Who Is a Saint?

November 4, 2013

Today is All Saints’ Day, the day in the Church Year when we remember the saints that have gone before us into those ineffable joys that await us when our earthly life is over. In this short and straightforward sermon, I want to ask the question, “Who is a saint?” and peek briefly into those ineffable joys that God has prepared “for all the saints who from their labor rest.”

Who is a saint? The term “saint” is usually understood by this definition: “one who has been recognized for having an exceptional degree of holiness, sanctity, and virtue.” I don’t know about you, but if this definition is accurate, then I’m left out the ineffable joys. I don’t want to be left out of any joy, must less ineffable ones!!! If an exceptional degree of holiness is the litmus test for a saint, then the day would be better known as “Few Saints Day” rather than All Saints’ Day.

Who is a saint? Well, who’s to say? As French Catholic theologian Jean-Luc Marion says,” no one can claim to define the concept of holiness without running the risk of the most obvious of idolatries. Indeed, when a group declares someone a saint, their definition is restricted to what this group imagines as holiness.”

And if you’re sort of thinking that you just might fall into the category of saint yourself, then Marion says, “we know perfectly well that no one can say “I am a saint” without total deception…someone who lays claim to sanctity disproves it in himself.” As to our own growing degree of exceptional holiness, we would be better to follow the New Yorker cartoon in which a husband says to his wife over dinner, “Look, I can’t promise that I’ll change, but I can promise that I’ll pretend to change.”

Biblically, the idea that a saint is defined by exceptional holiness is as erroneous as the notion that only good people go to heaven, or that we reach those ineffable joys by being good while we are on earth. Thankfully, as we often say, Christianity is not about good people getting better. Rather it’s about flawed and broken people trying to cope with their failure to be good.

Thankfully, sainthood is no exclusive club, although most of us like exclusivity because it flatters us. A first grader I know was invited to participate in the Quest Program at her school – a program for advanced learners. Her mother was very careful about how she phrased the invitation.

“Honey, you’ve been invited to be a part of the Quest Program.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a program for students to continue learning wonderful things.”

“Is everyone in it?”

“Um… well, no.” Pause……

“YESSSS!!!!! I want in!!!!”

Because of our instinctive leaning toward self-righteousness and exclusion, it’s a good thing that the common definition of a saint is a long way from the apostle Paul’s understanding of a saint. A saint is not someone who is holy and virtuous. Paul addresses the people at Corinth as “saints.” We know that the Corinthians were sleeping around, getting drunk on communion wine, snubbing the poor, and arguing about who had the best spiritual gifts. No exceptional degree of holiness there.

So being a saint clearly isn’t about behavior. Instead, a saint is anyone and everyone who has, as he puts it in his letter to the Ephesians, “set our hope on Christ.” And Christ invites all, not a few, not some, but all to set our hope on Him.

What does it mean to set our hope on Christ? Fundamentally, it means not setting our hope on ourselves, or our own ability to be good or virtuous or holy. I’ll share a few stories of people who set their hope on Christ.

During the 1970’s, there was a revival of sorts in England among students at Cambridge and Oxford. The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was converted as a student at Cambridge. During this time, the gospel was presented and summarized in a simple, yet very effective way – ABC. A – admit that you are a sinner who needs help, B – believe that Christ died on the cross in your place for your sins, and C – come to Christ, who has already come to you and for you with His open arms of welcome. That’s what it means to set your hope on Christ.

Sila Lee was one of these Cambridge students who, although having grown up in the Church of England, responded powerfully to the message. “It was a revelation to me. I kept saying to myself, ‘Why did nobody ever tell me before why Jesus died on the cross?’ It was as if everything I had ever known fitted together, not just intellectually, but also emotionally and spiritually.”

She and her boyfriend told their friend Nicky Gumbel, that they had become Christians and set their hope on Christ and not themselves. At first, Nicky was horrified. But he agreed to talk through the real meaning of Christianity with them over lunch. He went back to his room and picked up the Bible he was given at his old school.

“I was completely gripped by what I read. I had read it before and it had meant virtually nothing to me. This time it came alive and I could not put it down. It had a ring of truth about it. I knew as I read it that I had to respond because it spoke so powerfully to me. Very shortly afterward, I came to put my faith in Jesus Christ.”

I tell you this story on All Saints’ Day because it’s the story of normal people, like you and me, who are saints, not because they are good or special, but because they, like the Ephesians, have set their hope on Christ. They did go on to start the Alpha Movement, which has led countless other to set their hope on Christ, but they would clearly not claim any special saintly status. They are just people who realized they could not set their hope on themselves.

On All Saints’ Day we read a list of our own Christ Church saints who have died in the past year. Today is the day we especially trust that they have come to those ineffable joys that God has prepared for those whose hope is set on Christ. No one knows what awaits us of course, although I’m certain that it is better and richer and more joyous than any of us could ever imagine.

C.S. Lewis, who wrote so movingly about our yearning for heaven, fell into a coma near the end of his life. His next of kin were contacted and a clergyman came to give him last rites. To the astonishment of his doctors, Lewis awoke from his coma and asked for a cup of tea. Later, he told friends that he wished he’d died during the coma. “The whole experience was very gentle,” he said. It seemed a shame “having reached the gate so easily, not to be allowed through…. Poor Lazarus!”

I’ll close with a short poem a son-in-law wrote when he imagined meeting his father-in-law in heaven. He loved his father-in-law, who was like a father and a best friend to him. His nickname was “Honey,” so named by his granddaughter. Honey nicknamed his son-in-law “P-Boy,” a name he loves just because Honey had named him. The poem is called “Cheers, Honey.” It was written shortly after his death.

To name someone is to know who they are

And (harder) who they will become.

When will I ever stop being “P-boy?”


No, when it is my turn to enter into His

Gates with thanksgiving

And into His courts with praise,

You will be around the corner, calling

“P-boy! P-boy! Over here!”

Can there be a better sound than that?

Well, perhaps there will be one better sound. The sound of Jesus saying to you and to everyone who has set his or her hope on Christ, “Welcome Home.” Amen.

Bible References

  • Ephesians 1:11 - 23