For All the Saints: Thoughts from a Sunday School Lesson Taught on All Saints Day
Paul addressed most of his epistles to saints: "To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints" (Romans 1:7); "To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia" (2 Corinthians 1:2); "To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 1;1b); "To all the saints in Christ Jesus in Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons" (Philippians 1:1b--all quotations from NIV).
The NIV renders two other greetings differently: "To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ--their Lord and ours" (1 Corinthians 1:2); To the holy and faithful brother in Christ at Colossae" (Colossians 1:2a). In both cases, the KJV has "saints" instead of "holy." In fact, both are exactly the same Greek word, hagios (Strong 40).
Surely the special mention of deacons and overseers (or elders,
bishops, presbyters) in the Phillippians greeting does not remove them
from the number of saints. In these and many other passages in the New
Testament, "saints" clearly included everyone who named Jesus as Lord,
or in Wesleyan terms, everyone who has received the grace of
justification. Only God can look on the heart, so we should assume that
whenever we go to church or attend a Bible study or prayer group, we
have joined a roomful of saints.
The Catholic Church, of course, designates certain deceased individuals as saints. Pope Benedict has canonized four saints so far. One of them lived until 1962. Seven years ago, Pope John Paul proclaimed a saint who had lived until 1975. There are probably people who still remember those two.
I remember reading a newspaper article years ago about someone who had just been proclaimed a saint. Reporters went to the town where he had lived and interviewed people who remembered him, including one fellow who hadn’t liked him and couldn’t understand how anyone could think of him as a saint.
Now that’s comforting. If you look carefully, Catholic saints from the apostles to whomever living among us may be canonized at some time in the future are pretty much like the rest of us—imperfect people who have been called to holiness and somehow managed to live it in spite of their flaws.
Everyone who believes in Jesus is a saint in terms of his or her position in the kingdom of God, but not everyone is a saint by experience of walking closely with Jesus. Some people truly consecrate their lives to his service, and people around them notice their piety and virtue. The story of the old man who disapproved the proclamation of sainthood for his former acquaintance shows that not everyone will notice a saint’s piety and virtue, but that just illustrates an old poem:
To live above with saints we love—oh that will be glory!
To live below with saints we know, now that’s a different story.
God has chosen to count us saints despite our sins. We all have blemishes on our character, or perhaps even deep flaws. But in spite of that, we all have the power to repent and keep following Jesus. The challenge for all of us saints is to live in such a way that hardly anyone could look at our lives--warts and all--and find fault with our being called saints.