Tuesday, November 7, 2017

What is a Saint?

Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 221
John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints but what exactly is a saint anyway?

The word we derive the name “saint” from means, “set apart, sacred, and holy.” The saints are the “holy ones” or those who are set apart or elect from the entire world. In the broadest sense, a saint is anyone who has been set apart and called by God through baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In that sense “saint” is just another name for a Christian. We are all holy and set apart by God, we are all justified and accounted righteous by faith, and we all are sanctified by the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us. This is why Paul in his Epistles can address those he is writing to simply as “saints.”

Were they all perfect examples of holiness and piety? No way! Paul and the other Apostles often have to severely admonish them. It is the imputed righteousness of Christ that makes them holy. They are still working out their salvation with fear and trembling, and yet, by faith, they are already justified before God. They are already proclaimed to be what they are in the process of becoming. As our reading from 1 John says,

“Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

However, these days, the more common use of the name “saint” refers to an individual who has attained an exceptional level of sanctification, whose life is an example of holiness that we can follow with confidence and who now dwells in the presence of God. These are those the scriptures refer to as, “the saints in light.” We “saints” on earth aspire to their example. We are being strengthened and equipped that we might share in their glorious inheritance. 

These are the ones we read about in our reading from Revelation, standing before the throne of God, robed in white with palm branches in their hands, symbols of victory. They are those who have come out of the great ordeal and have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. They are the Martyrs who have given their lives for their testimony.

John’s Revelation was given to the church in a time of intense persecution and conflict. This vision was meant to inspire and encourage the saints on earth who were suffering. John is describing for them those who have persevered through the struggle who are now exalted in God’s presence.

Likewise, the author of Hebrews encourages us to endure hardship and to, “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”  He tells us that we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.”

The pursuit of holiness, through which God calls us to be saints, is like a great race or athletic contest. The saints in light, the white robed army of martyrs, are those who have crossed the finish line and are cheering us on from the other side. Their eyes are upon us, they pray and intercede for us as our allies in the struggle for truth and justice.

Someone recently asked me, “If the saints can see us, do they see our pain and hurt? And if so, does that bring pain and suffering to them?”

That is a great question! My first thought is that the saints do indeed grieve over suffering and wrong on Earth. For Instance Rev 6 depicts the martyrs as crying out to God for justice,

They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?"

The clear implication from John’s vision is that the saints do indeed see and grieve over our struggles here on earth. In particular they grieve over the delay of justice for the oppressed. Could they be truly good if they didn’t?

It sometimes is suggested that the Saints in heaven are too busy glorifying God and enjoying his presence to be concerned with us or our affairs on earth.  I don’t think this is correct. The heaven they enjoy is not escapism and endless fun. That is Disneyland! We shouldn’t picture the Saints as lounging about in some epicurean paradise far removed from the miseries of the world.

Does our love of God make us more or less concerned about the evils of the world? If in this world holiness means a growing passion to see the righteousness of God established here on earth, how could it be any different for the Saints in light?

Do not the scriptures tell us that God also grieves over the wickedness of the world? That his wrath is kindled against sin? That he mourns with those who mourn? Why should we expect any less of the saints?

And yet they never despair because they are in the presence of God. He is their comfort and endless consolation. He wipes away every tear from their eyes. The saints have an unconquerable hope and joy in God’s final victory. However, they are restless for its fulfillment. Their joy will not be complete until all of us are gathered in, all evil made right, and the New Heavens and the New Earth established.
In Revelation Chapter 19, John describes the fall of Babylon, the overthrow of evil in the world. Where are the Saints? Are they off playing harps on a cloud someplace? No! They are watching and rejoicing because their hopes are being realized. John says,

I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting:“Hallelujah!Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,   for true and just are his judgments.He has condemned the great prostitute    who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”

What should we conclude from this? True holiness does not take us out from the world, but it turns our hearts to its good and its redemption. The salvation of the world is the passion of the saints because it is the passion of God and his Son Jesus Christ. It should be our passion too.

What is a Saint? A Saint is someone who is called out by God, made holy, and empowered to be an advocate for love and justice in the world, to intercede and pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven. 

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