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 thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. (1 John 3:1-3 ESV)
To talk about saints today is to enter quite a kaleidoscope of good people – and depending on your definition of good – different people might come into view or come to mind. The other distinction that also quickly comes to mind is whether they are alive or not for the term ‘saint’ can be an euphemism for the dead. So we are in an interesting area when one word can get us to think about goodness and life and death. Today we are observing All Saints Day – set for 1st November – and the subject of varying cultural and religious significance. 42 countries1 observe All Saints Day in their civic calendars with a public holiday on the day or the nearby weekend and it has had a varying history in the Christian Church with a long association with graves, cemeteries, candles, and worship services.
However the Feast of All Saints began probably in the 3rd century not so much as a commemoration of the dead but as an acknowledgement of the martyrs – that to be a witness for Jesus in this world can result in your death. Death wasn’t ignored – obviously – but the focus was the person’s faith, their witness unto death, and what we – the living – might learn from it.
There may also have been a defiance as well to this remembering if the martyred’s body had been desecrated or destroyed by the authorities as a further attack on the belief in the ‘resurrection of the body’. The world might mock and say, ‘Look, how can your God resurrect this body that has been eaten, drowned, burnt?!’ to which the defiant Christians would sing Jesus’ praises for his victory over death and believe that the dead in the Lord were living and one day there would be a new heaven and a new earth where we have new glorified resurrected bodies.
Because death is so significant, it gets everyone – and all societies – to think ‘big’ thoughts – pause and contemplate life and its meaning and what we’re doing in it. Christians are not immune to the power of death – its finality – but they stood at the baptismal font so to speak – the place where All Saints’ Day rites are usually conducted – and said in effect, ‘We’ve died here. We’ve died already when joined to Jesus’ death and we have been raised with him – today! – and in the heavenly realm. So in the context of death, surrounded by personal memories and history – conscious of the liturgy and surrounded by ‘angels, archangels and the whole company of heaven’ – we remember those who have died in the Lord and we focus on living in the Lord!
John, in his first letter, points out that God calls us his children through his Son but we and the world don’t see this reality. Let me say that again. We and the world don’t see the reality that God the Father loves us and those in Christ are children of God. We live by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). The world didn’t recognise God in Jesus – all they saw was the crucified man – and ‘he can’t be God’, they said – and thus they don’t recognise anyone linked to this crucified Jesus. The point is we don’t know what being linked to Jesus will finally look like in the heavenly realm because we are still living in this realm! We live by faith and this relationship affects how we live now. And this has a critical bearing on the concept of ‘saint’.
‘Saint’ does not mean ‘good’, ‘perfect’, ‘sacrificial’. In fact strictly you can’t see a saint – and that throws the world and us because we generally use our eyes as the first mechanism to determine reality. In Christianity, you first encounter a saint through your ears because ‘saint’ is the term used for God’s ‘holy ones’ – for those touched by God, claimed by God, cleaned by God – sounds like 1 https://www.officeholidays.com/countries/europe/all_saints.php
God’s children to me. The term ‘saint’ is a reminder to the followers of Jesus that he has chosen them – they didn’t choose him – that God has saved them and taken their sin into himself so that they are not destroyed by contact with God – now and for eternity. ‘Saint’ describes the hidden reality of being in a relationship with God that is about life in all its fullness – a life in which sins are forgiven and death is destroyed. If you want to think of it as a faith term – a Christian can say, ‘I am a saint because Jesus has made me his disciple; I am God’s child because God says so – and I live forever because Jesus has defeated death’s power’ – and here it comes – while looking in the mirror and knowing that we need forgiveness every day and death comes closer each day! Christians say the word ‘saint’ in bodies that still have the sin DNA running through them and are still heading inevitably to the grave. And we’re not delusional and God is not playing a joke on us – calling us one thing when we’re not it – but we are living by faith that this Jesus has rescued us and done something to us through words, water, bread and wine.
Thus the lifestyle of the ‘saint’ is about struggling with sin, not letting death or the fear of death have control, and seeking each day to love and serve, to laugh and praise, to repent and repair, to be merciful and to seek justice in this world – all the while following Jesus.
If the world sees anything it is the lifestyle – either to be somewhat impressed but maybe more often to pick faults – to cry ‘hypocrisy’ – to mock both Jesus and his Church. And the world can have a point.
However one hopes that on closer inspection the world will hear not hypocrisy but daily repentance, ‘Lord, have mercy on me a sinner’ and a daily commitment to love as Jesus has loved them. And the world will see the followers of Jesus concentrate on loving and serving those around them.
At the same time one hopes that each follower of Jesus – each child of God – knows the situation today – we are saints in bodies of sin and death – and kneeling to receive forgiveness or standing at a grave is part of the saint’s world because there especially the person in focus is Jesus.
All Saints’ Day is a witness to Jesus whether in our grief or our remorse. It is a time of orientation reminding us to be who we are – whom God says we are – his children one day at a time – following this Jesus who forgives sin and gives life that not even death can destroy.
- 1 John 3:1 - 3