What is All Saints Day all about? That’s the question I’ve been pondering for the last couple of days. I’ve never really thought much about it, truth be told. To me, All Saints Day is the Sunday when we honor those who have died in the faith, particularly during the past year. We put their names in the bulletin. Perhaps we read them out loud. Maybe we light a candle for them. We sing particular hymns. More or less it is this, we take a moment to remember our dead. That’s what All Saints Day has always been to me.
What is less clear to me is what this has to do with saints. What are saints, exactly? What I’ve always understood is that saints are one of two things. The first possibility is this: saints are living people who are closer to perfect than most of us are. So and so is a saint because she volunteers so much of her time. Or this other fellow is a saint because he isn’t subject to the same sinful urges that the rest of us are. He just always seems to do the right thing. This understanding of saints thinks of them as a cut above the normal person, like Mother Theresa.
The other understanding of saint that I have is this: A saint is a Christian who has died. Most of us living folks aren’t very saintly. There’s all kinds of evidence against us in our words and deeds. We do things we shouldn’t and we don’t help out as much as we should. We get angry and have mean thoughts. And so on and so forth. There’s all this evidence that we’re not saints. But, and I’m just trying to put my finger on what it is that I’ve thought through the years, when we die and go to heaven, then things change. All of that sinful stuff just drops off; it falls away and we’re left with just the good. In any event, the dead no longer sin. And so it seems like death makes Christians into saints. That’s the second basic understanding that I’ve always had.
Now I want to make clear, especially for those who are taking sermon notes, that I’m not saying any of what I’ve said so far is true. It’s just the way I’ve thought about things. And maybe some of you have thought about it this way too.
So it seems to me that All Saints Day has more to do with this second understanding. On this day, All Saints Sunday, we are honoring our dead. We are remembering Christian brothers and sisters who have died. They weren’t exactly saints when they were with us, but now that they have died we can think of them as saints because they have been transformed. So All Saints Day is about honoring the dead, whom we can now call saints because they are no longer part of the nitty gritty business down here, where people just aren’t that holy. This is more or less the way that I have understood the matter.
Upon some further thinking, though, I think that I may have gotten it wrong. Well, not all of it. For instance, I think that it is absolutely right that we should honor our dead and I think that it is absolutely right that we should think well of them. But the major part of it I have gotten wrong. Connecting sainthood to death, for instance. This is wrong, because the Bible doesn’t talk like that at all. I looked up the word “saints” in my Bible concordance and I started looking at each verse that used the word. And what I found was very interesting. Over and over and over again, the word “saints” refers to members of the church, followers of Jesus. All of these people are very clearly living people, not dead ones. The saints are members of the church who are alive and well, here on earth.
The other point that is clear is that the people being called “saints” are not being called that because they are the cream of the crop, the very best. The Apostle Paul talks about visiting the saints in one town or helping the saints in another. Clearly he isn’t talking about going to some town, to which he’s never been, and visiting only the holiest people. He wouldn’t have the foggiest idea who they were! He’s just talking about visiting the people who follow Jesus, the Church.
So when you put these two points together, what you’ve got is this: “saints” just refers to living folks who are followers of Jesus. It doesn’t refer to dead Christians in particular, nor does it refer to people who are some kind of spiritual elite. In other words, it refers to people like you and like me.
“That’s all well and good, Pastor, that’s very nice. But what does that have to do with anything? It’s not as if I’m going to go around telling people I’m a saint. What’s the point?” You are right to ask that question. All by itself, this is pretty meaningless knowledge. It does us no good. And do you know why? Because we think it’s just a label. We think it’s just a fancy word that has been dumbed down so that it doesn’t mean anything at all. Sure, we’re called saints, but no matter what you call us, it doesn’t change the fact that we’re still the same old sinners. What meaning does a first place ribbon have if everybody is given one? If everybody got a Lombardi trophy after the football season, it wouldn’t mean much. And so it is with the word “saint.” If everybody’s a saint, then nobody’s a saint. The word doesn’t mean anything anymore. That’s what I’m tempted to think.
But that's not right. In fact it's all wrong. And maybe this is a simple point to make, but I want to make it because it is the gospel after all.
It isn't what we do that makes us right with God. It isn't what we do that makes us righteous. It isn't what we do that makes us saints. If we look at ourselves and say, "Not saints," we're being very foolish indeed. If we do that we have fallen into the trap of playing God. At the risk of stating the obvious, that’s not our job.
Being God is God’s job. He's the one who makes us right. He’s the one who forgives our sins. He's the one who makes us saints. Our lesson from Revelation says this, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb." He's the one who does it. And if we can’t see it, that’s because we are the ones who are blind. If you don’t look around you this morning and see a crowd of saints, it’s not because it isn’t true. It’s because you’re trusting your own stinking eyes and not the Word of God. It is God’s word which is true. It is his word which is real.
And so today, we honor the saints whom God has made this past year in baptism. We honor the saints who have been affirmed in the faith just this past week. And we honor the saints who have died. They are all of them saints, along with us, for God has declared and made it so. And thus it is so. Thanks be to God alone. Amen.