BIBLE READING: Luke 19:1-10
As it is the closest Sunday to All Saints Day I thought we might reflect a little on what it means to be a saint. It is important as we celebrate this day to define what we mean by a “saint;” as with many religious words, people have different understandings of what it means. Some churches define “saints” as people who are extraordinarily holy and they are given extraordinary powers even after their death. An investigation is made; they have to be responsible for a certain number of miracles and other requirements. This is not our understanding in the Uniting Church. The description of “saint” used in the New Testament is simply people who followed Jesus. Paul regularly uses the term in the greetings in his letters. For example in 2 Corinthians he says, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, including all the saints throughout Achaia.” This is how we understand “saints.” A saint is a follower of Jesus who seeks to live personal and social holiness meaning they seek to live as Jesus taught in their personal lives and the life of their communities.
When some of us look around the church, we see the “saints” around us and might assume that they lead perfect lives. But you and I know that's not true! When people get to know us they discover some very “unsaintly” things! This idea of saints being faultless people without any problems or pain is not biblical and it certainly is not true to life. When you see the saints among you, you can bet that they have suffered different kinds of problems or tragedies.
USA Army Colonel Sean MacFarland was talking about the cooperation of the military with the local tribal leaders in Anbar province, Iraq to stop insurgency. The interviewer made the remark that one of the key Sheikhs that Colonel MacFarland was praising, Sheikh Sattar Abu Risha, was no saint. The colonel responded, “I went to Catholic schools and a nun I had used to tell me that every saint had a past and every sinner has a future.” Now that is very insightful and helpful! Every saint had a past and every sinner has a future.
Zacchaeus was changed and made whole (saved) by his encounter with Jesus. His past of greed and fraud was left behind as he repented or had a change of heart and direction. Not only did Zacchaeus benefit from this change, but so did his household, the poor and the rest in his community. His salvation was not just a “me and God” thing but it had personal, domestic, social and economic dimensions. This change is a good definition of a saint. There are other saints in Scripture with a past. Peter, who denied Jesus three times during his time of trial. Paul, who persecuted the saints of the church so violently that they were terrified of him. God must have a great sense of humour and of irony because God made Paul, through an encounter with the risen Christ, one of his most outspoken saints. The persecutor of saints became a saint who was persecuted. There are many other examples of saints with a past in the Bible.
It’s not just the saints of the Bible with a past. Several years ago, Time Magazine Published an article called “The Secret Life of Mother Teresa: Newly published letters reveal a beloved icon’s 50-year crisis of faith.” The article describes Mother Teresa’s early experiences of God that led her to her life-long ministry with the poor and an emptiness that plagued her when she started becoming successful. She did not hear God speaking to her or feel God’s presence for most of her life. Mother Teresa considered this perceived absence her most shameful secret and asked that her confessors destroy her letters and writings about it (which they didn’t do.) We find out that Mother Teresa had a past and yet the fact that she had this absence of feeling and still continued to trust God fully and act as Christ would have her act will be a witness for those who have felt abandoned by God and have had doubts about God’s existence. Mother Teresa has been described as an example of self-emptying love, but now she is an example of extraordinary faith in the face of overwhelming silence. Every saint had a past and every sinner has a future.
We honour the saints today. I am sure that every one of them had a past of some sort, just as every one of us has things we have struggled with, things we’d rather not show to other church members or to the world. You see saints don’t have to be perfect, faultless people, they can be people who struggle, who doubt, who have really messed up. They like us are sinners, in need of salvation. It is in meeting Jesus, the risen Christ, and being changed by his offer of friendship that makes us a saint; it is in making an inward change taking on his values and attitudes and then reflecting them in our outward behaviour. Jesus invites us as guests at his holy table calling us to shed the past and take on a new life, a life of righteousness, generosity, and compassion, a life like his. He seeks the sinner giving them the opportunity to become a saint, just like St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Teresa, St. Zacchaeus and all the other saints. Every saint had a past and every sinner has a future. We honour all saints today as witnesses of God’s power to work in and through people’s lives.
We humans created in God’s image, so it’s highly probable that there’s a saint inside each of us that’s trying to get out.” Every day we have a decision to make - will we accept Jesus’ offer or will we reject it? Will we be a saint even if it is with a past or a sinner with a future? I invite you come to the table, Christ’s table and join the saints.
Acknowledgements: Rev. Nancy Cushman; Colonel Sean MacFarland; David Van Biema.