Today, in those churches that use the liturgical calendar, we commemorate All Saints Day. The early Church commemorated the life and witness of the martyrs from earliest times. But as the Church moved from a body of the persecuted by the culture to an acceptable expression of religious faith, martyrs were few. There were though, many whose lives served as an example to the community without the sacrifice of death. The Church has widely observed the festival of All Saints continuously since about the year 600. Originally kept on May 13th it was moved to November 1st around 735 and has remained there ever since.
I was educated in a parochial school system where All Saints Day and the whole subject of saints was always before us. In fact, when I was in 5th grade, trading holy cards, pictures of saints with special prayers and biographical sketches, was more prevalent than trading baseball cards. I wanted a Saint Thomas Aquinas card so badly-I never got one. I learned later from that education about saints some things I thought that were accurate and some things were a bit off course. I learned that saints could be examples of living a holy life, they could show us how we too might live that kind of life. But, I also got the impression that they were some how people who lived perfect lives and I knew certainly I could not do that. They always looked so pious on those holy cards. I thought if I could find a way to adopt that pious demeanor, I would be able be considered saintly. It didn't work.
Imagine my surprise when as a young adult I began to read the Bible with some seriousness and discovered that in the New Testament there were 62 references to "saints" and that St. Paul used the term 44 times to refer to the Church on earth and that the word even appeared in the Hebrew Scriptures. Saint Paul was saying that I was one of the saints, in Greek "hagios" holy ones. We are God's saints? How could this be? Saints were on earth not exclusively in heaven? My perfect picture of piety was shattered.
So what makes a saint a saint? Well, it is difficult to give a simple, straightforward answer. The word saint is used in so many ways. We, of course often refer, on the one hand, to those who have lead exemplary lives, who serve as an example to all of us of how to live a good and holy life but who have gone on to a wider life in eternity; people like Sister Theresa, Dietrich Bonhofer, and many, many others. We keep days in their honor and frequently recognize them with the honorific title "saint": St. Peter, St. Andrew and so on.
There is, however, another aspect to being a saint, those whom we call the saints on earth, the saints mentioned in Scripture. I think St. Paul would say Baptism is a mark of sainthood. The writer of the Revelation to John in his heavenly vision puts it another way- "I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them;"
We are called saints because of God's continuing incarnate presence among his people; it is God who is intimately and fully holy, it is a God who came in the flesh, who still dwells in the midst of His people. That presence permeates the entire community of faith. What makes God's people holy is His presence not our behavior that is often less than perfect. As we all know too well, humanity has far from reached perfection. Former slave ship captain John Newton's famous hymn "Amazing Grace" brings home the reality that it is God's gracious presence in the midst of His humanity that makes this kind of sainthood possible. "Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see." Left to our own devices, we will eventually disappoint at least our own selves. But with God's loving grace we can grow to the heights of human expression.
Which brings me to the second half of our reading today. God's voice thunders from heaven, "See, I am making all things new." God is making a promise to us. I was participating in a renewal event of some sort many years ago and expressing my frustration with myself as an ordained leader in the church. I just hadn't done enough things right, I seemed to be so slow in developing my own spiritual life. A wonderful woman in that group came up to me later and silently pinned a homemade button on me with which many are familiar. It proclaimed simply but boldly, "Be patient, God is not finished with me yet!" As people who live in a world that often advertises perfection in some interesting, ways we often forget that saintliness is much less about perfection than it is about transformation. We who are God's saints on earth are called to allow the holy presence of God be a transforming influence in our life. We often are so busy trying to "arrive" that we miss the point-what counts is the journey. For us, sainthood is not about externals, piety, looking good-no halos here. It is about the internal person, who we are on the inside. Yes, we are called to do good but to always remember that it is the one doing good who receives the most benefit who is transformed by the act. Today on this festival of All Saints God calls us again to be the clay in the hands of the potter, to enable God's holy presence in our midst to continue to shape our lives and our faith as his saints here on earth. As Christian saints on earth we are called to live life inside out. Isn't that what the Incarnation is all about. With God there is always more than you can see. I remember hearing Dr. James Fenhagen, then a seminary Dean, a number of years ago speaking about the Church in American culture. Dr. Fenhagen said that modern Christians tended to have hard crusty exteriors but soft inner cores. The problem is God call us to have a solid core and soft exterior. Historically Christianity has advocated focusing on forming the inner person, engaging in disciplines that shape who and what we are deep in our souls. That is what will result in transformation; that is how we grow into being worthy of the title God's saints on earth.
Today, in Churches around the world, many thousands will sing from that famous old English hymn, "I Sing a Song of the Saints of God." The last verse brings home the point
"They lived not only in ages past,
there are hundreds of thousands still,
the world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus' will.
You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too."
I have to confess I am not there yet but I also remember I am on the way, there is yet hope as I strive on: God isn't finished with me yet. He is making all things new, even someone like me.
Would you pray with me?
Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen