What Is a Saint Anyway?
Text: Rev. 7:2-17, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Very often, when we think of the word “saint”, we have a very specific image come to mind. Usually it’s someone from a bygone era, with clear eyes looking up peacefully at the heavens, soft-spoken, maybe a halo or some other visible marker of their sanctity. We think of someone who always has a gentle and pious word to offer, who’s calm and collected, has everything their spiritual house perfectly in order. We think of a treasure trove of visible good works that prove beyond any doubt that this person is a saint. Just think of the people about which you’ve said, “She’s a saint;” or conversely, “He’s no saint;” and you’ll conjure up that very specific image that we so often associate with the term.
But by now it should be no surprise that when we talk about the kingdom of God, things are not as we expect or imagine. Jesus has been spending the last few months, teaching us in the parables, in His interactions with those self-proclaimed “saints” among the Pharisees and such; and in His words and actions toward those who would have been judged quite unsaintly—the tax collectors and worse. And what is it that Jesus has been teaching us with all this? Things under God’s reign of grace are not at all what we would expect in our fallen imaginations.
If you don’t believe me, take a look at our Gospel reading for today, when Jesus describes very clearly what a saint—someone who is blessed—is: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” something we would never associate with saintliness—poverty of spirit. “Blessed are those who mourn,” not those who float above it all, tranquil as summer clouds, but those who mourn, who grieve, who cry. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,” not those who have righteousness already in abundance. Finally, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” These are not those who are esteemed in the wider community, not those who are called “saints” by the average onlooker. These are the ones who have tarnished reputations, all for the sake of how they follow Jesus, how they do what He says is righteous, rather than what the worlds say is good.
This is all to say that the saints, as described here by Jesus—the crying, the mourning, the broke, the beaten up—are a wreck! They’re spiritually poor, short on everything that the world would say counts. They’re not filled to the brim with righteousness, they’re starving for it. They’re not held up and spoken of in admiring tones; they’re slandered and mocked for their faith. They’re pushed hard, tired, damaged, hungry, knocked around, stressed out, hanging on by a thread sometimes. They’re not sure-footed and confident in their own righteousness all the time. They struggle. They want. They cry. They need. In other words, they’re people like us. The saints are people like you.
The saints are the ones, as our reading from Revelation tells us, who are coming out of the great tribulation. They’re not strolling in from the great comfortableness, or swaggering in from the great applause. They’re coming out of tribulation. That means that the saints are coming out of strife, pain, conflict, sorrow, suffering, even death. They’re not glorious to behold. They’re coming in like someone who’s just run their first marathon. They’re coming in like a soldier off the battlefield. They’re coming in, as Paul describes them, “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed”.
So how is it then that they are saints? How do they undergo such brutality, such tribulation, but are not crushed, despairing, forsaken, nor destroyed? How is it that Jesus calls them “blessed”?
John tells us in his Revelation: “Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’” This is the definition of a saint: one who has been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. A saint is someone who has had their sins forgiven. A saint is someone who has their wounds tended and healed by Jesus. A saint is someone whose death has been defeated by Jesus’ eternal life. So, recognizing all that, you see that you are God’s saint, even when you don’t look like it, even when you don’t feel like. Even when you feel poor in spirit, like you don’t have a spiritual penny of a good work to your name. Even when you feel mournful or grief-stricken. Even when you feel utterly deprived of righteousness, hungering and thirsting for it. Even when you’re persecuted and people talk about you behind your back as if you were the devil himself. Because you are washed in the blood of the Lamb, none of those things stick to you. God knows you. God heals you. God forgives you. God gives you a spotless robe to cover up all that so that all He sees when He looks at you is His perfect child, His perfect saint, and He welcomes you into His kingdom. The blood of Jesus, the blood of the Lamb, shed for you on the cross, poured out for you in the Supper, makes it so. It makes you a saint.
As John says to us today: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know Him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who hopes in him”—that is, who has faith in Him—“purifies himself as He is pure.” Because we are cleansed by Jesus, we’re being conformed to His image. We’re becoming like Him. We don’t know exactly what that will be like on this side of eternity. As the Apostle John just said, “What we will be has not yet appeared.” But when Jesus appears, when He returns, then we will see Him as He is. And then we see the final product of where our faith is leading us. So even now, we begin to fear, love, and trust God above all things; even if we have some struggles for now. Even now, we’re learning to love our neighbors as ourselves, even if there’s tribulation and some weakness involved in that for now. But we’re being made more like our Savior, even if it means that we have to go through a cross, a great tribulation, like He did.
Part of what we do today is remembering those from our midst who have gone to be in God’s presence, in that great crowd gathered in front of His throne even now, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. They’re waiting for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. We remember the good that God did for them and through them while they were here. We give thanks that they ran the race well and even now have been awarded their victors’ crowns. Even now they’re resting with the Lord.
But on All Saints Day we also remember that when Jesus appears, we—His saints on earth, saints still in the great tribulation, but who are currently being washed pure in the blood of the Lamb—we remember that we will be like Him too. That’s why, even with all the special elements added to the service today: the music, the remembrances, the roll call of saints who have gone to their rest this past year; we still hold the service like we usually do. That’s because our normal, regular, usual service is all about forgiveness. It’s all about being made pure in the blood of the Lamb. It’s about how Christ makes us holy, it’s about His forgiveness, His body and blood, all of which makes us saints. It’s about His Word that creates faith and calls us through the great tribulation, giving us strength and truth as we journey through it. So when we don’t look so saintly, when we don’t feel so pure of heart or meek or peaceful or holy, we run back to the Lamb to be cleansed once more, to be cleansed forever. We go back to the source of our saintliness, Jesus’ blood, His forgiveness, His Truth that guides and enlightens us on what a saint is and believes and does. And then, washed clean, we go back out into the lives we’ve been called to and we’re God’s saints there, light and salt for the world, when and where and how God wills.
You may not have thought it when you woke up this morning, or as you drove here, or when you looked at the bulletin and thought for the first time today, “Oh, it’s All Saints today”; you might not have thought it, but the readings today were about you. You are in the that holy number of people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb, clothed in white. You have come today to wash your robe again, to be sainted again. You have come to give thanks for the saints who have believed and gone before you. So come, stand before your God and before the Lamb. Sing His praises and receive His salvation. Be washed in His sin-forgiving blood once more. In the name of Jesus, who makes us all saints, Amen.