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Monday, October 30, 2017

What is a Saint?

            One of the most popular holidays in America is Halloween.  And why shouldn't it be?  It's great!  You get to dress up in costumes and have all kids of fun; and there's free candy!  What's not to like?
            What most people don't know is that we wouldn't have Halloween without a lesser known Christian holiday called All-Saint Day on November 1st.  Halloween (AKA All Hallows Eve) is the night before All Hallows Day (AKA All Saints Day), the day we honor and remember all the Christian saints who have gone to Heaven to be with the Lord.
            In my church, we often recite The Apostles' Creed to remind everyone what we believe.  There are two statements in the cred that are confuse people.  First we say, "We believe in the Holy Catholic Church."  However, we are not saying we believe in the Roman Catholic Church.  The word "Catholic" means universal.  We believe in the holy universal church that is made up of every person who calls Jesus Lord and Savior--regardless of which denomination they belong to or which local church they attend.  The Holy Catholic Church is the universal church of Christ that has existed throughout all time and we believe in that Church.
            A second statement in the Creed that is little understood is this:  "We believe in the communion of saints."  Many people struggle to know what that means.  What is the communion of saints?  Even more basic, what is a saint?  And the answer to that inquiry is the theme of this blog.  So let us start our investigation by going to the Word of God where Revelation describes a scene of the saints gathered for worship in Heaven. I will make some of my own comments (in italics) about the passage as we read through it.

Revelation 7:9-17
After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. 10 And they were shouting with a great roar,
“Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne
    and from the Lamb!”
            Notice the parallel here between this scene in Heaven and the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday a week before his crucifixion.  In both stories, there are palm branches.  In both stories, people are praising Jesus.  On Palm Sunday, the people had high hopes for what Jesus, the Messiah would do for them.  They believed Jesus would drive out the Romans and set up an earthly kingdom according to their worldly wishes.  When Jesus did not fulfill their expectations because his plans were different, the people of Jerusalem rejected Jesus and crucified him.  But in this vision of Heaven in Revelation, the people know who Jesus really is and they submit to his plans as Lord rather than expecting him to conform to theirs.  They worship Jesus in spirit and in truth for who he really is.  He is the Lamb of God! 
            Notice also, that the saints are clothed in white robes.  They are innocent.  We will see as we continue to read that their innocence--their white robes--is not a result of their own holy character; it is possible because of what the Lamb has done.
11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living beings. And they fell before the throne with their faces to the ground and worshiped God. 12 They sang,
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
    and thanksgiving and honor
and power and strength belong to our God
    forever and ever! Amen.”
13 Then one of the twenty-four elders asked me, “Who are these who are clothed in white? Where did they come from?”

14 And I said to him, “Sir, you are the one who knows.”

Then he said to me, “These are the ones who died in the great tribulation. They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white.
             The Greek used for "great tribulation" could also be translated "great suffereing" or "great ordeal". This life is full of suffering--both in good times and in bad times. Of course we know there is suffering when we go through trials, when we face sickness or someone we love dies. But there is often suffering in good times as well, for prosperity often makes us lazy and apathetic and leads us away from God--and this is another kind of suffering, maybe even worse because it so sinisterly leads us astray from the source of true joy.
            We see here why the saints who have died and gone to Heaven are innocent and wear white robes.  It is possible because they have been washed clean by the blood of the Lamb, Jesus, that was shed on the cross.

15 “That is why they stand in front of God’s throne
    and serve him day and night in his Temple.
And he who sits on the throne
    will give them shelter.
16 They will never again be hungry or thirsty;
    they will never be scorched by the heat of the sun.
17 For the Lamb on the throne
    will be their Shepherd.
He will lead them to springs of life-giving water.
    And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”
            The saints worship and glorify Jesus because all the suffering is over.  True goodness has come.  The saints have the reward graciously given to those who put their faith in Jesus Christ the Lamb of God. 
A Saint Isn’t What You Might Think
            There is some confusion about saints, probably because of the way the Roman Catholic Church has put some saints on a pedestal.  The Roman Catholic Church has a whole process for determining who is a saint.  They base their decision on a rigorous investigation of a person's life.  Roman Catholics are venerated as a saint only if they lived a particularly virtuous life and have at least miracles associated with them.  If Roman Catholic authorities determine a person to be a saint, then people can pray to them and ask them to intercede for them with God.  So in the Roman Catholic tradition, for instance, people can pray to St. Mary or St. Teresa.
            There are serious problems with this way of thinking and practicing the Christian faith.  First of all, it is not biblical, for the Word of God clearly teaches that no one is good; all innocence is brought by God.  Ephesians 2:8-9 clearly states, "God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it."  Therefore, it is preposterous to consider any person a saint (or even more saintly) based on the virtuous life they've lived.  No one can be called a saint because of their own actions.  As Isaiah 64:6 says, "We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags."
            More important, why would we want to pray to a saint when we can pray directly God?  We do not need anyone--on earth or even in heaven--to intercede for us.  Jesus, the Son of God, the Lord of Lord, the King of Kings, our friend, our redeemer, our brother, our Savior himself interceded for us to God.  Who could possibly be better than him?  Hebrews 10:21-22 – "And since we have a great High Priest [Jesus Christ] who rules over God’s house, let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him."  Why would we choose an inferior person to intercede for us when we already have Jesus? 

