The Least of All the Saints – July 30, 2006
II Samuel 11:1-15, 26-27, Ephesians 3:7-21
July 30, 2006
In this chapter of Ephesians, Paul refers to himself as “The least of all the saints.” Isn’t that amazing? Paul’s writings dominate the New Testament. His vision and insights are some of the most amazing ever penned. He is the foremost of all the apostles. And he is arguably the greatest proponent of the Christian faith that ever lived. Yet he refers to himself as the “Least of all the saints.”
Why is that? There are a couple of reasons. He was once a persecutor of the Christians. Those memories may have caused him to think of himself as the least of the saints. But I believe it’s more than that. I believe Paul calls himself the least because he understands his place in God’s kingdom. He understands his own measure in light of the greatness of God. And he understands that greatness in God’s kingdom is different than the world’s understanding of greatness.
In a way, this is like what we talked about in the story of David and Goliath. In that case, the small triumphed over the big. The “least” won out over what the world considered great. But Paul’s case it’s the opposite. In his case, it’s a matter of one who was big understanding himself as being small. It’s a case of one who is “great” seeing him self as “least. And of course Jesus described both as the conditions of his kingdom, didn’t he! “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
“The least of all the saints,” Paul said. Who are the saints? Did he mean the “biggies of the faith?” Was this similar to the Roman Catholic understanding of the word saint? That’s often what we think, isn’t it? There’s a lot of that Roman Catholic influence in our world. For the Catholics, Saints are people who have met certain criteria, such as performing a number of miracles. And having met certain criteria, they have been “canonized” by the Church? Is that what Paul meant. Remember, he would come to be recognized as “Saint Paul.” He was an “official” Saint in the Church.
I’m sure you know that’s not the meaning here. In the time of Paul, the word “Saints” referred to the believers. In his terms, we are all the saints. So in saying he was the least of all the saints, Paul wasn’t just saying he was the least of the apostles. He wasn’t just saying he was the “least of the greatest.” He was, in his mind, the least of all the believers. He kept himself in that perspective. He understood his shortcomings. He remembered his past persecution of the Church. He remembered what Jesus said about the least and the greatest in God’s kingdom. And then he put it all together with the greatness of God’s kingdom and his love.
It’s great that this reference to being “the least of all the saints” was part of the prelude to one of the most famous passages ever written by Paul. Listen to these words, starting at verse 14. And keep in mind this whole business of the least and the greatest in the kingdom of God.
“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he might grant you to be strengthened with might through his spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith, that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have the power to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and breadth and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Now, when I was in English class, our teacher told us paragraphs should never be all one big sentence. Obviously, Paul didn’t take English from the same teacher!! (Actually, Paul never took English – not even “King James English,” as some people believe!) At any rate, we often find in his writing these extremely long sentences. Like this one, they often go for entire paragraphs. You gotta take a deep breath when reading Paul’s letters! Actually, they had no paragraphs, or even punctuation! This is how we render it in English. But even with all the language differences aside, the reason I say this is that I can see this as Paul “getting on a roll!” I see him as getting wound up, with the spirit starting to move within him, and then out flow these wonderful words and thoughts and feelings and expressions, one after the other, without stop!
In this case, it comes pouring out, and Paul writes this so beautifully, because he knows the length and breadth and depth and height of God’s love. And one of the most important reasons he knows it is because he is able to keep the proper view of himself in the context of God’s kingdom. He knows the love of God because he saw himself as “The least of all the saints.” I know that phrase goes by really fast here. We can easily miss it! But I believe it is the heart of all this. Paul knows the love of God because he has that perspective. He know the picture of God Jesus painted, a picture that is different from the world. In God’s kingdom “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. And the greatest will be least, and the least will be greatest.”
I hope you see that today. I hope you see how that is different from how the world sees things. The world measures people in terms of power, wealth, and prestige. And if we think that way, we will find ourselves thinking contrary to this picture of God’s kingdom. This is so important, and too many of God’s people miss it. They think they can just pick and choose what they want to believe and to follow in the faith. And too many of them choose to leave out this one. They don’t want to think in such terms. They like the power and the prestige and the accolades of this world. So they rationalize living their lives in the world’s idea of greatness. And then they wonder why it doesn’t seem to work, and why their faith just doesn’t seem to work, and why they have no peace.
Friends if we take nothing else from this service, I hope we will take this picture of God’s kingdom. I hope we will know that God’s view of greatness is different than the world’s view. Paul knew this. Yes, he thought of his own failings and his previous life as persecutor of the Church, and that was part of why he called himself the “least of all the saints,” and later “the chief of sinners.” But it was more than that. I believe Paul understood the wonder of God’s kingdom and the depth of his love because he looked for it in terms of God’s view of greatness!
When we look at ourselves, we are well to keep in mind our own sense of “least-ness.” The world treats least-ness as undesirable. But in God’s kingdom those things are upside down – or rightside up. When we remember that the last shall be first and the least shall be greatest, we will have the right perspective in God’s kingdom.
With that perspective, we can know the length and breadth and height and depth of God’s love, as was Paul’s prayer for the Church. And it is then that we can truly upbuild the Church because we can do so in that same kind of love. It is in that context that all competition is set aside. It is then we know that we don’t have to show anyone else that we know more than they do. It is then that we can live more on the side of grace. It is then that we can even begin to live the sacrificial love of our Lord, Jesus Christ.
That is our goal. We strive to know the love of Christ – a love which Paul says “surpasses knowledge.” It is a love we can never fully know, but we strive for anyway! As God’s people, we seek to be filled with all the fullness of God himself! Isn’t that amazing?
I hope you see the Christian life as being different in that way. So many people live lives that are no different than they used to be, and no different than anyone else. And I’m not saying we are better than anyone else. We should still see ourselves, like Paul, as the least of all the saints. We are still “earthen vessels” – “jars of clay,” if you will. But we contain the treasure of God! The fullness of God’s love changes us!
Are you the “Least of all the Saints?” How do you see yourself in God’s kingdom? How does God see you? Are you changed? Do you live your life differently? Think about those things today.
Eternal God, you have come to bring your kingdom among us. Help us to look to your kingdom, to orient our lives to reflect the way you see this world, rather than the way the world sees you. Help us to know your love that surpasses knowledge. Make us the kind of people you want us to be. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.