In my last blog post, I named a number of “saints” whose sacrifices as followers of Jesus have always left me awestruck, including the martyrs, beginning with Christ’s first disciples, as well as the Apostle Paul. I named some who did not die a martyrs death, but who made great personal sacrifices in order to follow the example of Jesus, who “came not to be served, but to serve.” There were so many others I did not name, such as Francis of Assisi who was born into a wealthy Italian family but used his own financial resources to care for the poor and powerless. How many of you are familiar with the life and ministry of Dorothy Day, who turned the front of her Manhattan Apartment into a soup kitchen for the hungry? These are the kinds of Christians we usually regard as “saints” – believers through the centuries who have asked themselves “What would Jesus do?” and then did what he taught his followers to do in Matthew 25 (i.e., give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, clothes to the ill-clad, minister to the sick and visit those in prison). In other words, “Be doers of the word, and not hearers only,” putting your faith into practice, for faith without works is not the kind of faith that pleases God.
For this reason, when we hear the word “saints,” we usually do not consider ourselves worthy of the title – and we are not! None of us are worthy. Nevertheless, according to the New Testament, all true believers in Jesus are saints, for that is what the Greek word that is used in the New Testament actually means: “believers.” That is why Christians confess in one of the two oldest creeds used in the worship of confessional churches, the Apostles Creed (the other most ancient confession of faith is the Nicene Creed), “I believe….in the communion of saints” (i.e., the fellowship of believers, the company of the committed, the community of those who belong to Jesus). However, many believers who make this confession never stop to consider that they are a part of this “communion of saints,” for they are so aware of their sins, as all of us should be. But we are forgiven sinners! We have put our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior (i.e., the one who took our sins upon himself in order to take our sins away). As John the Baptist said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).
All those who have accepted the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the atonement for all their sins have been transferred from the company of the lost to the community of the saved. We have become a part of Christ’s Church, a “communion of saints.” That does not mean any of us have arrived, spiritually speaking, at our destination, but we are on the journey, on the road with Jesus (Philippians 3:12-15), moving forward toward the goal. There isn’t any believer who has “….already reached the goal” (i.e., true godliness or Christlikeness), but we are numbered among those who are “…pressing on to make it our own…straining forward to what lies ahead…toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus…holding fast to what we have already attained” (vs. 13-16). That is why in Paul’s salutations, he always addresses the church to which he wrote letters as saints: Romans 1:7 – “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints,“ 1 Corinthians 1:2 – “To the church of God that is in Corinth….to those called to be saints, together with all those in every place who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Ephesians 1:1 – “To the saints who are in Ephesus and who are faithful in Christ Jesus,” Philippians 1:1 – “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi” and Colossians 1:1 – “To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae.” All the believers in all the newly established churches in the first century were addressed as saints, for all of them were believers.
So what does this tell all of us who bear the name of Christ in the twenty-first century? Is our identity the same, or has it changed? Unfortunately we have been led to believe that only those who are considered heroes or heroines of the faith, such as those I named in my previous blog post, who achieved a rare state of godliness and demonstrated in their lives of selfless service the mind of Christ, or Christians who died a martyrs death, are properly referred to as saints. These are the ones whose images are seen in the stained glass windows of many churches and cathedrals for they have been elevated to a higher status by some branches of the worldwide Body of Christ. The Roman Catholic Church’s practice of canonization has been the major cause of this misunderstanding. Yes, such believers should most certainly be recognized, honored, and held in high esteem by all of Christendom (and in some circumstances by non-believers who belong to other faith groups). However, this leads to the mistaken notion that there are “ranks” in Christianity or first-class and second-class Christians. Furthermore, we are supposed to be the followers of One who “…made himself of no reputation” (Philippians 2:7). In fact, those who have been so elevated by the Church were among the most humble and self-effacing and certainly would not have wanted to be so exalted. It is because of this practice that many believers actually pray to those who have achieved sainthood (not in their own lifetime, for this is a long process and one that has created division in the Church because of theological and political differences). There is nothing wrong with honoring and celebrating the lives of such heroes of the faith or visiting the tombs of those who were exceptional examples of Christianity at it’s best. Yes, many believers are greatly blessed by journeys to the tombs of such saints and, in certain branches of Christ’s Church, statues, images, and icons of these individuals are considered essential aids in worship and the devotional life of believers, especially contemplatives. However, there are also dangers in such practices, such as idolatry. Our worship should always be God-centered, including our prayer life. As Christians, the focal point of our mind should be Jesus Christ, by whom God has been revealed most fully to us, and through whom we have experienced God’s love, forgiveness, and acceptance.
I cannot finish this blog without at least some mention of how contemporary worship in certain non-denominational churches is more man-centered than God-centered. There are many so-called “seekers” who attend certain popular churches that are clergy centered, and they participate in their worship services hoping to be entertained and inspired (i.e., with the purpose of “receiving” something that will encourage them, excite them, and help them to be more “spiritual”). However, our primary purpose in participating in worship should be to give – to give God true worship, to give God praise, to give God the glory due to God’s holy name. The question we should always ask ourselves when we leave a worship service is not “What did I receive?” but rather “What did I give?” If we can leave a worship service knowing that we have truly worshiped God “in spirit and in truth,” that we have offered ourselves to God as a “living sacrifice of thanksgiving,” then we can leave with a sense of mission accomplished. That can happen even if the pastor’s sermon is disappointing or dull and if the choir and other musicians do not meet our hopes and expectations. Every believer needs to ask himself or herself, “Is my worship God-centered (Christ-focused) or am I participating in clergy-centered/celebrity worship?”
We are living at a time when the minds of believers (and “seekers”) are being shaped (or re-shaped) by the preaching of “alien gospels,” delivered by popular preachers offering what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” a “prosperity gospel” (promising wealth and health), a “quick fix” for real-life struggles, gospels that are also more “self-focused” than “Christ-centered,” which is faith focused on Jesus’ life, call to discipleship, atoning death and victorious resurrection, his ascension and glorification, his abiding presence, the importance of “abiding” in him (John 15), loving one another as Jesus has loved us, serving as he served, seeing others through his eyes, accepting the fact that his teachings are designed for practical use, that “faith without works is dead” (James 1:22-25, 2:14-18), and that every saint’s life is to be modeled after the life of Jesus. Every church is supposed to be engaged in the business of “making disciples” (Matthew 28:19). That is what all believers are supposed to be – that is what “sainthood” is all about! That is our “vocation” (i.e., our “calling”). So let all believers rejoice that we are privileged to be brothers and sisters in Christ, who belong to a “communion of saints” here on earth, which is our mission field, and let us also rejoice that we will share in continuing worship and service with all the saints in heaven forever and ever (Revelation 7:9-17).