Friday, November 1, 2013

Saints, for One, and All

Adapted from an earlier essay...


Evangelicals have a problem with the concept, because we bristle at anything and any term most commonly associated with Roman Catholicism.  Catholics make people saints, which is something evangelicals think only God can do.

Technically, of course, whenever somebody professes faith in Christ for the first time, they become a saint, don't they?  So yes, only God can make a mortal a saint.  But we often use the word "saint" as some sort of special honorific, like the Catholics do.

So confusion over the whole thing is understandable.  But it's also unfortunate.

For example, today is traditionally considered All Saints Day in Western Christianity.  But few evangelicals observe it, mostly because of the "saints" thing, and we may be missing out on something.  All Saints Day serves as a commemoration worth observing because it draws on the victory Christ secured over death by His resurrection, and how that victory translates to our own mortality.  While most unsaved people fear death, believers in Christ benefit from a unique perspective on the end of life on this planet.  Since everyone who is saved will, upon their death, be automatically in the presence of our Lord for eternity, what fear should we hold about dying?

"Death, where is thy victory," remember? "Grave, where is thy sting? The sting of death is sin, and sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord, Jesus Christ!" (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)

Granted, "how" we actually die is still something of which most of us remain apprehensive. And you'd be hard-pressed to find Scripture that tells us the process of dying is something we should anticipate, or we shouldn't fight against. Doctors and medical science have been gifted by God to honor life, and the advances in prolonging life our researchers have been able to achieve come not at the hubris of mankind, but the kindness of God in the form of Common Grace.

Still, when our time comes, who wouldn't prefer drifting away to heaven while in a deep sleep?  Yet how many of us do?  The point is that no matter how we die, where we end up is not in dispute, or a dreadful place.  Even if the streets weren't paved with gold, and that was only a metaphor for bliss, simply spending eternity in God's presence would certainly be far better than anything we could possibly experience in this life.

Which brings us back to All Saints Day, where the emphasis isn't on a morbid bunch of corpses, but on the reality that life is not confined to flesh.  Life continues regardless of what happens to our bones, skin, and organs.  Humans are eternal creatures, except that people who do not know Christ have no reason to anticipate the afterlife.  And it's not just the afterlife being acknowledged by All Saints Day.  Originally, the observance was created to honor martyrs of the faith, and remind the rest of us that even though God never guarantees that our life here on Earth will be idyllic, He does promise us to be with us no matter what we face, or the price we pay for claiming His Son's lordship of ourselves.

We can also use All Saints Day to remember the sacrifices made by not only martyrs, but also pastors, and cross-cultural missionaries, and even our believing parents and ancestors, that have contributed to legacy of faith that is expressed through the generations.  God works through individual relationships, but He created the broader community of faith for the perpetual propagation of His Gospel.  What's more, if we know something of the sufferings endured by these people who have gone on to their eternal glory before us, the Holy Spirit can use that perspective to embolden us in our own path of sanctification.  All Saints Day is not a time of sorrowful reflection, but joyful confidence in the sovereignty and faithfulness of our Savior!

So don't let the over-Catholicised term "saints" throw you.  If you've been bought by the blood of Christ, you're a saint, whether you always act like one or not.  Saints exist to worship God and enjoy Him forever, which is exactly what those saints who've gone before us are doing in real time right now, in Heaven.

Paradoxically, while we look back at the example of the "Church Triumphant," as dead saints are euphemistically called, we also look ahead to our own glorification with the end of our journey through sanctification to the feet of Christ.  In heavenly bodies.  Forever!

Kinda bizarre, huh?  But as long as we focus on Christ, and not on how it all doesn't make sense to us this side of Heaven, we can remind ourselves that God has not revealed everything to us yet, and that's for not only His glory, but our good.  Besides, yet another benefit in All Saints Day is reminding ourselves that we need to trust God that He will accomplish those things that impact our mortality in His time and way.

Faith.  Remember?

That's why observing All Saints Day can be so helpful, since faith is "the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1).  Honoring those saints who've already won their battles against flesh and the principalities of evil here on Earth helps us put into perspective the merits of God's love for us and the sacrifice of His Son.  And helps remind us of the eternal reward for us saints, and all who follow after us.

A common hymn at Presbyterian funerals is "For All the Saints," a wonderfully appropriate tribute to the life God provides each of His children in their walk towards their Heavenly home.  Consider its text here, and think about the saints in your life and family who've gone on before you, and the example you're setting for your sphere of influence as you continue your life journey even now.

After all, if the Lord tarries, someday, the church may be singing this song, and thinking about you as they do.

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy name, oh Jesus, be forever blest. Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might!
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight.
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light. Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers faithful, true, and bold,
fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
and win with them the victor's crown of gold. Alleluia!

The golden evening brightens in the west.
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest.
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest. Alleluia!

But, lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day;
the saints triumphant rise in bright array;
the King of Glory passes on His way! Alleluia!

From Earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast,
through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: Alleluia!

For All the Saints - text by William Walsham How, 1864

PS - I can't find any free online version of For All the Saints that includes congregational singing, but I like this solo pipe organ arrangement by a guy named "BigDaddyMark" on YouTube.  This is supposed to be a powerful, majestic hymn, and he gets it!  He's playing the behemoth blaster at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (yeah, "Saint" John) and if you can turn the volume all the way up, you'll be richly rewarded!  He goes through all of the 5 verses and then (after a glance to the camera, with a "you ready for this?" expression), does a glorious improvisation.  I like to think this is something similar to what it will be in Heaven someday when we all, from Earth's wide bounds, and from ocean's farthest coast, sing this in one massive choir to our Lord.

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