For All the Saints
1 John 3:1-3
All Saints’ Day
November 1st/2nd, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
Language is a funny thing, especially the English language. Take, for example, the sentence: “I cannot bear to bare the bare bear.” The word bear/bare means to tolerate, to carry, naked or uncovered, and a big animal with massive teeth. Yes, the spellings are different, but on dictionary.com the word bare/bear has over 30 meanings. Even more confusing is the way that words change their meaning over time. Take, for instance, the vocabulary of the internet. Web used to be where a spider lives; surf used to be word associated with beaches and waves, net used to be used for catching prey, cookies were a snack food, and so on, and so on. Language changes over time, which can make reading older writings confusing. Like Juliet’s famous line, “Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore art thou Romeo?” I remember the first several times I read or heard that line I assumed Juliet simply didn’t know where Romeo was. After all, what else would the word “wherefore” mean? It’s got the word “where” in it, right? In reality, the word “wherefore” means “why,” not “where.” Juliet is not saying “Where are you Romeo,” but “Why are you Romeo,” meaning “Why are you a Montague? Why did you have to be my enemy?” Knowing what the word means helps the real meaning of the line become clear.
We deal with a similar word today, a word whose real meaning has been obscured and lost over the course of time. That word is: saint. Today is All Saints’ Day, or the Feast of All Saints. We just finished singing one of my favorite hymns: For All the Saints. But what does the word “saint” actually mean? What are we celebrating today? What are we commemorating?
Most of the time we hear the word “saint” we think one of two things. Most commonly, we think of someone who has been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church: St. Luke, St. John, St. Christopher, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Benedict, etc. These “saints” are men and women who have met certain criteria, such as leading an especially godly life and being credited with documented miraculous acts. They are Christians who are held up as the most holy and virtuous followers of God. The other way we typically think of the word “saint” is in reference to anyone, Christian or not, who leads a virtuous life. “She’s a saint” we say about the inexhaustibly patient mother of 5 or about the person who volunteers countless hours at the homeless shelter. “She’s no saint” we say about the girl with a bit of a wild side. In both of these cases, the case of the especially faithful Christian and the case of the virtuous mother, we associate the word “saint” with actions. Those who live the right way we call “saints,” those who don’t get called something else. But like Juliet’s “wherefore,” the word “saint” means something different in the Scriptures. And like knowing the right definition of “wherefore” sheds light on the true meaning of Juliet’s words, knowing the right definition of “saint” sheds light on what we are actually celebrating today.
The word saint is a translation of the Greek word that literally means “holy one.” To be a saint is to be a holy person. We are often quick to associate holiness with behavior, which is why we are often quick to associate the word “saint” with behavior. We call a person “holier-than-thou” based on that person’s behavior and how they make us feel about ours. We tend to think of holiness as if a certain way of life is holier than another, which, to a certain extent, is true, but it is not holier because of the actions involved. No, in the Old Testament the word “holy” was applied to more than just behaviors. It was applied to furniture in the Temple, like tables and candle stands. It was applied to places, like Jerusalem or Mount Zion. It was applied to things like oil or food or incense. That’s because holiness is not determined by actions, but by ownership. To be holy is to belong to God, to be set aside by him for his own use and his own purposes. And this holiness was not earned by acting or living in a certain way, as if a mountain or bottle of oil could behave in such a way as to make itself holy. No, something became holy only when it came into contact with the God who is holy. The Temple was holy because the holy God dwelled in it. Mount Zion was holy because the holy God dwelled there. Holy food and oil and candlesticks were holy because they had come into contact with the God who is holy.
In the Old Testament, holiness worked somewhat like the touch of King Midas. Like everything King Midas touched turned to gold, the touch of the holy God makes things holy. No one was holy until they were touched by the holy God: tag, you’re it. The holy God touched the holy altar and started a holy fire in his holy Temple. Then priests who had been made holy by the holy sacrifices would turn around and make Israelites holy by offering sacrifices for them on God’s holy altar. Holiness in the Old Testament, like real estate, was all about location, location, location. Those who were in the presence of God’s holiness were made holy by it. Those who were outside God’s holy presence were not holy. Those who were in Israel were a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.
