Skip to content
During July, for urgent pastoral needs, contact Fr. Gerry Mueller: Home: (519) 886-9277; Mobile: (519) 241-6169 For other needs. leave message on Church phone.

All Saints’ Sunday ; On Sainthood

Henri Nouwen, priest, psychologist, professor, internationally known spiritual writer, storyteller, died suddenly about 22 years ago. He had spent his last 10 years working and living as pastor and “assistant” with physically and mentally handicapped adults at a Christian community called “Daybreak” in Richmond Hill. (In my time in the Diocese of Toronto that L’Arche community was something of a clergy magnet for retreats; I believe it still is, even with Henri no longer there.) Out of his life at “Daybreak” with those whom our society often considers worthless came many of Henri’s best stories, like this one.

John was an adult, mentally permanently arrested at about 8 or 9 years of age. Physically, he had one gift; he was a medium distance runner. And so John trained for the Special Olympics, in which he had a chance to be a world champion. For several years he worked hard at developing his skills and speed, winning race after race. Finally, there came one, last, crucial race; only the winner would go to the Special Olympics. But the odds were with John; his only serious rival was Phil.

At the start, John lined up, knowing he must win. The gun went off; he and Phil led the pack, John slightly ahead. It came time to make the final sprint; then just as John began to speed up, he sensed that beside him Phil stumbled. Instantly he stopped, turned around, helped Phil up, and the two of them finished the race together, with John’s arm around Phil, supporting him – both dead last!

Saints show up in the most unlikely places!

We have come again to All Saints’ Sunday in the Church year. All through that year are scattered memorials, feast days, and celebrations dedicated to founders and heroes of our faith. Why another Sunday, why another celebration of the saints?

A tomb-stone from 4th century Asia Minor offers the beginnings of an answer. It is badly spelled and ill-carved. On it is written, “Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem for she prayed much.” Not another word is known of Chione, a peasant woman from a vanished world. After 17 centuries, not even the dust of her bones remains. Yet we know she was thought to be blessed, and in the heavenly Jerusalem, because she prayed much. Would that as much were remembered about us, after 1700 years!

There are dozens of Christian tomb-stones from that time, hundreds, then thousands from the next centuries, millions more down to our time. They record a name, some dates, a phrase about a life, a cross or religious symbol, nothing else. And yet, behind each such monument is a life like ours. Each memorializes a person who came to faith, struggled, fell away for a time, struggled to return, repeating that cycle perhaps many times. Behind each is a sinner like us, who tried their best to live a Christian life as they understood it, who failed, and repented, and failed again.

But no, I’ve got that wrong! Behind each monument is a saint, just like us! It is these unknown millions, strugglers, even failures in the faith, each one of them, just like us, that we celebrate today!

Wait a minute, some are now thinking. Saints are not just like us, they are the stellar examples – you know, “Who are these like stars appearing?” if you looked ahead in your leaflet. They are inspirations; models of faithfulness, examples of fortitude in difficulty and persecution, even in death! Saints are Matthew, Mark, Luke, John; Peter and Paul; Augustine, Thomas, Benedict, Joan of Arc – they aren’t Susie, Mike, Sam, Alice, Betty. Saints lead outstanding lives of morality and prayer; they are mostly monks and nuns, priests and bishops, not backsliders. Saints aren’t people whose minds wander when praying or reading Scripture; not folks that live and work, have ordinary lives, and shop at the mall. No, no, no, we protest, saints are people you see in holy pictures, in stained-glass windows! They are not people who sit next to you on a bus, or even in a pew, and you don’t meet saints at the mall.

Yes, you do!

