There’s a great old story about a little boy attending Church with his Grandfather one Sunday morning. The church was a big, beautiful, cathedral like building with lots of stained-glass windows, much like ours. Before the service, the boy’s grandfather gave him a tour of the windows around the sanctuary. He pointed out that a lot of the windows contained pictures of the saints: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Saint Paul, and others. When he got home, the boy was excited to tell parents all about it. His father, wanting to know what his son had learned, asked him, “So, what is a saint?” The boy thought for a minute and then replied, “A saint is a somebody the light shines through.”
We don’t talk about saints very often; except maybe the New Orleans Saints. If you think about saints at all, if you’re like me, you probably have in mind someone who is, a lot better than the average person. We were talking about saints in my bible study class this last week. Immediately, the conversation turned to Saint Francis, Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi; people who seemed to be way above and beyond your average human being. If you go looking for a definition, that’s exactly what you’re going to find. According to Wikipedia – “A saint is one who has been recognized for having an exceptional degree of holiness, sanctity, and virtue.”
That narrows the field down a bit wouldn’t you say. By that definition, I’m not sure I’ve ever personally met anyone who would qualify. Of course, it may be that I just didn’t know they were saints. We wouldn’t expect a true saint to come right out and admit it now would we. Can you imagine; “Well, yes. Now that you mention it, I suppose I do have an exceptional degree of holiness, sanctity, and virtue.” That wouldn’t be very “saintly” would it. It’s funny; the very act of thinking you qualify for sainthood is sort of a disqualification. It sounds like the Christian version of Catch 22, doesn’t it?
However, every year, one of the really wonderful traditions we have here is to celebrate people who do, or at least will, qualify for sainthood, in our estimation. I’m sure none of the people whose names I read to you a few minutes ago would claim to be perfect. But perfection is not really what sainthood in the church is all about. The original understanding was simply that saints were an integral part of the fellowship life of the church, and that they had gone on to receive their eternal reward. They had done their part. They had made their contribution. They had inherited the kingdom, and we remember and celebrate them for their faithfulness, not for any sense that they may or may not have been perfect.
The real saints don’t think of themselves that way. They’re just normal people, living their lives, using the gifts God gave them for the good of their loved ones and the communion of the church. And each one, in her or his own special way, through living and growing in their practice of the faith, gradually becomes a person through whom the light shines.
In our theology we call this Sanctification, which is the gradual process of becoming saintly or sanctified. The root of the word means “sacred.” It’s the the same root as Sanctuary. A sanctuary is a sacred place, a place of sacredness. Sanctification is a sacred process. It is the process of gradually being drawn into sacredness. It’s true that we don’t use the word very often. But the spirit of sanctification is very much alive in what we do here.
The reason the conversation came up in this week’s bible class, is that sanctification is a key part of Paul’s vision in his letter to the Ephesians. He talks about the body of Christ, his favorite term for the church. He says that we are all given different gifts for the purpose of serving and building up the church. Some are apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers. All these gifts are for the sake of “equipping the saints for the work of ministry,” and for “building up the body of Christ.” The ultimate goal of all this is that all together, we will grow up into the fullness of faith; “to the measure of the full stature of Christ,” as he puts it.
This is Paul’s grand, overarching vision of the purpose of the church. According to Paul, we’re not here just to have a warm and friendly community (although that’s certainly important). We’re not here simply to maintain our big, beautiful building so that the light can shine through our sainted windows. We’re not here for the sake of putting on entertaining worship and programs. We’re not here simply to be a provider of social services, or to be stewards of the nest-egg we have in the bank. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things. But they are not “ends in themselves.” They are all meant to serve a higher purpose. In Paul’s vision, that purpose is to help one another grow up into Christ, and the process of doing that is sanctification; our gradual journey toward sacredness.
So, once a year, at least, celebrating our saints serves as a reminder that we are, indeed, here for that larger purpose. It’s not about perfection. It’s not about “having an exceptional degree of holiness, sanctity, and virtue.” It’s more about opening our hearts to God and to one another, and helping each other along the journey of becoming whole people in Christ.
We have all heard of the Italian violin maker, Stradivarius. His instruments are now the most prized, most sought after violins ever made because of the rich and resonating sound they produce. The unique sound of a Stradivarius violin cannot be duplicated. Now what may surprise you is these precious instruments were not made from treasured pieces of wood; they were carved from discarded lumber. Stradivarius was very poor and could not afford fine materials like his contemporaries. So he got most of his wood from the dirty harbors where he lived. He would collect these waterlogged pieces of wood, take them to his shop, clean them up, dry them out, and use them to create instruments of rare beauty. Apparently, what they’ve discovered is that while that wood floated in the dirty water, microbes went into the wood and ate out the center of the cells. This left just a fibrous infrastructure in the wood, that made for unique resonating chambers for the music. From wood that nobody wanted, Stradivarius produced violins that now everybody wants.
Now, the message here is not that we’re all just waterlogged bits of junk wood. The point is that who we are and what we become has everything to do with our being shaped by our creator into instruments of God’s peace. We may not think of ourselves as the kind of material out of which saints are made, but the truth is, we are all on a journey of faith together; a process called sanctification. This is life among the saints. By the grace of God, we are all becoming people through whom the light shines.