregation, it is our great responsibility and joy to help those who are baptized to answer “Yes!” to that question; to do all they can to inhabit the life of Christ, as fully as possible. And through doing that we ourselves are reminded that how God sees the world is often the inverse of how we’ve come to see it; that value and importance are to be found in the places we have stopped looking for them; and that true faith means living our life by Jesus’ rules, not someone else’s. The hope being that maybe such a reminder will encourage us, who may have given up on that saintly life, that perfect synthesis between the person God would have us be and the person that we are, to give it another shot. It’s a challenge. But each of these little cherubs has the makings of a saint and so do we, even still. That’s exciting. And it means that these babies might just end up upside down after all.