Today is a special Sunday in the life of the church—we’re celebrating All Saints’ Day today. We Baptists are not overly observant when it comes to excessive High Holy Day celebrations, but today we join Christians all over the world to think about what sainthood means.
The concept of saints who have gone before is not new to the Christian community, and not, as some believe, the sole property of the Catholic tradition. In fact, the definition has changed over the centuries. Here’s how the church began marking the lives of saints:
In the first 300 years after Jesus lived on earth, a saint was someone who lost his or her life for the cause of Christ. We know these folks as martyrs and their willingness to give up their lives for what they believed was the foundation of this fledgling movement called the Christian church. Church father Ignatius said, “the blood of the martyrs was the seeds of the church.”
Around 300 it finally became cool to be a Christian and no one was getting killed for the cause of Christ anymore. Thus, to be a saint during this time in history was pretty synonymous with being famous. If you died a famous person and had enough money, a chapel would be built in your honor and people could come to your chapel, light a candle and pray to you—hoping of course that your success on earth would translate into a particularly close relationship with God, you know, up there. For 1300 years that’s what it meant to be a saint.
Next, the Catholic Church put an official process of canonization—the process of naming a saint—into place. This process must begin at least 5 years after a person’s death and involves a complicated investigation of a person’s life, approval by a panel of theologians and church leaders, and evidence that the person performed a miracle before and after his or her death. That’s all! This process remains in place today, but in the Protestant tradition we have adopted another idea of sainthood, one that came out of the Reformation.
When Martin Luther started causing trouble for the church and the Reformation began, the idea of praying to saints fell out of vogue among his group of radicals. And so, the concept of sainthood changed again. This time a saint became someone in your life whom you loved who had died. Family members, like mothers, sisters, brothers, grandmothers, etc., who died and went to heaven before us were now known as saints—sort of like scouts who got to the end of the trip first and were saving us a spot.
These days we speak of saints as those who came before us, whom we loved and who loved us, whose memories spur us on to faithful living and give us hope that we’ll encounter a friendly face or two on the other side of this life.
The scripture text that frames our consideration of sainthood this morning is a familiar one—the Beatitudes, they are often called—a part of what we know as the Sermon on the Mount. Picture this: Jesus has gained quite a following among the common folks. Crowds gathered around to hear what he had to say. His disciples, confused fishermen for the most part, were standing there watching, taking at least mental notes so they could remember later what Jesus said. After all, they were all used to hearing lists of rules, instructions for how one would go about making God happy, being holy, maybe even achieving a status something like sainthood….
And so, Jesus spoke the Beatitudes—you remember how they go—“blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted….” Really? A recipe for sainthood? Become all the things on this list and you’ll achieve platinum Christian status?
Robert Schuller thinks so. Schuller, you might remember, was a popular televangelist, host of The Hour of Power, founder of the Crystal Cathedral, and prolific writer over the last forty years. He wrote a book on the Beatitudes and called it The Be Happy Attitudes. His point was, obviously, that Jesus was, in fact, giving us a list of things we needed to do to be holy—to be saintly, you might say on a day like today, when we’re celebrating All Saints’ Day.
While the disciples were certainly paying attention that day as Jesus preached and they clearly thought his words notable (they wrote them down fifty years later, so they must have made an impact the first time they heard them), I am not so sure that the Beatitudes are a list of how one might take the fast track to sainthood. As one commentator on the text points out, “I’ve been around enough to see the merciful get trampled, the mourners commit suicide, the pure in heart walk away from God, and people who hunger and thirst for righteousness sometimes die of hunger and thirst.” (Mike Baughman, The Hardest Question).
Instead of a list of directions, I wonder if the Beatitudes weren’t just what the words say that they are: a blessing. I wonder if Jesus didn’t look out over that crowd of hurting, oppressed, tired, hopeless people, and know that giving them yet another list to accomplish wouldn’t be much help to their desperation. They were people longing for a life of following God—if they weren’t they wouldn’t have turned up in droves that day to hear what he had to say. But life was hard, and circumstances were punishing. They didn’t need more rules; they needed a blessing.
And so, to aid them in their quest for sainthood, for lives lived reflecting God’s grace and love, Jesus raised his voice and blessed them.
All of them. The whole crowd. In all of their desperation, poverty, powerlessness, pain…in their quest to live lives that mattered, to please God even with the limited resources and unlikely success they had, Jesus blessed them.
They were chasing sainthood, you see, even though the term in Christian practice hadn’t actually come into being yet. They wanted to live lives that reflected God’s engaged relationship with all of humanity; they were chasing sainthood, and it was hard.
It’s easy to feel rather desperate about our own personal pursuits of sainthood, to think that we’ll have to be long gone before we ever have a shot at saintly status. But if we listen to Jesus’ blessing today, we might begin to realize that chasing sainthood is part of who we are as Christ-followers. And we’re living the life of saints, pointing people toward God, even here and now. Even as we struggle.
So with Jesus’ blessing, we can redefine sainthood this morning, as something we do together, right here and now.
Consider this: the Greek word for saint, haggio, is used throughout the Bible only in its plural form. In other words, nowhere in the Bible would you or I find a reference to St. Mark orSt. John orSt. Paul. The only time we ever read the word “saint” it is in the plural form—referring the Christians as a group. Remember some references in scripture?
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are also faithful in Christ Jesus. Ephesians 1:1; or, I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints. Ephesians 1:15; or, I pray that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of God. Ephesians 3:17b-18.
I not sure what we were thinking, singling folks out like we have over the history of the church. It seems that the scriptural concept of sainthood is always a sense of group identity—a concept we discover and live out with others. In other words, to be a saint is to be part of a community—to live out the mandate of the gospel with friends and partners who spur us on to discover and embrace God’s work in our lives and in this world.
This is a new and problematic concept, then, if all the folks we regard as saints are dead. This is what we generally understand a saint to be—someone who has lived a notable life and gone on. We just sang, “For all the saints, who from their labors rest . . . .”
But as I began to look at what the Bible says about saints I realized that the folks who are called saints in the New Testament not only form a group, but they are still alive and kicking. Our modern conception of what a saint is: a martyr, a canonized VIP who has the ear of God, even a deceased loved one . . . these are ideas we’ve come up with—but not concepts we find in the Bible.
Yes, we give thanks for those who have gone before us, we’re grateful for their examples and their faithfulness. But it seems that the idea of what it means to be a saint it more immediate for us; it’s something we’d better attend to right here and now and not wait for the rosy memories of those who love us to reconstruct our witness after we’re gone. Sainthood is a way of life, a way of living out our faith together, right now.
If you are like me, you’re probably don’t think often about the details of medieval history, but I am betting that most of you remember who Johannes Gutenberg was. Gutenberg lived in the 1300s inGermanyand he was one of those folks who was constantly coming up with the next great invention. We remember him, of course, as the inventor of the printing press, and invention that totally revolutionized the church—by making the Bible accessible to common folk.
What most folks don’t know about Johannes Gutenberg, though, is that before his invention of the printing press, he tried one hare-brained scheme after another to make his living. Truth be told, most of his business ventures were related to the church; he knew that people were desperate to forge some tangible connection to the holy, and he was determined to make a living by discovering ways to help people do just that.
While working as a goldsmith and inventing on the side, Gutenberg had an idea that manufacturing metal molds of letters which could fit into a frame might possibly have some potential as a lucrative invention. He was anxious to try his idea, but he did not have the funds to create his new machine. To make some quick start-up money, Gutenberg wracked his brain to think of something that would sell quickly.
In the church inMainz, where he was living, he heard that there would be a festival in which relics from theHoly Landwould arrive and be on display. He knew that people would flock from all over Europe to get a chance to see these holy relics—a fragment of bone from an apostle, a vial of dirt from the ground beneath the cross, a scrap of cloth from a shroud Jesus wore—whatever the relics were, they were holy objects that faithful people wanted just to get a glimpse of—to have some connection to the holy.
Here was the problem that Gutenberg thought he might solve: with the press of all those people who flocked from everywhere, it would be hours, days even, of waiting in line to get close to the relics. And even upon getting close, chances are the crowd would prevent getting a good look at the holy relic. Gutenberg thought if he could somehow provide a way for the pilgrims to see the relics, he might make enough income to build his printing press.
Gutenberg got busy then manufacturing small mirrors. He mounted the mirrors on poles and sold them by the hundreds to the pilgrims, who, upon getting relatively close to the relics they wanted to see could raise their poles and look into their little mirrors, which would then be reflecting a clear view of the relic they longed to see. As they gazed into their mirrors they would see then, just a little bit of the holy, enough to bolster their spirits and punctuate their long waits and their dismal lives with a little bit of the divine.
What does it mean to be a saint? The word means, “God’s holy ones”, and I am thinking, knowing myself and knowing all of you, that if we’re going to be called saints the word certainly cannot mean that we are perfect people. We’re called saints not because we’re particularly or exceptionally holy, but rather that we’re followers of a God who is holy. Our lives, our sainthood, you see, is a reflection of the holiness of God.
That’s what it means to be a saint—a living, breathing group of people whose lives reflect the goodness and grace and, yes, the holiness of God. Maybe, like Gutenberg’s mirror on a stick, our reflections are distant, rather small and sometimes far away. But as saints, when the world looks at us they should be able to see, even if only very faintly sometimes, a reflection of God.
Feel like you’re not making much progress in your efforts at chasing sainthood? Well then, on this day, hear the blessing of Jesus, who looked out over the crowd on the hillside one day and saw a people heavily burdened by the life they lived. They wanted to be reflections of God’s holiness, but they were carrying pain and desperation, hopelessness and a total lack of power. In their efforts to chase sainthood they were stumbling, doubtful.
And Jesus blessed them.
It’s understandable this morning as we celebrate years of faithful commitment atCalvaryto think about all those who have gone before us, what they accomplished, how they lived, the legacy they left. Thanks be to God for those amazing lives.
But don’t forget they stumbled on their way to sainthood, too. And from their eternal rest you can bet they are blessing us like Jesus did, encouraging us to remember that the work of sainthood is now! Right here! In this very group of people!
Don’t be intimidated by the expectations of those who have gone before. We are the saints, living and breathing reflections of God’s love for this world. We’re chasing, not special status for ourselves, but God’s biggest hopes and dreams for the whole world.
And in our efforts, we are blessed. Thanks be to God.