All Saints Day
Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
All Saints has been commemorated, in some way, since at least the early third century but probably longer. At first, it is believed that All Saints day was set aside for the martyrs, those talked about in Revelation who had come through the “great ordeal” and washed their “robes white in the blood of the Lamb,” who is Christ Jesus. And the idea, at least, of what it means to be a saint has permeated our consciousness. He or she “has the patience of a saint.” So, a saint is patient? I often tell people that my wife should be “sainted” for putting up with me all these years. We talk about the priesthood of all believers; but what about the sainthood of all believers.
Most of you know that I came from the Roman Catholic tradition, a tradition where saints are venerated, beginning with St Mary, the original saint, and the disciples, of course. Saints are people who either went about with Jesus, like Peter, Mary Magdalene, and John, or people who sought to follow Him closely, like Paul, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Joan of Arc, or Ignatius of Loyola. Saints – to be died-in-the-wool saints had to have at least two miracles attested to them, among other things, and had to have lived a truly holy life; SAINTS in all caps.
But All Saints Day does not merely commemorate the great men and women of the church elevated, beatified and canonized as saints. All Saints also celebrates that, in Baptism, we are connected to all who came before us, from St. James, the Apostle, to James Bond…well, not James Bond, he was/is a bit on the naughty list, yes, and not at all real. But All Saints connects the ancient divines of the church - those who we have placed on a bit of a pedestal – which many think most saints do not at all deserve, in light of what we now know – but we are connected with the elders of the church from its foundation Christ to little ol’ us, in 2020. We are all baptized into the sainthood of all believers, the life from which we cannot be separated, no matter what we, in our humanness, try to do. Baptism, as NT Wright likes to say, has changed our status from something else to believers. Knowing Jesus, following Jesus, and loving Jesus does change things. Christ died for us, Christ did the work of salvation, in God’s name. But what elevates us, in spite of our sin and weakness, to the place of the saints, is God’s love in Christ that we embrace in Baptism. We are, in Baptized life, “children of God.”
I’ve been thinking about what it means to be “children of God” a lot lately. But before we dig down deeper, it may be helpful to define what it means to be a saint and what it means to be a sinner because, it is easy for us to think that children of God are only one or the other. Merriam-Webster, tried and true, defines a saint as: “a person who is acknowledged as a holy or virtuous person; typically regarded as one who goes to heaven [directly] after death.” Informally, a “saint”, says Webster, may be “a virtuous, kind, or patient person.” So, my wife “has the patience of a saint” to put up with me kind of definition, as opposed to St. Peter or Paul kind of virtue.
A sinner, who we would normally think as opposite to saint as night is to day, dark to light, is defined as “a person who transgresses against divine law by committing an immoral act” or is you are really bad “actS”. Oldies but goodies include “a reprobate” a “scamp” or “one who sins.” Billy Joel once sung, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints…the sinners are much more fun.” Isn’t it sad when that is actually true? If you read the words of the saints, however, it is not at all dull and the life that some folks we call saints have lived with and to God is quite remarkable. Anthony of Padua, an early desert father wrote: “Actions speak louder than words; let your words teach and your actions speak.” Examples of saintly followers include St. Francis of Assisi, who addressed the issue of wealth. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and St. Maximillian Kolbe confronted the treatment of Jews and tyranny in Nazi Germany. Saints were not, in the main, stodgy and creaky do-gooders but excited, dynamic, charismatic followers of Jesus, turned on by their awareness that they and their fellow humans were/are “children of God” and should treat one another as such.
We tend, unfortunately, to categorize folks, label them as sinner, as other, because it just might push back the fear that surfaces when we are confronted with the reality that we are all the same. That does not mean that we are not each a unique creation of God with special gifts and callings. What it means is that we are all human creations with almost everything in common, when it comes to our humanness. We are all God’s beloved.
John’s three brief letters - today’s Epistle is taken from the first – mention love some 51 times and talk about Christ’s very human ministry. Jesus was Divine but He came amongst us as man, living among his living, breathing followers, ministering to actual people with very challenging needs. John’s letters are intimate, written – most likely – to a small Christian community that was struggling not with believing in Christ but missing, perhaps, the important notion that Jesus proclaims not just devotion to him in prayer but to treat one another with compassion and love. Yes, universal compassion in Christ name means even the people we struggle with and tend to label, somehow, as other, as different, and less than, as not worthy of our love, time, and compassion.
Jesus came and connected us all to God the father, from the rankest and most dejected sinner to the holiest would-be saint. Sinner and saint are all children of God and we are all, by the way, sinners. The difference is that some of us have not yet come to realize that we are also, by virtue of Jesus’ actions and God’s mercy and love, saved; children of God, now! Christ came that sinners might become saints, the lost might become found and find new life, new purpose, may be revealed in Jesus’ unflinching, holy love. In our Baptism, we may not become saints, per se but we do become known as children of God, for, as John says, that is what we are. God has given us a blessing in Christ which we acknowledge in Baptism, a blessing and gift that cannot, will not be revoked. We are children of God now; what we will be from now on – in this challenging world – depends on us; on our willingness to live into the promises of our Baptism.