Saints and Sinners
November 5, 2017 /All Saints Day /Pastor Richard Holmer
First Reading: Revelation 7: 9-17 /Second Reading: 1 John 3: 1-3 / Gospel : Matthew 5: 1-12
“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” So wrote Oscar Wilde (who had some wise insights into both saints and sinners). To note that every saint has a past is to recognize that persons who are admired for their goodness and faithfulness can have a history that is not so admirable. We need look no further than honored figures like St. Paul and St. Augustine to see this is true.
On the other hand, that every sinner has a future is the great promise of the gospel; lives can be transformed and renewed by the grace of forgiveness. As financial consultants are obliged to state, past performance is no guarantee of future outcomes. People can change; think of Zacchaeus! It can be tempting to draw sharp lines and divide this world into two kinds of people: saints and sinners, good and bad. For sure there is good and evil in this world, yet it’s a serious mistake to categorize some persons as “all good” and others as “all evil.”
One of Martin Luther’s helpful insights is that as Christians we are simultaneously saints and sinners. We are both captive to sin and set free by the mercy of God. We could all wear a T-shirt that says SINNER on the front and SAINT on the back. Each of us has a past that is a mixed bag of good, bad and indifferent. Each of us has a future guaranteed by our baptism into Christ. To understand yourself as both saint and sinner is to realize that life is a struggle. We struggle against the sin and evil that plague this world. This struggle is also carried on within our own souls.
To the list of beatitudes we heard in today’s gospel we could add this: “Blessed are those who struggle, they will be called saints of God.” This is to say that a saint is not one who has arrived at perfection, who has achieved the status of ultimate goodness (Mother Teresa). Sainthood is not some permanent status of holiness – it is the ongoing pursuit of holiness. It’s not like a rank to be achieved; it is a devotion to a way of living. It truly is a struggle to live a good and faithful life. Often it means going against the flow of modern, materialistic culture, against our own selfish desires. It can be a struggle to lead a life worthy of our calling. Each day we face momentous choices.
In our second reading today, St. John reminds us that we are children of God. This identity is both a blessing and a challenge. It’s a blessing to have God as our father, and to know God loves us as sons and daughters. It is a challenge to grow in the likeness of God’s son – our brother Jesus. John assures us that this truly is our destiny. He writes: “…when Christ is revealed, we will be like him.”
You and I are called to grow up into Christ – bit by bit, two steps forward, one step backward, to become more and more like Jesus. It’s a long process; a process that began when we were baptized. The process continues throughout our lifetime, and it is by no means a straight line. The biblical word for this process is sanctification, which means you and I are saints in the making. Martin Luther describes the path we’re on: “This life is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.”
I believe this process continues even after we die. I do not picture heaven to be a place where we just sit around and enjoy our eternal rest. I imagine that we will have a lot of growing left to do after we arrive at our heavenly home. Since God is not static but dynamic, as God’s children we can anticipate that we will continue to grow in faith, hope and love – in holiness. Becoming saints is not an easy road for sinners like us to travel. But it is the right road, and we are in good company.
When I say we are in good company, I include not only those who are present but also God’s people of every time and place. There are many who have travelled this road before us. We are indebted to them, for without them you and I would not be who we are. There would be no church without all the saints-in-the-making who devoted their lives to keeping faith, hope and love alive; who both received and passed along the good news of Jesus Christ. These are the ones we remember and celebrate today.
Consider this one congregation of St. James. Without the commitment and faithfulness of those who planted this church 55 years ago, we would not be here today. Now multiply this congregation by the thousands and thousands of congregations across the world, and contemplate how their existence depends entirely on our faithful predecessors. Today we take time to remember them and to thank God for them. We are the beneficiaries of their struggles to lead lives worthy of the name, children of God. They were no more perfect than any of us. But they managed to be faithful. They are no long with us in person, but they are not lost. We are temporarily separated, even as we share our unity in the Body of Christ, in what we call “the communion of saints.”
It’s a very mystical notion; our faith that we share a bond with all those Christians who have gone before us. Just as we believe Christ is present to us and with us as we share in Holy Communion; so we also believe that the faithful departed are also present and in communion with us. We are reminded that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” This isn’t something “spooky” – it is something profoundly holy. You and I express our gratitude to those saints who have gone before us by faithfully carrying on as they did. We pass on the light that has been given to us. We share the hope that brings substance and purpose to our days.
In this life there will be struggles and sorrows. We will witness injustice and suffering. There will be temptations to despair, temptations to pursue a path of self-serving hedonism. But we trust God’s promise to us that pain and grief will not have the last word. We live by faith in the One “who makes all things new,” who will guide us “to springs of the water of eternal life,” the God who “will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”
Brothers and sisters, we are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. Let us not grow weary in our efforts to grow up into Christ, to live by faith and hope and love. Blessed are you, who struggle, you will be called saints of God.
Thanks be to God.