Today is All Saints Sunday, the day each year we turn our focus to the saints of the church, those great role models for faithful discipleship who now enjoy everlasting life with God.
Focusing on, remembering, and honoring those who brought to us God’s blessings in life changing ways is good and right, but why is it that we tend to focus on saints as only those who are in heaven? Does it mean you must be dead, before you can be a saint? That has become kind of the norm, but when we take a look at scripture, we see there is an emphasis on living saints.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints.” Whenever Paul speaks of saints, he is talking about members of the church —an ekklesia, a group of people who’ve been chosen by God and set apart to do God’s work in the world.
Saints are holy people, according to Paul, but their holiness doesn’t come from achieving some kind of moral perfection, it doesn’t come from miracles performed, and it certainly doesn’t come from being dead! Instead, saints have a holiness that comes from being marked as God’s people. God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world,” insists Paul, “to be holy and blameless before him in love.” God choosing and setting apart is such an important insight into saintliness.
We know God is holy because God is set apart from the world, and different from everything God has created. Follow that logic, and you discover God’s followers are holy because God has set us apart from the world, and given us a mission to share God’s blessings with all.
Now, to be clear, to be holy is not to be better than other people. But we are to be different—in the world but not of the world different. Paul says to the Philippians that we’re saints because we are “in Christ Jesus,” with a mission to produce a “harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.”
The challenge for us is to live a life as saints who are alive and at work in the church and the world. The question becomes then, what does such a life look like, as those who are different? What does it look like to be a living saint?
Paul gives us some clues in Ephesians, a letter that stresses the holiness of God’s people. So let’s explore the signs of a living saint.
Living Saint Sign #1: Faith in Jesus. What does it mean to have faith in Jesus? It means trusting that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, but at the same time taking seriously that this way is a lifetime journey.
Researcher Diana Butler Bass reports that at Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church in Seattle, newcomers are invited to take part in a program called “The Way,” which is not some quick and easy membership class that concludes with a free coffee mug and a box of offering envelopes.
Instead this class is a full year of mentoring and Christian formation. The goal is to help people come into a living relationship with Jesus that takes over the very center of their life.
Joan Henderson, a participant in The Way class says, “The Christian life is a life of ‘continuing invitation’. It is a life in which Christ calls us to follow him every day. That’s what we are to do, plain and simple — we are to follow Jesus every day. To do so takes tremendous faith. Not just Sunday morning faith.”
Henderson is right. Follow Jesus every day, and you are on your way to being a living saint. But it takes working at it every day.
Saint-Sign #2: Have Love toward all the saints.
We love all the saints when we see the saintliness of all of God’s children. Faith and love are the first two qualities that are present in a person who has been chosen by God and set apart to do God’s work in the world and that faith and love must become an outward expression to all.
In the first days of the church, saints were part of a community of intentional love and concern, which demonstrated acts of faith and love through practical service.
In the book of Acts we see that one of the first things the early Christians did was organize a diaconate to make certain widows and the needy got comfort and relief. Paul wrote to the Romans “Contribute to the needs of the saints, extend hospitality to strangers.” Paul also spearheaded a collection for the church in Jerusalem in his second letter to the Corinthians, describing it as a special “ministry to the saints.”
What all of this shows, is that being a living saint means expressions of faith and love are more than just prayers for others. Expressions of faith and love surely include prayer, but they also include tangible acts of concern, hospitality, giving, and presence.
Today, as in the earliest days of the church, faith and love need to be more than words, more than emotions. The faith and love of living saints are expressed through practical service.
Living Saint-Sign #3: A spirit of wisdom and revelation.
This third quality of sainthood is one we can enjoy right here, right now, immediately. Paul says, “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.”
People who are living saints assume God is always ahead of them, not stuck behind them or absent, and they are constantly seeking to learn what God is revealing to them.
A generation ago, entertainer Gracie Allen said, “Never put a period where God has placed a comma.” This simple insight has become part of the public relations campaign of the United Church of Christ.
There’s a lot of truth in that statement because it reminds us that God is leading us into a future of new wisdom, new revelations, new understandings, new insights. Don’t put a period where God has placed a comma— living saints take this seriously as they look for new revelations every day.
This spirit of wisdom and revelation knows the hope to which God has called us, the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints, and the immeasurable greatness of God’s power.
It’s unfortunate if people think of sainthood as being an honor granted only to those who have passed on from this earthly life to life eternal.
Of course I understand such. The only explicit model of sainthood comes out of the Vatican, and only then after a long and complex ecclesiastical process. When a person is proposed for Roman Catholic sainthood, evidence of that person’s virtue must be presented to the church hierarchy, along with at least two postmortem miracles— miracles performed by the intercession of the person after his or her death.
Then, before sainthood can be granted, the Church will have a trial-like procedure, with a lawyer arguing against the canonization—this is where the expression “Devil’s Advocate” comes from. Medical doctors will also have to testify that the healings are true miracles, unrelated to any scientific intervention.
One postmortem miracle is needed for beatification, which is the first step toward sainthood, and a second is required for canonization.
While this may be the way for the Catholic Church to grant sainthood, it is obviously a long process which requires one key component—you have to be dead.
The saints Paul is talking about, however, are in a different category.
These saints are living.
They are living today and have faith in the Lord Jesus.
They are living today and have love toward all the saints—all God’s children.
They are living today, and have a spirit for the wisdom and revelation of God.
Postmortem miracles are simply not required. And for that matter, pre-mortem miracles are not required. All that is required is something we all are already doing.
We don’t have to die and go to heaven before we can have this wisdom — we can have it in this world. Keep developing and growing our faith, love, and a spirit of wisdom and revelation, and that will be miracle enough.
So may we, on this All Saints Sunday, may we know that by our faith journey in following Christ Jesus, we are saints—and we are certainly not dead. We are living saints. Living in this world, but we not of this world.
So let us go and live out that sainthood as God calls us to live by being saints who: have faith, have love, seek wisdom and revelation, and who are willing to be living saints. Amen.