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Vol. 81 - No. 11
Nov 2010

WORD FROM THE PASTOR:             

Oh When the Saints Go Marching In...

Many years ago, I attended a lecture by one of my favorite theologians, Bishop Kallistos Ware. In the course of his talk, he shared one of the most brilliant and profound insights about Christianity I’ve ever encountered. Many themes in the Christian faith, Bishop Ware said, can be summarized with the words one, some, and all. He proceeded to demonstrate using the question: Who is a priest? And the answer to that question was:

One is a priest–the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the great high priest who has offered on the cross the great sacrifice that brings salvation to the world.

Some are priests–those who are ordained into the service of the church, into the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

All are priests–every Christian is a priest of God who offers spiritual sacrifices of worship and service to God.

Another theme Ware tackled with his "one-some-all" approach was the idea of holy place. Where is the holy place? And the answer was: there is one holy place–heaven; there are some holy places–our churches, the sites in Jerusalem where Jesus suffered and died and rose again; but finally, all places are holy, because God is everywhere and fills all places.

It occurs to me, as we celebrate All Saints Day this November, that Bishop Ware’s "one-some-all" approach can be applied to the idea of saint, of holy person. (And that’s what "saint" means–it comes from the Latin sanctus "holy"–a saint is a holy person). When you explain "saint" using the "one-some-all" approach, you end up with a result that is extremely Lutheran:

One is a holy person, one is a "saint"–the Lord Jesus Christ. He is God and man united in one same person; He is the blessed Son of God, the Holy One of God.

Some are saints, some are holy people–people in whose lives God has done dramatically wonderful work, people whom we revere as Christian heroes.

But ultimately, all are saints–every Christian believer is a saint. Every Christian has been purified of sin by God, every Christian wears the spotless righteousness of Christ, every Christian is a Temple of the Holy Spirit where God dwells...and so every Christian is a holy person, every Christian is a saint.

Lutherans don’t have a formal procedure to "canonize" saints, but certainly we have many special people to whom we look for inspiration and example. Our gallery of heroes would include great Biblical figures like the Virgin Mary and St. Paul, and theologians like St. Athanasius (who suffered persecution and exile for defending the truth that Jesus is God as well as human) and St. Augustine (who heavily influenced Luther). Specifically Lutheran heroes would include Luther himself–we should never forget how he risked death in order to proclaim the Scriptural gospel. We might also think of those who brought Lutheranism to America (visiting Frankenmuth, Michigan, this summer, I was struck at how the colonists there endured great hardship in their attempt to bring Christ to the Indians of the Saginaw Valley). Certainly the Lutheran roster of heroes includes people who stood up to the Nazis, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Carl Friedrich Goerdeler (the mayor of Leipzig who, like Bonhoeffer, was executed for his role in the plot against Hitler). I think also of Mother Basileia Schlink, who founded a Lutheran religious order for women (the closest thing to "Lutheran nuns") and who projected a simple, beautiful love for Jesus. These are people who can inspire us, people who give great examples of what God can do in a human life–they are saints.

But you can also see a saint...by looking in the mirror. Because all believers are holy people. In that mirror, you see a person in whom Jesus Christ dwells. In that mirror, you see someone who has been clothed in the spotless righteousness of Christ. Yes, when I look in the mirror, I also see a sinner...the holiness in you and me is Christ’s holiness, not our own. But along with that sinner, I see a holy person.

When St. Paul writes a letter "to the saints at Ephesus" (Ephesians 1:1), he’s not just writing to spiritual heroes–he’s writing a letter to all the Christians at Ephesus. And when Paul speaks of the "churches of the saints" (I Corinthains 14:33), he’s not talking about only churches that are filled with mighty spiritual athletes–he’s talking about all Christian churches. When St. John in Revelation declares that the Devil "makes war on the saints" (Revelation 13:7), you and I can’t breathe a sigh of relief, thinking: "Wow! That sure doesn’t include me, I ain’t no saint". No, the Devil makes war against all Christians. We are all saints!

And again, it’s not because we are sinless or perfect–it’s because of Christ, who washes away our sin and gives us His perfect righteousness. All are holy because of the one who is holy–the Lord Jesus Christ.

When we internalize this wonderful message–we are saints–then it’s bound to have an effect on us. "I’m a saint–so I’d better start acting like it". A good test of what we do and say is: "Would a saint do that?" "Is that a holy thing to do?" We don’t want to get self-righteous about it, and exalt ourselves above others–that’s the last thing a saint would do! A saint is always painfully conscious of the fact that he or she is a sinner. A saint is never "holier than thou". But we do want our identity as saints to shape positively our behavior and our lives.

"O Lord I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in," says the classic song. And our faith tells us: We are in that number. We are saints! Let’s celebrate that fact–and let’s live it out!

God loves you and so do I!

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