All Saints Day. Sometimes the very idea of saints can be hard to wrap our minds around. We may think of saints as examples of spiritual perfection which we will never reach. Or we may think of saints as people who are very godly, who give without ceasing, who are, through their great acts of charity, holy. Some of them were indeed exemplary figures of the Christian life in holiness. Think of them: St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Hildegaard of Bingen. But because of this, they just seem above us, beyond us somehow, both in body and soul, detached from earthly existence. Ethereal. Not like us.
But they are not detached from us. We with them are members of the Body of Christ. Like them, we too are saints. St Paul addresses his very ordinary congregants as saints. Look at the way he begins his letters: to the saints in Rome, in Corinth, in Philippi, etc. etc. All of us who are in Christ Jesus are saints, simply by dint of being related to Jesus, dwelling in him, having been baptized into his death, are sanctified in Jesus, by Jesus, through Jesus. We are made holy in Jesus. The words “sanctify” and “saint” come from the Latin root, “sanctus”. From the Anglo Saxon root of the equivalent of these comes our word “holy”. So the saints of old and the saints of today are alike: holy.
But our being made holy is not dependent on our being exceedingly pious, or even terribly devout. We need to remember that our being claimed by God’s grace is not dependent on what we buy (as the faithful were lead to believe in the medieval cult of the saints). Or what grades we earn. Or how many credits we are taking. Or how many extra-curriculars we can collect, like so many trophies. Or how many credentials we can pile up. God counts us as saints and loves us whether or not we are smart or clever or creative or talented. I do believe that living up to our God-given potential does make God smile, but none of these things actually determines our sanctity. We are claimed as holy no less than were the saints of old. Our hymn tells us that we can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea. Just folk like me, and you. Not that I particularly relish the idea of imitating the one who was slain by a fierce wild beast, but I hope you get my drift.
One thing you may not hear in many Episcopal services today, but you will hear now, is that many Lutheran and Reformed churches celebrate today as Reformation Sunday. That is because the Protestant Reformation is sometimes counted as having begun on Oct 31 1517, with Martin Luther’s famed “posting” of his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. (My favorite recent Facebook post is a cartoon of Luther nailing a paper to the door of a church, with this caption: “Luther updates his blog.”) His theses were objections against the abuses of the Roman Church, in particular their selling of indulgences, which were certificates ensuring the owner or her relative their freedom from time in purgatory. Luther objected to the practice of the sale as well as the theology behind the practice.
Why did he choose to post his theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg? That church apparently held one of Europe’s largest collection of relics. These were often leftover bits of the bodies of the saints. Relics are considered to be holy and therefore transformative to all who venerate them.
Why did Luther choose October 31? Because he was actually knocking at the door for snicker’s bars? No, Luther knew that there would be a huge crowd gathering for the following day’s celebration of the feast of All Saints. All the better for publicizing his objections to church teaching.
Now you may think venerating leftover bits of saints’ bodies is odd. I am not going to tell you yeah or nay on that one. But I think that for us today, relics do still have something important to tell us about how much we are beloved by God, and what it means to be saints, to be in Christ Jesus. It is true that the importance of relics at the time of the Reformation was their selling power, how much profit they could earn the Church. And I agree here with Luther, that this was a distortion of their meaning.
But, as I see it, relics still have an important word for us today about our faith. A word that we have largely forgotten: that the body matters. This may be hard to follow, but think of it like this. There was a reason that the earliest Christians venerated physical objects. The hair, bones, toenails, digits, etc: the left-over bits and pieces of saints were considered just as holy and spiritual even (and especially) in their physicality. Relics proclaim what the Gospel tells us: that God’s intimate love for us doesn’t stop with our souls but extends to our physical existence, indeed to the material world, to all creation.
Think of the sacraments, the bread and wine of eucharist, the water of baptism. Think of the incarnation. This is part of the scandal of Christian confession: God’s presence dwells in materiality. God’s being came in a body, in Jesus’s body. And so the relics of the physical lives of the saints of old still bear the sacred. In Christ, God claims us as saints and loves us specifically in our ensouled physicality.
And it is this love that propels us as saints into the material world, to love that world in all its physicality. In all its vulnerability and fragility. This love calls us to speak truth into that world. To bear light into even the dark corners where the darkness seems to reign. This love demands that we bear witness to God’s love for all creation. For our imperiled environment. For our relations with other peoples, religions, and nations. For our friends and families. But also, surprisingly, for ourselves. Loving neighbor, after all, means also loving ourselves. As saints we carry God’s love in our very bodies into our world.
We find that love nestled in the manger, where God became like us so that we might become like God. We come face to face with that self-giving love on the hard wood of the cross. We peer even into the void of the empty tomb and find the mystery of Christ’s abiding love. All of this is sanctifying, making holy. All our life is sanctified, if we allow ourselves to behold it this way. The whole world is saturated with sanctification, with God’s glory. You in your body, in your mind, in your strength, in your study and reading and writing. You are sanctified, a saint. And that means that nowhere you are is a place where God is not. Nowhere we are is a place where God is not. Amen.