Lectionary Reflection for All Saints Sunday
November 7, 2010
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. Ephesians 1:17-19
I grew up in a non-liturgical church, so the idea of “saints” was a foreign concept to me, aside from a certain football team in New Orleans for whom my childhood hero, Archie Manning, happened to play. As a Lutheran pastor, I still note a lot of confusion and misinformation about saints among the faithful. Just try asking folks about All Saints Day/Sunday, and you’ll probably get some quizzical looks along with answers like these: “Isn’t that the Sunday when we read the names of church members who have died in the past year? “We always sing ‘For All the Saints,’ you know that really long hymn.” “Oh, we light candles in memory of the dearly departed.”
The Festival of All Saints dates to May 13, 609 (or maybe 610) when Pope Boniface IV consecrated the Pantheon in Rome to the Blessed Virgin and all the martyrs. Pope Gregory III is credited with first moving the festival to its present date of November 1. After the Reformation, the celebration was retained in Anglican and most Lutheran churches. Other Protestants, including Presbyterians and Methodists, celebrate All Saints Day, usually on the first Sunday in November.
This is all well and good, but just what is a saint? In the Roman Catholic tradition, someone receiving the title of “Saint” has been officially recognized by the Catholic Church (canonized) and therefore believed to be in Heaven. Leonard Foley, OFM, editor of the book Saint of the Day, says of saints that their “…surrender to God’s love was so generous an approach to the total surrender of Jesus that the Church recognizes them as heroes or heroines worthy to be held up for our inspiration. They remind us that the Church is holy, can never stop being holy and is called to show the holiness of God by living the life of Christ.”
In Luther’s Commentary on 1st Peter, he addresses the phrase “by the sanctifying work of the Spirit,” saying:
Thus Scripture calls us holy while we are still living here on earth, if we believe. The papists have taken this name away from us and say: `We should not be holy; only the saints in heaven are holy.’ Therefore we must get the noble name back. You must be holy. But you must be prepared not to think that you are holy of yourself or on the strength of your merit. No, you must be holy because you have the Word of God, because heaven is yours, and because you have become truly pious and holy through Christ. This you must avow if you want to be a Christian (Luther’s Works 30:7).
In his Commentary on Galatians (1531), Luther says:
When we have repudiated this foolish and wicked notion about the name “saints” which we suppose applies only to the saints in heaven, and on earth to hermits and monks who perform some sort of spectacular work let us now learn from the writings of the apostles that all believers in Christ are saints (Luther’s Works 27:83).
For Luther, it was nothing the Christian does of his or her own accord that made for saintliness; it was through Jesus that we are made holy.
They are not called saints because they are without sin or have become saintly through works. On the contrary, they themselves, with all their works, are nothing but condemned sinners. But they became holy through a foreign holiness, namely, through that of the Lord Jesus Christ, which is given them by faith and thus becomes their own. This faith is so strong and powerful that it covers and wipes away all sins and shortcomings that remain in flesh and blood (Ewald Plass, What Luther Says 3978).
This Sunday, as we remember the saints who have gone before, who have lived lives of faith, and who struggled with the temptations and evil of the world, let us also remember as we look around the sanctuary, that we are in the company of saints–the congregation of God’s people gathered in a particular place at a particular time. We gather fully aware of our sin and confessing it in the presence of God and one another, we meet in Jesus’ name, we offer our praise and thanksgiving to God, we are strengthened for the journey, and as Thomas Merton reminds us:
“We can only become saints by facing ourselves, by assuming full responsibility for our lives just as they are, with all their limitations and handicaps, and submitting ourselves to the purifying and transforming action of the Savior.”
So when one of God’s people asks you who and what a “saint” really is, you may look that person in the eye and say “Saint who? Saint YOU–everyday saint and sinner, made holy through Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God!