All Saints Sunday
Texts: Revelation 7:9-17;
Matt. 5:1-12; 1 John 3:1-3
WHO ARE THE SAINTS?
“Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” (Rev. 7:13b-14)
Who are the saints? On All Saints Day, I feel like John the Seer, the author of Revelation. It seems assumed that you and I should know who all the saints are, but do we? I feel like giving John’s answer, “Sir, you are the one that knows” — except I’m not even sure which “Sir” to address. Who is it that knows the answer to my question, “Who are the saints?”
Out Lutheran tradition has given a different answer, I think, than the Catholic tradition from which we descend (dissent?). Our Catholic brothers and sisters have tended to treat the matter of saints as sort of a who’s who of Christian history. The saints are the spiritual elite among us, who qualify by doing a certain number of miracles and other some such criteria for selection. When someone asks, “Who are the saints?” they can check a list — kept somewhere in the Vatican, I presume — of who has met the official criteria.
Lutherans don’t have such a list. We still recognize the spiritually elite among us — such as the apostles, the evangelists, Jesus’ disciples, etc. — but we have come to talk about every believer as a saint of some standing. When we celebrate All Saints Sunday and ask, “Who are the saints?” we answer, “All of us!” We are God’s saints — every believer of every time and place. If we Protestants have a criterion for sainthood, then, it would seem to be simply believing in Jesus.
But is that enough of a criterion? Just believing in Jesus? I don’t think so. And the reason involves what we are going to discuss in the Bible study tomorrow night. (I hope you will come.) The crucial passages from St. Paul, in Romans 3 and elsewhere, should not be translated as simply indicating that we are saved “through faith in Jesus Christ.” No, the better translation is that we are saved “through the faith of Jesus Christ.” The emphasis of what saves us should be on Jesus’ faith. It was his faith in going to the cross that saves us. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit we are then able to receive his kind of faith. So sainthood, too, is not just a matter of my believing in Jesus. It is a matter, first and foremost, of the way Jesus believed in his Father in heaven and the difference it made in the way he lived his life. Through the Holy Spirit, you and I become saints as we receive Jesus’ faith into our lives. It’s not just a matter, then, of what you and I do or don’t believe, but it is also a matter of the lives we lead. We cannot receive Jesus’ brand of faith without it changing our lives to be more like his.
Sainthood, then, can be judged with Jesus’ life in mind. This is the strength of the Catholic idea of saints, that we look to lives that are good examples for us. We are becoming saints as our lives are becoming more Christ-like, and more like the lives of people in all times and ages who lived more Christ-like lives.
What does it mean to live more Christ-like lives. Our Gospel Lesson tells us one key: that Jesus came to bless and be a blessing for those who lives don’t ordinarily count for much in terms of the way the world measures things. We measure heroes by standards of how much power they wield in defeating an enemy. Jesus came to turn that upside-down. The saints are those who are the anti-hero, if not the villain: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and, last but not least, those who are persecuted by our heroes. Jesus himself came not to be a hero in the typical sense. No historian of Jesus’ day bothered to record his heroic deeds. No, only Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John bothered to record what he did and it wasn’t to record the deeds of a hero but of one who was executed in abject shame. Even their record of his life only came about because his heavenly Father raised him from the dead to appear to those apostles with a word of forgiveness and grace.
So being a saint is not like being a hero in the usual sense. In fact, the saints through the ages, as we said, are more the anti-heroes, and even the villains. Here’s an example. John chapter nine begins this way:
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. (John 9:1-3)
Do you see how Jesus’ disciples immediately made this blind man out to be a villain? — “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” But Jesus does not take him to be a villain. Rather, he blesses him with the healing of his sight. When we think of sainthood, do we think of all those folks who have been persecuted throughout the ages like that blind man? How have we as Christians done on that score? How have we treated those who are handicapped? Haven’t we largely assumed them to be lost and locked them away in institutions? It is only in recent years that we have begun to treat handicapped people differently.
“Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” In our lesson from Revelation, the elder answers, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
This answer is often seen as pointing to the Christian martyrs of John’s day. But there is a problem with that. It doesn’t explain the earlier description which says that these people form “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” This is obviously more than just the Christian martyrs of John’s day. In fact, most of them don’t even seem to be Christian, since they are “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” They are more like that blind man in John 9, I think. They are all the least, the last, the lost, the lonely from all times and places who are left out of a society’s mainstream and even hated as sinners and villains. Their robes are washed by the blood of the Lamb. In this world, they may have been considered guilty, but in God’s heaven they are the blessed who are innocent, who have their robes washed clean by the blood of the One who let himself be declared guilty, so that, in being raised from the dead, we might begin to see not only his innocence, but also the innocence of a great multitude of saints that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.
Should we try, briefly, with a few examples? We’ve already mentioned the handicapped. What about women and people of color. Today people with a different sexual orientation are still assumed guilty and persecuted, aren’t they?
▸ Hitler’s Jews / Japanese civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
▸ The victims of the September 11 terrorist attack / the victims of our bombs in Afghanistan
▸ The sacrificial victims of every time and place. The Aztecs were still practicing human sacrifice when we Europeans came to this land. Then, we performed our own sacrifice on the natives of this American continent.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Our Savior’s Lutheran, Racine, WI
November 3, 2002