Saints and Sinners

Today is All Saints’ Day. It’s a day that has become important to me over the years because it reminds me of the “great cloud of witnesses” who have gone before us to blaze the trail of faithful discipleship and who, according to the book of Hebrews, surround us now and cheer us on as we seek to live out our faith. We will celebrate that cloud of witnesses in our worship this Sunday.

When I was growing up, however, I knew nothing about All Saints Day. In the Southern Baptist church of my youth, anything that smacked of Roman Catholicism was suspect, and the veneration of Saints was one of the most Catholic things you could do short of praying to Mary. I don’t think commemorating All Saints Day rises to the level of veneration, but you can never be too careful, I guess, so in a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, we Baptists have pretty much ignored the concept of sainthood altogether.

" Icon of Second Coming " by Anonymous (Greece) is a public domain image

"Icon of Second Coming" by Anonymous (Greece) is a public domain image

Our problem is that we’re using the wrong definition for the word “saint.” The New Testament uses the Greek word hagioi, which is best defined as “holy ones” or “ones set apart.” Originally this meant anyone who had become a follower of Jesus Christ and had received the Holy Spirit. When we become Christians, we are set apart by God, and God’s Spirit begins making us holy, bringing us into conformity with the image of Christ. Every Christian is therefore a saint. That’s why Paul addresses his letters to “the saints who are in” Philippi, Rome, Achaia, and so on. Paul understood that “the holy ones” were God’s people everywhere.

Somewhere along the line, however, we lost the idea that all Christians are saints and began limiting that designation to a few “super Christians” who appeared to be holier than your ordinary, garden-variety Christian. That’s how we got people like Saint Patrick, Saint Theresa, Saint Francis and all the rest. The Church recognized that there was something special about these people and decided to honor them by creating a new category of “Saints.”

It was an honest impulse that sprang from a desire to pay homage to great men and women of faith, but this practice has had at least two unintended consequences. First, it has created a sort of class system within the Church, with the Saints as the aristocracy and the rest of us as mere commoners. Second, it has in a strange way let us off the hook when it comes to obedience and discipleship. We tell ourselves that genuine faith and love—the kind of faith and love that lead persons to take risks, go beyond the ordinary, even give their lives out of devotion to God—are out of our reach. That sort of thing is for the Saints, not us “regular” Christians. So we just muddle by with what we hope is an acceptable piety; going to church, reading our Bibles when the mood strikes us, and praying when we have some special need.

But if the New Testament is correct and all Christians are saints, we’ve got ourselves a problem. A problem that, seen from a different angle, is an opportunity. We have the problem of not being able to hide any longer behind our ordinariness. We have the opportunity to live life to the fullest—to live the abundant life Jesus came to bring. Because if we all are saints, if we all are set apart and made holy, then we all have the same chance (and responsibility) to live life on the cutting edge of faith and hope and love as Saint Francis and Saint Paul and Saint Peter did.

One other thing. The world has a misimpression about what it means to be a saint. They think being holy is the same thing as being holier-than-thou. How could they have ever got that idea? Perhaps because that’s the way Christians have represented themselves for the last several centuries: as severe, self-righteous critics who, in the words of Steve Taylor, “think that living is a sin, so they all start dying from the day they’re born again.” That’s not the way it should be. We who have been filled with the Holy Spirit have the very life of God within and among us. Let us re-commit ourselves this day to living fully, giving generously, and loving with reckless abandon.