What’s a “Saint”? (All Saints Sunday)

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Each year, on the first Sunday of November, we celebrate the lives of “all the saints.”  But the word “saint” is one of those fuzzy church words.  Most of us are familiar with it.  We use it at various times in our liturgy and in the Bible.  But what does “saint” really mean?

Often, “saint” is a title applied to people long ago and far away.  We refer to people like Peter and Paul and Mary Magdalene as “saints”, and we refer to the Gospels writers as “Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Luke and Saint John.”  But I’ve never met any of those people, and neither have you. Morever, with most of them, we know hardly anything about them.

And then, of course, there people throughout history who are often referred to as “saints” because they’ve done something extraordinary or miraculous.  The Catholic Church generally only canonizes “saints” if at least two miracles have been attributed to them. Mostly, Lutherans don’t use the title “saint” for a lot of those folks, but we’ve all heard of – and maybe known – a few people who have lived lives we might call particularly “saintly.”  But frankly, many of those people were sorta weird, and we often view them with more of a sense of curiosity than as examples of faith.

But sometimes, when we refer to all the saints, we talk about “the whole company of believers in heaven and on earth.”  This is actually biblically true.  The word “saint” in the Bible means “somebody who belongs to God” apart from anything they’ve done.  And this is a helpful and comforting thought.  But it’s also so general as to often be not very helpful.  After all, if everybody is included – even me – what is it I’m supposed to do to be one of these saints?  What does that even mean?

But here’s a thought.  It’s been about 2000 years since Jesus rose from the dead and sent this first disciples out to tell people the good news.  And 2000 years later, we’re here.  And that happened because people passed on the faith to others.  And those people passed it to more people, who eventually passed the faith on to us.

In the Catechism, Luther reminds us that it’s finally the work of the Holy Spirit to call, gather and enlighten the people of God.  But almost always, that work of the Spirit happens through people – people who somehow have been inspired to pass the faith on by not only their words, but by their actions and their attitudes.  Those folks didn’t always do it well.  In fact, sometimes, they may not have even intended to do it all!  But somehow, the Holy Spirit worked in their lives to show others that God was a real and living presence, and that the story of Jesus was true, and not just a story.

Those people – the people whose lives passed on the faith even when they weren’t aware of it – are the saints.  They’re the people we remember because they showed us, in some way, that God was true and real in our lives.  And so it’s entirely appropriate that we remember many of those people in our worship service today, and that we welcome Phearson as a new saint as well!  After all, it’s through baptism that we’re called to be people who are open to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives to show others the reality of Jesus’ presence.

And often, showing the reality of Jesus’ love and presence in our lives is done in small ways that don’t seem very flashy.  Sometimes, we don’t even realize we’re doing it.  In fact, it’s been the case in my life, and maybe in yours, too, that some of the people who showed me who Jesus was were people who weren’t trying to do it.  They were just living in hope and trust, and I saw that.

And while sometimes “saints” have done big things, often the work of passing on the faith to others happens simply through:

  • The words we use – and while those words could be words of teaching our children about Jesus, sometimes those words are simply the words we use to talk about God.  It’s not about “convincing” somebody else, but simply acknowledging that you believe in God and sharing, at appropriate times, when you’ve felt God’s strength and help.  Probably, some of the people who have been “saints” in your life have been the people who simply told you that they believed even though they couldn’t prove it or make anybody else believe it. That’s a saint.
  • The attitudes you convey – you know, in the creeds we talk about stuff like believing in “the forgiveness of sins” and the “resurrection to eternal life.”  The “saints” aren’t necessarily the purveyors of doctrine.  But they are the people who so believe in that forgiveness that they share it with others.  They’re people who so trust that God has more in store for them that they’re able to face whatever horrible crisis is going on in the world or in their own lives in a different way than if they thought each crisis was the center of the universe.  Probably, some of the people who have been “saints” in your life have been the people who conveyed a sense of hope and trust in God to you, even when they weren’t trying.  That’s a saint.
  • Making time for God in your life – in our society, even more than money, time is the currency that shows what you value. When Rabbi Jacob was at Shaare Torah, he would always come to our Confirmation classes and talk about the meaning of “honoring the sabbath.”  One of the things I learned from those talks was the importance of “making time for God”… None of you needed to be here this morning.  Unlike 30 years ago, there are lots of other activities happening on Sunday morning.  Even more than just a few decades ago, getting up to go to church may seem weird to a lot of people.  Making time to pray or read the scripture may seem unusual.  Indeed, even taking time to say grace before meals is not that common anymore.  But probably, some of the people who have been “saints” in your life have been the people who simply made time to nurture their relationship with God, because it mattered to them.  That made a difference in your life.  And that’s who saints are.

Saints are people who pass on their faith in Jesus.  And so this morning, as we give thanks for the saints who did that for us, and as we welcome a new saint into our midst, consider also how you’re called to continue to live as a saint.

And usually, that calling is not to be overly pious.  But it is the call to consider how you speak about the reality of God in your life.  It’s the call to renew your hope and trust each day in a God who’s bigger than the trauma of the moment.  And it’s a call to make time in your life to nurture your relationship with God in such a way that you also continue to grow in faith, hope and love.