Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sainthood Comes from God

I’ve written about it before, but it’s a conversation I come back to over and over in my own faith development. It’s my long and protracted though definitely friendly argument with my across-the-hall neighbor from my first year of seminary, Tim Ferguson. After a few weeks of Morning Prayer from the BCP (remember, the 1662 version in England), we found ourselves at loggerheads over the primary identity of a Christian. I like to think of us as sinners, and he likes to think of us as saints.

Back and forth, back and forth—we argued. I love the line in the old confession “miserable offenders” and “there is no health in us.” He didn’t like that at all. “God made us good—very good,” he would counter, but I would cling to my Augustinian understanding of human nature and respond, “But after the fall of Adam the taint of original sin has been passed down to us.” We both knew it was silly but fun. We both enjoyed taking a hyperbolic position just to get a rise out of the other.

Still, though, it illuminated something in my own theological bias. I came to know the love of God as one who recognized his own depravity. That love reached down and yanked me out of my sin. I suppose that others might have discovered the saving, forgiving, redeeming love of God in a place of blessing. Maybe that’s the difference—I don’t  know. But I do know that my understanding of holiness—of sainthood—comes not from a place of internal goodness but from an imputed righteousness that is given by God through our faith.

As I prepare to preach on All Saints’ Sunday, I’m thinking a lot about sainthood. No, I don’t mean the saints whose names often adorn church buildings or whose legends we still tell our children. I mean the sainthood—the holy identity—that is given to all God’s beloved. Those are the “saints” or the “holy ones” to whom Paul addresses his letters. We are saints. By virtue of our redemption, we are all saints.

But we’re sinners, too. And that’s the real beauty of it. Sainthood is not unattainable. (Well, actually it is if we’re talking about the do-it-on-your-own sense of individual attainment.) Sainthood is given to those of us miserable sinners who know what it means to be called to holiness. It’s probably a good thing that parishioners hear their clergyperson reminding them of their sinfulness on a regular basis. There aren’t many other cultural institutions that will tackle human brokenness head-on like that. But it’s imperative that our preachers also remind us that, despite our sinfulness, God has made us his holy people—his saints.

On Sunday, we’re going to sing a hymn that it has taken me a few years to grow to love: “I sing a song of the saints of God…” It’s as folksy as we get in the Episcopal Church. At the end of each line, the singer ponders her or his own potential sainthood: “…there’s not any reason, no not the least, why I couldn’t be one, too.” Exactly. But that’s not because we expect to be slain by a fierce wild beast. It’s because we expect to go shopping and have tea. Our sainthood comes not from within us. It is given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. It is he that makes us holy—saintly. Our faith in him—our ability to trust in God’s promise of redemption—is what clothes us in sainthood from on high.

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