What, exactly, is a Saint? We struggle to answer that question. Many make the error of understanding Saints from a distance. They are morally, spiritually, maybe intellectually superior Christians who are simply untouchable. Another familiar error to me, having grown up in the Episcopal Church, is the mainline definition nicely summarized by that old children’s hymn, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” Many of you probably know it, it is a classic children’s song for All Saints. “One was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast: and there’s not any reason, no, not the least, why I shouldn’t be one too.” “You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea; in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea; for the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.” Like many Anglican hymns, that one has a lot more to do with being British than with being a Christian. Being British is not a sufficient definition of Sainthood.
When we consider the meaning of Sainthood, we make the crucial error of first looking at human beings. Sainthood is, for too many of us, human-centered. Sainthood is not about holy human beings so much as it is about a holy God. The very experience of Sainthood, in fact, is more an awareness of a lack of saintliness than anything else, along with an awareness that any saintly qualities that might mark us come from God.
Christian author Phillip Yancey has released a new memoir about his upbringing in a fundamentalist household which led to his early understanding of God as a great, big bully in the sky. The memoir is titled, “Where the Light Fell.” That is a phrase borrowed from St. Augustine, who compared looking directly at God with looking directly at the Sun. We cannot do it, we must instead look to where the light fell, where the light shines. If we wish to know God, we must look at where his light shines, without confusing the source of light and the object where the light is shining. Looking at where the light fell saved Phillip Yancey’s faith, it is also an apt description of the meaning of Sainthood. At their best, Saints are simply a prominent place where God’s light shines. Sainthood is a pointing away from self to God. It is not a statement on the lives of human beings, but the light of God. Sainthood is not about human performance, but faith, faith that bears witness to the miraculous grace of God.
If you need convincing that Sainthood is not a matter of performance or achievement, I would ask you to look at our Gospel reading from St. Luke. In Jesus’ Beatitudes, he answers the question, “what is a Saint,” as only Jesus can. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” This is not a list of achievements, quite the opposite actually. This is a list of unmet needs, needs that mark a person as unfit and incapable of living life in this world. Yet, blessed are they who cannot cut it in this world. Blessed are the losers. For they know their real needs desperately. Blessed are they who know they cannot meet their own needs, for they will be freed from the lies which tell them we approach God based on our abilities, a lie which would otherwise lead them away from God.
It is not a terribly satisfying way to describe Sainthood, but Jesus’ beatitudes from St. Luke’s Gospel provides the shock that we need to our systems to break the notion that we in the Church are God’s spiritual special forces, the Holy Spirit Green Berets, ready to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, or whatever definitions of saintliness we have had forced on us in our pasts. No, we are just fleshy bags of needs, needs that we will try to fulfill in all of the wrong places and all of the wrong ways until we finally look to God.
Just this morning our clocks changed as a result of an outdated attempt to increase productivity and save energy. The way that people and a society mark time tells us a great deal about what those people and that society really value. When the French people had overthrown their King and political systems during the French Revolution of 1793, a new calendar was imposed on the nation to replace the Christian liturgical year with secular holidays. That calendar only lasted 12 years, it was so hated by the French people that the Emperor Napoleon made the Christian calendar legal once again when he took power as an easy public relations win, though Napoleon was certainly not a Christian.
At the conclusion of the Bolshevik Revolution, the new Soviet Union did the same thing. The Russian Orthodox liturgical calendar was soon illegal, and great feast days like All Saints were replaced by secular holy days to celebrate workers and the Soviet state. Many were sent to Siberian work camps marking their life by the Christian calendar. The way Christians mark time is deeply significant, and it always has been. Sometimes it seems like the enemies of Christian faith know this better than Christians themselves.
The readings in our Lectionary for All Saints Sunday, and the very holy day itself, remind us that Christian faith in the God who makes Saints is founded in a strange relationship with time. That might sound like a tagline for a sci-fi novel, but it is true. As Christians, we straddle a fine line between the past, the present, and the future. We are told all the time that the key to mental health is “living in the present.” Yesterday is just history, tomorrow is just a mystery, so live in the present. A Seminary professor whose sermons I still listen to frequently questions this rule of wellness, I heard him do so recently.
What God has done, and what God promises to do, are the only two things we have any certainty about as Christians, the present is the real question mark. Today, we are looking back with special gratitude for the lives of the Saints who have come before us, because they witness to what God has already done, and what God has already accomplished for them and for us. Today, we look forward to the day when we will stand with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, and all of the other losers described in the Beatitudes. With “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Where the “Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd. Who “will guide them to springs of living water.” Where “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
To be a Saint is simply to remain grounded in what God has done for us, and what God promises to do for us. This is exactly what the Apostle Paul is encouraging the Christians under his care in Ephesus to do, in his magnificent prayerful introduction to that letter. “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, may give you the Spirit of revelation in the knowledge of Him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.” St. Paul prays that God would open the eyes of Christian hearts so that they would see clearly. See what exactly? See the hope to which God has called us. What is hope about? Hope is about the future. We do not hope for something that has been done already. Christian hope is about what God has promised to do for us.
And in that same paragraph-length sentence, St. Paul looks backward. St. Paul looks backward to “the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward those who believe.” Look to the past, Christians, and do not forget how great God’s power is for those who believe. Look and see where the light fell in the past, and trust that God’s light will fall once again in our dark age.
