Outline

I. The development of the image of "the saint" in Christianity is testimony to the experiential heart and subversive possibility of this religion.

A. In Paul's letters, the term "the saints" (hoi hagioi = "the holy ones") does not single out exceptional people but is used for the members of the community as opposed to "the world" (= nonmembers of the community); see 1 Corinthians 1:1; 6:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1.

B. During the course of the first four centuries, the saint becomes one in whom the ideals of Christianity are experientially realized through the transformation of life in a visible and marked degree.

II. In the writings of the New Testament, we can see how "sanctification"—which is God's will for all believers (1 Thess. 4:3)—involves the transformation of life in an internal imitation of Jesus.

A. The Holy Spirit is the power of new life but also the guide to living it (see Rom. 8 and Gal. 5).

1. Those who have the Holy Spirit are to live according to the pattern they have in Christ (see 1 Cor. 2:16; Phil. 2:1-11).

2. "Fulfilling the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2) is a matter of living with radical faith in God (Rom. 14:23) and in self-emptying service to others, as Paul understands Jesus to have done (Rom. 15:1-7).

B. The First Letter of Peter and Hebrews show a similar understanding.

1. In 1 Peter 2:21-25, Christians are called to imitate the manner in which Jesus Christ underwent his suffering; Jesus is a moral example to be followed.

2. Hebrews 12:1-3 calls Jesus "the pioneer and perfecter of faith," and Christians are to "look to Jesus" as they undergo their own transformation in faith.

C. The Gospel narratives all present Jesus as a person of radical faith and self-disposing service who calls his followers to walk in the same manner he did.

1. The Gospels call Jesus's followers "students" (mathetai).

2. In the New Testament, Christianity is not only the gift of power, but a task assigned to use that power for the transformation of the self and the world.

III. During the period when Christianity was under state persecution, in the second and third centuries, certain figures emerge as exemplifying the imitation of Jesus through a "testimony" that leads to martyrdom.

A. Ignatius the Bishop of Antioch (d. ca. 107) writes a series of letters as a prisoner on his way to execution at Rome. Especially in his Letter to the Romans, he reveals an intense martyr piety. He does not see his death as a tragedy but as the opportunity to become a "finished" disciple by moving toward life through the same kind of witness as that of Jesus, his Lord.

B. Polycarp the Bishop of Smyrna (d. ca. 155) collected Ignatius's letters and himself wrote to the church at Philippi. Shortly after his execution, The Martyrdom of Polycarp was written; in it, the bishop's death is in imitation of Jesus's death.

C. The Passion of Perpetua is the most famous of the Acts of the Martyrs; Perpetua was executed on 7 March 203 under the Emperor Severus. Her death is portrayed as a prophetic witness. The Passion is her journal;

in it, she tells of visions in which she becomes a man and does battle with "the evil one." She refuses all entreaties to give up her religion and worship the emperor, and she dies literally imitating the path of Jesus.

IV. After Constantine, when Christianity was the imperial religion, many Christians sought a more radical way of life in imitation of Christ and of the martyrs.

A. The "Fathers and Mothers" of the Desert exemplify the radical commitment to poverty, celibacy, and total devotion to prayer.

B. A variety of forms of monasticism developed as a structured way of life that imitated "the apostolic age."

C. The charismatic impulses of the saints throughout the ages have often revivified Christianity even as they have challenged its established systems and structures of authority.

1. The power of the Holy Spirit at work in such women and men has enabled them to continue the "charismatic" dimension of Christianity as a religion that is most alive when it is most experiential.

2. On one side, saints are the pride of Christianity once they are dead; when alive, their prophetic protests have often been resisted.

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