A Homily for the Geneva School’s All Saints Day Chapel
We celebrate “All Saints Day” in chapel today. So a little word clarification to get us started – old stuff for some of us, but I don’t want to presume. The word saint comes from our Latin word sanctus meaning “holy.” The older English form of this word is “hallow.” So, for example as we prayed earlier, “Hallowed by Thy name” we are saying to God, “You name is esteemed as holy” or “hallowed.” So for many years in England, the evening before All Saints Day was the eve before All Hallows, or “All Hallows Eve” or “Halloween.”
This is a day to remember the Saints. When we think of this, we often think of those heroes in the faith who have come before us and more specifically, those who have died on account of their faith. We had an English lesson, so maybe some history will be helpful too – in the early 600s the Roman emperor gave a famous Roman building, The Pantheon, to the church. The Pope at the time removed the pagan statues of Jupiter and such and renamed the building as the “Church of All Saints.” Then the remains of many martyrs – people who had died under former Roman persecution – were moved to this building to honor their having died for their faith. These martyrs were rightly honored for their sacrifice of faith.
Over the centuries many practices – some quite dignified and some quite strange – have come and gone with this celebration – but the most common practice has been to use the time to remember heroes of faith, people we look to for inspiration and example for our own lives. And this of course is not a bad thing. But by the 1500-1600s, most people began to think that the only way to be a real saint was to be a priest, a monk or a nun – serving God through “holy orders.” So I think it was no mistake, in fact it may have been God’s providential ordering of things, that in 1517 on “All Hallows Eve” the day before All Saints Day, Martin Luther is considered to have sparked the Reformation with some important ideas he wrote – we now call that document “The 95 Theses.” One result of his reforming ideas, one important result of the Reformation, was that all who follow Christ in faith are saints, not only those who serve at the front of the church. Luther said a person could be a butcher or a baker and serve God to His glory as much as could a priest or a martyr.
So who are the “saints”? In Romans 1:1 Paul addresses his letter “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.” Here and almost 60 more times in the NT, the word saint is used to refer to those who are followers of Christ. Not just the accomplished, “holy” followers of Christ, but all who call on Christ as Savior.
Even the most holy saint (and yes, that is a redundant repetition) is still one who, on his or her own, is a depraved sinner. Every saint was chosen by God unconditionally; that is, no saint was chosen by God based on what he or she has accomplished. Every saint was called by God’s irresistible grace, not be virtue of strong faith. And whether a saint died peacefully or died under severe duress of suffering and persecution, their faith was preserved by God, not be their own strength of body or soul.
Whether you die for the faith or simply die in the faith, when you die trusting only in Christ, you die a saint. But of course, being a saint is not just about dying – it is about living.
My young friends, we have to get this right! It is not as if we work real hard and make it to the major leagues of Christian faith by being good and doing good – no one can hit enough spiritual home runs to get into heaven. God never qualifies saints based on their goodness. He qualifies them – and us – based on His goodness for us.
In fact, God says this clearly through the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah 30 surprises us – God says there “in repentance and rest is your salvation; in quietness and trust is your strength.” God hardly ever does things the way we expect. He uses unholy people to be His saints.
Now, there are two sides to this coin. We cannot only look at one side and say it does not matter how bad I am, God will still love me. Rather, while on one side, God choses unholy people to be saint, but on the other side of the coin, He saves us to do good works, or as Ken Myers said to some of us last week, He saves us to cultivate an inner life of virtue that is reflected in lives well-lived for Christ. When we live lives trusting in Christ, we are being made holy by what we go through in life. Some of you are going through very difficult circumstances. And God promises to uses such things – things we would never chose for ourselves – to make us more like Jesus. Another big word for being made holy is being “sanctified” or if you will, being “sanctus-fied.”
Do you see where this is going? While we remember the saints on All Saints Day, Reformation Day helps us remember that there is only one true Hero of faith (Hero with a capital H). It is Jesus. He is our Hero. The book of Hebrews says we run a spiritual marathon of life, looking to Jesus as the Author and Finisher (the Hero) of our faith. Paul says “not many of you were wise or rich or good looking” . . . and none of us is righteous – holy – on our own.
“He who knew no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God,” the saints of God. May God give us all the grace we need not only to understand, but to believe these things. Amen.