Undoubtedly, the word saint has come to mean outstanding followers of Christ, heroes of the faith. But even with these special people, if you really examine their lives, for most of them their faith was an up-and-down thing at best. Read St. Augustine’s “Confessions” if you doubt me. Or a biography of Martin Luther. Or there is Michael Ramsey. One of the great Archbishops of Canterbury of all times, and a noted theologian of last century, Ramsey once admitted that he thought it a good day if he could truly believe everything the Christian faith required for two minutes out of every three. No, the more you read about great saints, the more they look like us; ups and downs, good days and bad, times of outstanding faith and times of deep doubt. And, if in their times of faith the great saints were such stellar examples of Christianity that they became heroes to the rest of us, many of them had times of such depths of spiritual depression that I pray God none of us will ever experience them.

Biblically, however, the word saint is applied much more generally; very simply to all who follow Christ. In much of the New Testament, to be baptized is to be a saint, something to keep in mind as we prepare to baptize two children, Austin and Lucas – we are going to make two new saints, right here, this morning! Just as we made Tabatha a saint at the All Saints’ service last Thursday evening. St. Paul, in his letters to young churches, certainly uses it in that sense. Over and over again, reading Paul’s letters in the New Testament, one is struck with how indiscriminately he uses that word “saint” to apply to all who have chosen (or been chosen) to follow Christ. Then, lest you think that all to whom Paul is writing were better Christians than we could hope to be, I suggest a quick reading of the two Corinthian letters. He is writing to a church that seems to have totally forgotten what Christ called them to be, to the point where even Holy Communion divided them. Yet Paul calls them saints. And if you think the Corinthians were quick learners and quickly flew right when their errors were pointed out, in 96 C.E., 40 years after Paul, a bishop of Rome named Clement wrote to the Corinthians, and complained of exactly the same things about which Paul had complained. And Clement still called them saints!

And you too are saints!

In my collection of church cartoons there is one of a preacher looking out at a congregation, saying, “I’ve been here preaching the transforming power of the Gospel for a long time. How come you still look like the same old bunch?”

They are the same old bunch! They were saints before the preacher ever started, and still are! A little word study may help. Both in New Testament Greek, and Church Latin, what we translate as saint, or sanctified, mean a holy person, or holiness. Thus, a saint is a holy person. And, strictly speaking, in the biblical languages holy person, or holiness, does not describe behaviour, but a state of set-apartness for the purposes of God. When you were baptized, you were set apart for God’s purposes. When you come forward to receive Holy Communion, God’s holy food for God’s holy people, you confirm again that you are set apart for God. Your sainthood has nothing to do with behaviour. It has nothing to do with how well you pray, or how many works of charity you do. Your sainthood has to do with the baptism which marked you as God’s own, for God’s purposes; marked you as the beloved child of God who will not abandon you, nor let you go!

Why then, most Sundays, do Matt, or I, or someone, stand up here, preaching at you; usually if you boil it down, about something that you ought to do if you are a Christian? Well, that has to do with a duty laid upon preachers, which is, in the words of St. Paul, “… to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” There is an obligation that comes with sainthood, and that is ministry, service to the world, and yes, worship and prayer. If you live that obligation outstandingly, you may in time be seen as a stellar example of what it means to be a Christian. Who knows, churches might be named after you, and your likeness (halo and all) will appear in stained-glass windows. Or, you may, like most of us, live that obligation in a hit-and-miss sort of way. Our prayer life may have its ups and downs, our works of service may be only dimly existent, and only sometimes and with great discernment would onlookers see us as holy in the conventional meaning. No churches will be named after us, no stained glass; the best most of us hope for is a mention in some yellowing and long forgotten Vestry minutes. (In one of my former parishes, my picture hangs in a hallway along with all the other clergy who have served there; but that claim to immortality will only last until that community stops existing, or the print fades, or they run out of wall space – whichever comes first!)

Never mind. We are all still holy, still saints. God has marked us, and chosen us for God’s own people. We are set apart for God’s purposes. God loves us, and will not let us go! We are all the saints. Today is our Sunday; today we celebrate ourselves, and millions dead, alive, and yet to live, saints just like us! Enjoy!

Copyright ©2018 by Gerry Mueller.