Saint - It is a special, but often misunderstood word. It means different things to different people. If the word saint means different things to different people, then what about that phrase in the Apostles' Creed? It says that the church is the Communion of Saints. If the word saint means different things to different people, then so does the phrase the Communion of Saints. So then, what or who is a saint? What or who is the Communion of Saints?
The popular notion thinks of a saint as some person of great faith. Some are from the Bible, like St. Peter or St. Mary. Others are those who have lived since the time of the Bible, but have practiced their faith in an extraordinary way like St. Jerome or St. Augustine or even St. Nicholas. Many people think of saints as some sort of super Christians that were just plain better than the rest of us.
There are several problems with this popular notion of saints. For one thing, it gives us an excuse. If we believed this notion, it would be quite proper for us to say for example, "I can't confess my faith to others very well. After all, I am no saint." or "I can't catechize my children. That really takes a saint and I am no saint." Such an attitude would cause the church to stagnate while we all waited for the saint - the super Christian - to step forward and do all the work.
Then there is the problem of giving saints godlike qualities. Small statues of saints become good luck charms as they hang from rear view mirrors and get buried in lawns. For some people, these saints become like the gods of mythology. We have the patron saint of travelers, the patron saint of laborers, the patron saint of health, the patron saint of the sea, the sky, the land, and so forth. Some people even pray to these saints.
The Bible has a different way of defining the word saint. In the opening greeting of most of his letters, the Apostle Paul addressed his readers as saints. He wrote to the saints in Rome, to the saints in Corinth, to the saints in Ephesus, and so on. The Greek word that Paul uses here is simply the word holy transformed into a noun. Instead of saying saint, we could just as easily say holy one. This prompts questions. How does a person become holy? What does a holy person look like?
The elder in today's first reading from Revelation asked a very similar question when he spoke to John, "Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?" This same elder gives us the answer just a verse later, "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.
What a beautiful picture this is. Isaiah said, [Isaiah 64:6] "We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment." Now this elder tells us that the blood of the Lamb removes that pollution and makes our garments pure and white again. This Lamb is Jesus Christ sacrificed on the cross. His holy, precious blood and innocent suffering and death remove the pollution of sin and guilt from our deeds and make them righteous in God's eyes. The work of Jesus Christ makes our deeds into white and pure robes suitable for heaven.
Saints are not people who make themselves holy, but people who receive holiness by the Father's grace, for the Son's sake, through the Holy Spirit's gift of faith. Does the way we become a saint sound a lot like the way we become a Christian? It should. All Christians are saints and all saints are Christians.
Today's epistle gives us another name for saint. John wrote, "See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are." Child of God, saint, Christian - these are all different names for those who have saving faith in Jesus Christ - all different names for those of the great multitude who will stand before the throne of the Lamb.
If you think you are not holy enough to be a saint then join the club. St. Matthew was a tax collector. St. Philip doubted that Jesus could feed the five thousand with a little bit of bread and fish. St. Peter denied ever knowing Jesus. St. Thomas doubted that Jesus rose from the dead. St. Paul called himself the chief of sinners because he persecuted the church before the Holy Spirit planted faith in his heart. When Paul wrote to the saints in Corinth, he had to scold them for quite a number of problems. For one thing, they were abusing the Lord's Supper. Paul wrote, [1 Corinthians 11:20-21] When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. Can you imagine being drunk at the Lord's Supper? Never the less, in the greeting of his letter, he calls them saints - holy ones. They were not perfect, but they were still holy in God's eyes by faith in Jesus Christ.
What then is the Communion of Saints? It is the Communion of holy people - the communion of Christians - the communion of those who believe that Jesus is both Christ and Lord. As Martin Luther said, [Large Catechism: Third Article] This is the meaning and substance of this phrase: I believe that there is on earth a holy little flock and community of pure saints under one head, Christ. It is called together by the Holy Spirit in one faith, mind, and understanding.
This Communion of Saints spans two different worlds. Here on this earth, the Communion of Saints struggles with life in this sin soaked world. We are the Church Militant. Even though Jesus has defeated Satan with His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead, Satan still fights and the Church Militant is the battle field. We continuously look to our Champion, Jesus Christ to give us the victory.
Then there is the Church Triumphant gathered at the throne of the Lamb - the ones who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. They have returned to Paradise, to the Garden of Eden. They are without sin, without hunger, without misery, without tears, and without death itself. And the one called the Lamb is their Shepherd - who leads His own lambs to living fountains of water. All memory of pain, death, sin, sickness, poverty, hunger, persecution, and hatred are wiped from their eyes along with their tears.
Even though this church spans two worlds, there are not two churches: one here on earth and another in heaven. Rather we "believe in one holy Christian and apostolic church." The oneness of the church is not destroyed even by the separation of death. For where Jesus is, there are the saints - those here on earth, and those who have "come out of the great tribulation" of life in this world. The church on earth and the church in heaven unite around the throne of God and in the presence of the Lamb. When we gather around the altar on Sunday, we know that our deceased relatives and friends who have likewise "washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb" are right there with us. When we sing "Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world," we sing along with the countless Christians of every age. When we chant "Holy, holy, holy," we do so with billions of the faithful from every time and place. And when we come before the Body and Blood of the Lord, we are united with those whom we wish we could speak to, but can't. We join with those whom we love but can no longer embrace. We are not only in the presence of Jesus, but are also surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, this host arrayed in white, those who fall on their faces night and day before the Lord Himself.
And so, it is proper that we praise God for the men and women of faith whose works of love inspire us and set an example of the godly Christian life for us. It is appropriate that we honor the work that God has done in their lives to give them the true saving faith. It is also appropriate that we honor the work that God has done through their lives to affect the lives of the people around them. It is appropriate that we honor those who have preceded us into the Church Triumphant.
For when we honor the redeemed, we are also honoring the Redeemer. The saints who are holy in God's eyes testify to the only One who is eternally holy: our Lord Jesus Christ. It is His blood that covers our sin and allows us to stand in His presence. It is being baptized into His death that gives us a white robe. It is His Word and Sacraments that usher us into the throne room where we will never again suffer or be unhappy.
What then shall we do while we wait for our turn to leave the battle of this world and enter the rest our Savior has prepared for us? Perhaps you've heard the short verse, "Living above with saints we love, that will be grace and glory; but living below with saints we know, that is a different story." Life in this world is hard. Although we are saints in God's eyes, we still sin. The battle with sin rages around us and in us. We live in the great tribulation.
But the Savior promises never to leave us or forsake us. Though we live in a mortal body decaying with sin, these bodies will be raised and made new. Though our worship is imperfect, it will be perfected. Though our voices crack, they will one day sing in perfect harmony with angels. Though we're tired and distracted, hungry and bored, we will one day be so alive and filled with joy that we will never grow weary of joining this great crowd in heaven, singing and praising God.
Dear friends, we who believe are already saints. By His death on the cross, the Lord Himself clothes us with His righteousness, and through His resurrection He will one day shepherd us to everlasting life. In that blessed place we will experience the eternal joy of God's presence along with the rest of the Communion of Saints. Amen.
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