What, Then, Is a Saint?             Saint is the word the New Testament writers most often used to describe Christians—the people who believe in and follow Jesus as Lord and Savior.  In the King James Version, the word "Christian" is only used 3 times by New Testament writes to describe the people who follow Jesus.  Instead, they used the word "saint" 62 times.  Today, we call Jesus followers Christians, but in the New Testament they called them saints.  So, quite simply, a saint is a Christian.
            The Greek word for saint means set apart, separate, and holy.  As I have described in previous blogs (look here), holy means different and set apart for a special purpose.  Saints are chosen to think different, act different, look different, sound different, and be different from the world.

Communion of Saints
            In Revelation 7:9-17, we see the saints are gathered around the throne of God worshipping the Lamb.  When we gather on earth to worship, we join with them.  We call this worshipful gathering of all the saints--living here on earth and living in eternity--the communion of saints.  It's part of what we claim to believe when we recite the Apostles' Creed. 
            Isn't it a wonderful thought to reflect that we are one with the saints in glory--including the heroes of our faith and our loved ones who trusted in Christ and are know with him in heaven--as we worship God!  If there was ever motivation for regular Sunday worship, it is the idea that we gather together with our friends and loved ones and all the saints in glory to worship God each Sunday in the Holy Catholic Church.  Do you miss your loved one?  Then come to worship and know that they are with you in spirit.  You may not be able to see them or touch them in a physical sense, but they are living and worshipping God just as we are!  And there is even more...
            In Hebrews, the Word of God tells us the saints are cheering us on as we live our life for Christ in this world.  Hebrews 12:1 says, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us."  The crowd of witnesses cheering us on are the saints in glory.
            This past week, I had the privilege of cheering on one of my church members, Kate Roberts, as she competed in a high school cross country race.  We stood along the side of the race route and cheered for Kate and the other runners as they ran.  I hope our cheering offered encouragement to the runners as they pushed their bodies to the limit.
            Long distance running is as much a mental struggle as physical.  As you run, your muscles begin to complain to your mind, "What are you doing to us?  Why are you doing this?  This is hard!  Just stop!  Give up!"  And your brain is saying, "No!  I'm gonna keep going!  Don't give up!  I can do this!"  And since it is a long distance run, you have quite a lot of time to have this internal conflict between your brain and your body.  And it has always encouraged me, when my body starts to wear me down with it's unending complaining, when I pass a group of spectators on the side of the race route who are cheering and shouting things like, "You're doing great!  Keep pushing!  You can do this!  Don't give up!  You're almost there!"  It gives me the encouragement I need to keep going.
            It's a beautiful image for the life of faith for it is a long distance run, not a sprint.  And there are a lot of tough hills to climb in this life and a lot of time to contemplate the internal conflicts within your spirit.  One voice says, "This is too hard!  Why are you doing it?  What's the point?  Why don't you just give up?"  And you just keep going, trusting that you can make it, that it's important, that there is a point to all of this struggling and hard work.  Isn't it good to know that as we run this race, the saint--both living on earth and those in glory--are cheering us on saying, "Don't give up! You're doing great!  Keep pushing!  You can do this!  You're almost there!"  And isn't it wonderful encouragement to know in that crowd are heroes from the Bible like Noah who had to build and ark, and Abraham who had a son in his old age, and Joseph who overcame slavery, and Moses who was floated on the Nile river as a baby, and even Christians who were tortured or killed because they believed in Christ?  And doesn't it inspire awe to know even your loved ones whom you have lost from this life are there cheering you on saying, "You can do this!  I made and you can too! Don't give up!  Keep pushing!"  That is the communion of the saints. 

The Take Home
            Let me give you a few take homes as I close.  Number one, you are a saint if you trust in Jesus.  You don't have to be perfect.  You don't have to be someone like Mother Teresa.  You don't get one of those white robes because you are particularly virtuous. You are saint because Jesus shed his blood for you.  If you trust Him with your whole heart and follow Him as Lord, he washes you white as snow and you become one of his saints.
            Number two, always remember:  we are one congregation with the saints in glory worshiping God together.  Don't miss out on the chance to gather with the saints on a regular basis for weekly worship.  Do you miss your loved ones who have passed away from this life to the next?  Do you admire the saints that have gone before you?  Then gather with them each week in the communion of the saints as we worship the one who redeems us from our sins and unites us in the hope of eternal life.
            Number three:  the saints are cheering you on throughout your life; be encouraged.  When you feel down or discourage, when the great struggles of life make you want to quite, imagine the saints cheering you--the Christian heroes from the Bible and history, and even your loved ones.  Hear their voices encouraging you and don't give up.  You can do it!
            Lastly, I want to give you the invitation.  If you have not already done so, join the ranks of Jesus' saints today.  You don't need a church committee to investigate your life and approve of you.  All you need is to bow your head and pray: "Lord, forgive me of my sins.  Wash me clean with the blood you shed on the cross.  I give you my life.  I will follow you all my days.  Amen."  Pray this from your heart and let the Holy Spirit help you live it and Jesus will give a white robe and call you saint.

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