In addition to all the other things that All Saints Sunday means for us, individually and as a community of faith, on this day we also honor the huge body in our tradition of Saints-with-a-capital-S, saints who have lived out their faith in their own time and place in such a way that their stories illuminate ways that we can live out our faith in our time. It has been my custom each year to pick a “Saint of the Year” for my sermon on this All Saints Sunday.
These past few weeks I have spent some time preparing for a class we’re offering beginning in January called “Following the Way.” This class is for people interested in deep formation: formation of their understanding of the Church, formation of their own spiritual practice, and formation of their understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. I think it’s because I’ve been doing some thinking about this class that I found myself going back to the very early roots of the Christian church. That’s where today’s Saint of the Year comes from. And so, the moment you’ve all been waiting for…..may I have the envelope please….
Our saint of the year is St. Justin!
Justin is often referred to as “Justin Martyr.” “Martyr” was not his last name, but for so long his name appeared as Justin-comma-Martyr that somewhere along the line we stopped using the comma. Justin is a saint for a whole bunch of reasons. After his conversion he was an apologist for Christ, which does not mean that he spent his time apologizing, but rather that he was wrote extensively to Jesus’ critics and skeptics about what it meant to be a follower. He was martyred in the year 167 because he would not renounce his Christian faith in a Roman court of law.
Justin was born around the year 110, near the ancient Israelite site of Shechem in Samaria. He was born into what historians describe as a “pagan family,” meaning that his family was neither Jewish nor Christian. Justin was educated in Greek philosophy, and his education left him hungry and thirsty for deeper meaning.
So why did I single out Justin this year? Two reasons: First, today is a baptismal feast and Justin was a baptismal kind of guy. He left us with one of the very earliest written sources for what baptismal preparation and baptism would’ve looked like in the second century. As a new Christian in an era where being a follower of the Way was a matter of life and death, Justin would have been through a multi-year process of preparation for baptism that involved prayer, repentance, and deep study of scripture. He would have been baptized by immersion in a big tank. Through that going down into the water and coming up again, he would have experienced a mini-death and resurrection, and so would have joined Christ in his death and resurrection.
The second reason I picked Justin for this year’s saint is that he was a seeker with a restless heart, a seeker who longed for some deeper understanding of the world and his place in it. I think it’s important for all of us to reflect, from time to time, on that experience of longing because we all have it. It’s something we need to pay attention to and honor in everyone we know.
I think of Justin as an early patron saint of seekers. His journey of faith took him through all sorts of belief systems. He began with a Stoic philosopher as a teacher. Then he found a disciple of Aristotle who he thought might help him in his search. He tried geometry and astronomy, but his restless heart didn’t have that kind of patience.
He recounts a time of walking along the beach and meeting someone who shared his own experience of being a follower of Jesus. He writes: “straightaway a flame was kindled in my soul, and a love of the prophets and those who are friends of Christ possessed me.” After a lifetime of searching, thus began the beginning of Justin’s path to baptism and to the Christian life.
Justin’s experience was one of “conversion by conversation.” How many times have we, when walking with a friend, or sitting and having coffee with someone, come to know in our seeker’s heart that that person has something we want—an experience or faith or a view of the world that speaks to us or calls to us?
Today Elsa and Jemma and Seth and Tess enter into their vocation as Christians. Part of that calling is to be the person walking along the beach with a seeker like Justin, or be the person sitting in a coffee shop with a seeker like you or me, talking about God. All of us, when we renew our baptismal promises, promise to be part of those conversations. Even as we belong to God, our process of seeking God never ends.
Justin described baptism as “the way in which we are renewed by Christ and consecrated to God.” Baptism sets us apart as God’s own. As we prepare to renew our own baptismal covenant and to witness the baptisms of Seth and Jemma and Elsa and Tess, let us with joy also experience our own renewal. Let us, with them, be consecrated once more.