Who Are Saints?
All Saints Sunday: November 3, 2013
at All Saints, Hampton
It is good to be with you at All Saints Church, to celebrate All Saints Sunday. This is a very special day in the life of the whole church, and it surely is special for a church named “All Saints”.
An age-old question in the church’s life is this: “Who are saints?” After all, we identify particular people in the life of the church as providing examples of godly living for the rest of us ... and we call those people “saints”. In fact, we recognize and remember these heroes and heroines of the faith on particular days ... and we call attention to their special attributes.
For instance, St. Francis is remembered for his devotion to God and for his love of nature and of all God’s creatures. St. Mary is known for her obedience to God’s will and for her service as the mother of our Lord. William Temple’s feast day is this week, and he is a giant among modern-day saints – particularly as an advocate for social justice and as Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940’s. Thus, again, we have saints who represent worthwhile and praiseworthy attributes for all of us. This, then, is one understanding of who are saints in the life of the church.
On the other hand, another understanding is much broader and more inclusive. Paul the apostle suggests this broader, more inclusive meaning in his New Testament letters. For instance, he writes, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Ephesus” (Eph 1:1). And, he begins another letter this way: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi” (Phil 1:1). And, again, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae” (Col 1:1). Thus, the understanding of St. Paul clearly is that the saints are all the members of the churches to who he is writing.
Our Prayer Book Catechism seems to accept this broader meaning as well. We may read this definition there: “The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise” (p. 862).
Further, our Collect of the Day begins with these words: “Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord” (BCP, p. 245). That “mystical body” of Christ, of course, is the church ... and the fellowship of that body includes all the members of the church.
Now, I want to suggest to you today that this broader understanding of the communion of saints brings some mixed messages along with it. That is, we might respond positively to that understanding in some ways ... but less positively so in others.
We have known people who were church members but who did not always follow the Christian path in this life. If we are honest, in fact, we would number ourselves in that group. We have not always loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have left undone some things we should have done, and we’ve done some other things that we should not have done. After all, we confess our sins precisely because we are sinners and fall short of our calling as Christian people. Nevertheless, we are assured of forgiveness by God. And, further, we are assured that we remain within the communion of saints. And that’s the good news ... the very good news.
However, I also said there might be some less positive parts to this understanding of the communion of saints. And it is this. There are some people that we might not like very much who are included, too. Some people who do not deserve to be there are part of this group. Remember in Jesus’ parable that the worker who only worked for one hour was given the same wage as the one who worked all day. Remember the prodigal son who spent all his inheritance and was nevertheless welcomed back home with a feast by his father. Remember that the thief who was justly crucified was nevertheless promised a place in paradise by Jesus.
So, if we are honest, this broad and inclusive communion of saints seems like both good news and bad news. It represents good news because it includes us. But it seems to be not-so-good news because it also includes people that we would not deem worthy. Perhaps like me, you could name a few of those, without even thinking very hard.
On this All Saints Sunday, then, perhaps there are two messages for us. First, it is God who gets to decide who is part of the communion of saints. And, to tell you the truth, that is probably the only way that any of us can hope to be included. Secondly, before we are too quick to focus on the unworthiness of others, we do well to look honestly at ourselves. It is only by the grace of God that any of us may take our place in the communion of saints. But, by that grace, we all may.
The Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg
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