So what does that have to do with Juliet’s “wherefore”? What does that have to do with the meaning of the word “saint”? Everything. The word saint translated literally from the Greek means “holy one.” “One who has been made holy by being in the presence of the Holy God.” It has nothing to do with being more ethical or moral or virtuous that the next guy. It has nothing to do with our actions at all; it has everything to do with the God who makes us holy. The God who puts his holy name on us in baptism, adopting us into his holy family, giving us the gift of a new creation, one that shares in God’s holiness. Holiness comes through the actions of the holy God who gives you his holy body and blood to eat and drink from this very altar, literally filling you with his holiness in order that you might remain holy. Holiness comes through the proclamation of God’s holy Word spoken through the mouth of a man who stands in the stead and, by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, forgives us our sins in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the holy name of God. Through these holy things, you are made holy; you are made saints.
If our holiness depended on our holy living, if it were somehow up to us and to our decision making to bring about holiness in our lives, we would be in rough shape. For our lives and our hearts are far from holy. We may sometimes do the right thing, but often it’s simply an attempt to cover our own backside or to preemptively paint ourselves in a more favorable light. We may sometimes say the right things, but often it is simply an attempt to make ourselves look better in the eyes of others. Our motivations are never totally pure, never fully selfless. And beyond that, we cannot control our thoughts or the secret desires that we may have learned to keep at bay during the day but which playfully and insidiously full our dreams. The lust we indulge while we sleep, the greed and hatred that season our daydreams, the excuses we bend over backward to make for ourselves while demanding absolute perfection from others. No, if our holiness was up to us to accomplish, all hope would be lost. None of us, no human being who ever lived, could live in such a way.
No human being, that is, except one. The holy one. Jesus himself. Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day, a day set aside to remember those who have gone before us in the faith. But their sainthood, their holiness, comes not from the things they did in their lives, but from what our Lord Jesus did for them on the cross, and what he continued to do for them through his Word and Sacraments all their days. Our holiness comes from the same place: Jesus himself.
The world doesn’t see us as saints. The world doesn’t understand us, but we should expect nothing less. The reason that the world does not know us is that it did not know him. It considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. It esteemed him not. But the world’s estimation of Jesus does not change who he is. It does not change what he does. My estimation of something doesn’t change the reality of that thing. How many times have you been convinced that someone was telling the truth only to find out later they had been lying all along. How many times have you been convinced that the rumors about a certain celebrity or coworker just simply had to be untrue, only to be disappointed when the truth comes out. The world then looked at Jesus and saw a failed messiah who couldn’t stop the soldiers from nailing him to the cross and who couldn’t get himself down once they did. The world today looks at Jesus and sees a moral teacher at best, one who might be worth including with the likes of Buddha, Confucius, Mohammad, or Gandhi. But the world’s opinion of Jesus doesn’t change the reality of who he is: the messiah of the holy God, the one sent to be the holy sacrifice to cover the sin of the world so that we might be made holy through him. It’s not about morality, it’s about being forgiven so that we can stand in the presence of the holy God.
The reason the world doesn’t know us is that it did not know him. The world doesn’t know God’s holiness. The world laughs at bread and wine, at water and word. The world calls them superstitions and us gullible. But take heart, dear saints. Behold the kind of love the Father has given unto us: he has made us holy, given us a share in his own holiness. Take heart, dear saints, for you have been touched by God, his name on your forehead with water. Take heart, dear saints, for though you are for a while struggling through this life, one day the world shall see you for who you truly are. One day you shall see yourself for who you truly are. One day you will see clearly the white robe of salvation, washed in the blood of the Lamb, that covers all your sin. One day you will be holding palm branches before the throne of our God, serving him day and night in his temple while the one who sits on that throne will shelter you with his presence. You will hunger no more, neither will you thirst. Neither the sun nor any striking heat will harm you, for the Lamb who sits on the throne is your shepherd who will guide you to springs of living water and wipe away every tear from your eyes. For you are the saints of God. You are his holy ones.