We were at the Sunday afternoon worship service at the nursing home when John said something to me that he had said on another occasion: “I’m no saint.” I had asked him to read Scripture or to do some other task, and he wanted to make sure that I was under no illusions about his qualifications. Before I had a chance to respond, Eddie spoke up: “Yes, you are, John. We all are.”
Eddie knew the Bible well enough to know that the apostle Paul’s most common designation for all believers in Jesus Christ was the word that comes into English as “saint.” It means “holy ones.” And John’s concerns notwithstanding, the holiness of the “saints” doesn’t depend on our achievements, but rather on our being claimed by God as his dear children and our having been indwelt by the Holy Spirit. To be sure, as the Spirit lives in us, we are being changed, so that our character ought more and more to reflect that of our Lord (we are “being transformed into the image of God’s Son,” as Romans 8 puts it). But the designation “saint” isn’t the spiritual equivalent of getting an A+ on a test.
There is another use of the word saint, however, which probably was the source of John’s hesitation. Christians have long used the word to refer to exemplary figures from the past, followers of Jesus who are now dead but whose lives stand out as having been especially strong pointers to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. These “saints” are models for us of the various shapes that devotion to the Lord can take in human lives. Both uses of the word "saint" seem appropriate to me. It's precisely because all of us are equally special in God's sight that the models of those in the past who have been so exemplary are relevant to all of us today. And whether or not they have been officially recognized and canonized by the Church as saints, the holy ones who went before us can spur us on in our own commitment to Jesus.
In the statement of Christian faith known as the Apostles’ Creed (though it actually comes from a couple of centuries after the apostles’ time), the church affirms its belief in “the communion of saints.” This word “communion” comes from the same Greek word that is translated “fellowship” in Acts 2, or “partnership” in Philippians 1. It points to the fact that we are all—no matter what part of the world we come from or what century we live in—sharers or partners in God’s work and his family. The lives of the saints of the past are capable of speaking to us today just as the lives of our brothers and sisters across the pew in church this Sunday are capable of impacting us. The centuries that have gone before us represent a deep well of experience in following Jesus, and we do well to turn our eyes and ears to that experience.
Today is All Saints Day. It’s a day to recognize the depth and breadth of this family of saints, a people who have been claimed as precious by God through Jesus Christ. Just as we need our present-day brothers and sisters in Christ to help us find our way to faithfulness as we daily attend to God’s Word, so we continue to benefit from the wisdom of those who have gone before. In a time when everything older than last week seems to be labelled as old and irrelevant, Christians are invited to take another approach. We serve a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and his steadiness summons us to be careful not to trust ourselves and our moment too much. The accumulated wisdom of the centuries can instruct us in ways of patience and attentiveness as we aim toward the ever-deepening holiness to which Jesus has called us.
The communion or partnership of saints reminds us that we are all in this together. One day we will see God’s work in all of us come to completion (Phil. 1:6). Until then we are imperfect, but still we are saints. At the last day, in the new creation, we will all be gathered around our Lord, transformed fully to reflect his image. And because God made us to display his glory, it will be a beautiful thing to behold. In that day, I will be as amazed by the handiwork of God in saints Eddie and John as I will be by his work in St. Peter and St. Paul.