If we think that this way of living with our eyes fixed on the past and the future is some kind of escapism, or that God is just asking us to hang on a little longer; grit your teeth, stop whining, and just gut it out on your own until Jesus comes or you die, this is not at all what living on God’s promises past and future means. For there is a power at work for the lives of the Saints right now. That power is, according to St. Paul, the same power that God “worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” The power at work on our behalf, Christians, is none other than the power of God which raised Jesus Christ from the dead and brought him to the right hand of God the Father where he now intercedes for us. The great early church Bishop and translator of Scripture, St. Jerome, referred to the Resurrection as a “gift” God “gives not once but continually… Every day Christ rises from the dead. Every day he is raised in the penitent.” The power at work in the lives of the saints is the Resurrection power of God.
Most Christians I know do believe in the Resurrection, obviously, you must believe in it to be a Christian, but do not believe in its power in their life. I spent many years studying apologetics at Biola University, which is a discipline of thinking that is all about defending Christian beliefs like the Resurrection. At least once each semester, famous apologists from Biola would debate famous atheists in front of the student body, at least those students who were interested.
I never saw anyone come to faith in Christ during those debates. The best outcome I saw was that one speaker came to campus as an atheist and left a deist. People were so proud of that, but deism is not faith in Jesus Christ. But the well-known polemicist Christopher Hitchens came to campus not long before he died from cancer, he had just received a diagnosis before he came. He debated the most famous member of Biola’s faculty about the existence of God, and, like always, no one left with their mind changed. However, Hitchens was remarkably kind and charitable during his time at Biola, he was not famous for either of those qualities. He kept thanking the student body, both publicly and privately, for how kind they were to him, and how concerned they were with his well-being. It was really strange, and it left a powerful impression on many people, obviously on myself.
Holy Scripture is much less concerned with providing proofs that the Resurrection happened, not the kinds that we want, but with the meaning of Resurrection in our lives today. Scripture provides us with the meaning of the Resurrection, and its power is still at work in the lives of Christians who recognize it. The power of the Resurrection that Christopher Hitchens saw from the student body was a power to love enemies. St. Augustine, once again, spoke of Christian truth, and the truth of the Resurrection in particular, in this way. “The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose, and it will defend itself.” Only let the power of the Resurrection loose, dear Christians.
What makes this power so difficult to free in our lives is that it is, of course, ultimately a power to die. It is a power to die, even at the hands of our enemies. It is a power to sacrifice. It is a power to live for everyone and everything but ourselves. It is the same power that led Jesus Christ to the cross. Which is all today, it does not look like power at all. God’s power, the power of Resurrection, looks like weakness.
It is no wonder that we would rather argue about the Resurrection happening as a historical event at one time in history, instead of allowing that gift to work in our lives every day. It is not an easy, or natural way to live. It is the life of a Saint. “One was a soldier, and one was a priest, and one was slain by a fierce wild beast: and there’s not any reason, no, not the least, why I shouldn’t be one too.” True enough, except that Sainthood is death to ourselves.
The great Anglican Priest and Theologian John Webster once preached an All Saints sermon about sainthood and baptism. In it, Webster reflected that “Saints are not a special group within the Church– an elite corps, better trained, higher ranking, the real storm-troopers of the Gospel. And the reason this isn’t true is, simply, that what makes a Saint is baptism.” What makes a Saint is baptism. That is scandalous, and it offends our sensibilities, for it means that sainthood and baptism are not our choices. This means that neither sainthood nor baptism reflects on the quality of our character, our exceptional spirituality, or the A+ marks we got for discipleship. Sainthood and baptism are about the power and promises of God.
Baptism looks to what God has done in the past, and what God promises to do in the future. Consider the very water of Baptism. The same waters which the Spirit hovered over in Creation are poured over a new Christian, forming a new Creation. The same waters that cleansed the earth from profound wickedness when Noah built an ark to withstand the flood now cleanse the soul of a new Christian, opening the doors of a new ark given to withstand the storms of life, the Church. The same waters which Christ entered into in the Jordan River at his own baptism of repentance, a baptism undertook on our behalf since he did not need to repent of anything, now pours over the head of a new Christian, redeemed and renewed by the very presence of Jesus.
The same water which has baptized the lives of billions of saints throughout the history of the Church, that one baptism which we confess together, now baptizes one more. The same living water that Jesus Christ will guide us to in our eternal life with God that we see in Revelation 7, now pours over the head of a new Christian. These same waters, that ordinary, everyday necessity that God uses to cleanse and restore his people, can now mark the head of each of us, as we bring to our forehead baptismal waters as a reminder that we belong to this story about living water, and not any other story told in competition with it. Baptism is a Resurrection event, a gracious gift given once and always in the life of a Christian, the life of a Saint.
Baptism is also death. Baptism reminds us of a fact that our whole world seems obsessed with ignoring, that we, even an infant child, are all going to die. What harm is done when we ignore this fact, or rail against it. Far from being a morbid reminder that we are all dust and to dust we shall return, death and baptism quite literally become the entrance points to a life of Resurrection in the Church with God. We belong to God now and forever, and not to the forces of evil. We are dead to sin, Alive in Christ Jesus. That is a promise.
Baptism, like Sainthood, is all about God. As much as we are scandalized by that claim, it is really good news. Above our weaknesses, our anxieties, our fears, our unmet needs, our mundane and frustrating lives, there stands the undeniable fact and unstoppable power of the past and future promises of God. “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Amen.