85 - No. 5
WORD FROM THE PASTOR: Who Is a Saint?
The big news in the world of religion as I write this is the simultaneous canonization of two 20th century popes. Both John XXIII and John Paul II are being elevated to sainthood. There are controversies concerning this event–is it really appropriate to canonize them so quickly? (although St. Francis of Assisi was made a saint less than two years after his death). The number of miracles required for sainthood was also lowered in the case of these Popes. But the miracle count is subordinate to the impact these men had on the church, so they are being added to the list of saints.
To be painfully frank, I’m not sure I would canonize John XXIII. Certainly he was a holy man with good intentions–he wanted to “open up the windows” of the Roman Catholic Church and allow fresh air to come in. But the Second Vatican Council that he called ended up being an utter disaster for the Roman Church. What came in was not “fresh air” but a tornado of horrible theology, ugly liturgy, tacky music, and embarrassing architecture. Rome jettisoned almost everything that was beautiful and transcendent, and embraced the cheesey and banal. The stately historic prayers were rewritten so that they read like “business letters to God”. Theologians were continually at work shearing away historic Christian doctrines. This was around the time that I first began exploring the Christian faith, and I attended a Roman Catholic Church for awhile. Instead of the beautiful Gregorian chant I had read about, I was confronted by three scruffy gee-tar players. When they sang “Blowin in the Wind” during communion one week, I was puzzled. When they sang Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” during communion the next week, I was out of there!
That’s probably not what John XXIII intended, but that’s what he got, and so I mark myself down as: not a fan.
Actually, it fell to John Paul II to clean up much of the mess from Vatican II. Suddenly, with his rise, you couldn’t be a Catholic theologian and deny that Jesus was God! And suddenly, you couldn’t be both a politician and a priest! And suddenly, it was sort of okay to have beautiful and tasteful worship. I would canonize him in a heartbeat for the way he rescued the Roman Church from the fallout of Vatican II.
But what I’d like to do in this article is reflect on exactly what “sainthood” means in the Lutheran Church. Oddly enough, I want to begin this reflection by quoting an Orthodox theologian–Bishop Kallistos (formerly “Timothy”) Ware. I heard Bishop Kallistos speak in suburban Chicago a number of years ago, and he said that in Christianity there are three important words: one, some, and all. For instance, when the question is: Where is the holy place?, the answer is: one place is holy–heaven. Some places are holy–our churches, and the places in Israel where Jesus walked. But ultimately, all places are holy–because God is everywhere. And the same one-some-all concept can be applied to the question: “Who is a holy person, who is a saint?” There is only one truly holy person–and that is the Lord Jesus Christ. But then, some people are holy–Christians who have shown deep and inspiring devotion to Jesus. Ultimately, though, all are holy–every Christian is a saint, every Christian is a holy person.
That’s what Lutherans emphasize–that all Christians are saints. When Paul writes “to the saints at Ephesus”, he’s not talking about an elite group of spiritual overachievers–he’s talking about every Christian. We all are saints, because we wear the spotless righteousness of Jesus Christ. At our baptism, we “put on Christ” (Galatians3:27)–put on His holiness like a robe. And so, in God’s eyes, we are beautiful and pure. We remain sinners–for Lutherans, “sinner and saint at the same time” is a core belief. But we also are God’s holy people, sanctified by the blood of Christ.
But there are some exemplary figures whom we regard as role models. Scripture itself does this–the 11th chapter of Hebrews reads like a “Hall of Fame” of great figures of faith from the Old Testament. Hebrews also says this about those who have gone before us in the faith:
Remember your leaders, who spoke the Word of God to you. Consider the
outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7)
So Lutherans embrace as inspiration and role model all the great believers who have gone before us. This includes, of course, all the major Biblical figures–the apostles and evangelists, St. John the Baptist, the Blessed Virgin Mary. But it also includes those who came after them in the church’s history–St. Augustine, St. Athanasius, St. Bernard, and many others. They remind us how God can work in human lives.
Lutherans have no process of “canonization”. The requirement of miracles for canonization would be completely foreign to us, for we don’t ask saints for healing–we go directly to God. But we do thank God that in our tradition are people in whom we see God powerfully at work. We think of Blessed Martin Luther and his courageous stand for the Gospel...and C. F. W. Walther, father of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. I would also point to Mother Basileia Schlink (sister of the great Lutheran theologian Edmund Schlink), founder of a Lutheran order of sisters. Sadly, her Evangelical Sisterhood of St. Mary only a few days ago closed its guesthouse for Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem...largely because there are so few Holocust survivors left! Yet it’s beautiful that a religioius order born among German Lutherans during World War II offered such unselfish service to Holocaust survivors. Mother Basileia was like a window through whom one could see Christ’s holiness and compassion. Many Lutherans also revere Dietrich Bonhoeffer for his resistance to the Nazi government
(and his courageous decision to return to Nazi Germany instead of remaining in the safety of America a few years before the War). Another Lutheran saint who stood against the Nazis was the mayor of Leipzig, Carl Goerdeller. Both Bonhoeffer and Goerdeller paid with their lives for their devotion to Christ.
Such people inspire us, and we thank God for the way He worked in their lives. This makes us confident that He can do wonderful things in our lives too!
God loves you and so do I!