(The following homily was given at Petra Academy’s All Saints’ Feast.)
All Saints’ Day is a holy day that the Orthodox church traces back to church father John Chrysostom in the 4th century as a recognition of saints – many of whom were martyrs – celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Pope Boniface IV, who consecrated the Parthenon at Rome to Mary and the martyrs, initiated the practice in the Catholic church in 609 A.D. before Pope Gregory III officially established the holy day on November 1 in the mid-eighth century.
Historically, Catholic churches have thought of “saints” as those officially canonized or “made” saints by the church, but in the Orthodox church, as well as in many Protestant denominations today, All Saints’ Day is celebrated as a remembrance of departed Christians from any time and place – those whom Hebrews 12:1 calls a “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding the Church universal. Thus, All Saints’ Day is a day on which we honor faithful believers who have died, but also those by whom we are sitting even now.
I wonder, though, if we really believe this – that we are sitting next to saints? I know that I struggle with the idea, not so much because I know all of you but because I know me. I’m much more likely to think of myself as a sinner saved by grace than a saint who sins.
How do you think about yourself? As someone who usually messes up but miraculously gets it right every now and then? Or as someone who is loved and cherished even (and especially) when he messes up? Does it matter? I think it does.
Let me tell you a Little Mr. Dunham story.
When Little Mr. Dunham was in 7th grade, he played basketball on a really good school team. Little Mr. Dunham wasn’t the best player on the team, but he was a perfectionist and often got down on himself pretty easily if he didn’t play up to his standards. One night, after a particularly bad game, Little Mr. Dunham came home, threw his duffel bag in the corner of his room, sat down at his desk, and carved into the wood a question: “Why does Little Mr. Dunham play basketball?” And then, in the throes of true teenage angst, he carved the answer: “No apparent reason.”
Little Mr. Dunham’s coach noticed his tendency to get down on himself and made the comment to Little Mr. Dunham’s parents that he was going to die at the age of 14 from beating himself up over his perfectionistic ways. Little Mr. Dunham’s parents told him this, which made him feel even worse…until his parents told him what the coach had also said: “But he’s the smartest player I’ve ever coached.”
This was what Little Mr. Dunham needed. He knew he would never be the fastest player or the best rebounder or the top scorer, so he tried to play up to what the coach had said about him being the smartest player. Someone else loved him enough to believe in him, and that made all the difference for Little Mr. Dunham and his team for the next six years. He no longer thought of himself as a bad player who only rarely and miraculously got things right; instead, he learned (and it was a process) to think of himself as a smart player who, yes, sometimes missed the mark, but was loved and trusted by his coach and his teammates anyway.
It’s true that you and I are sinners – ones who miss the mark of God’s commanded perfection. It’s also true that, if we trust in the work Jesus has done for us on the cross, we are sinners saved by grace – by a love we never deserved, but were given anyway. It is only by this undeserved love any of us can call ourselves Christians.
But God thinks of those who are Christians much more as saints who sin instead of merely sinners saved by grace. There are plenty of passages from the Psalms (among other books) that tell us this (see Psalm 16:3; 30:4; 31:23; 34:9; 37:28; 85:8; 97:10; 116:15; 132:9; 132:16; 145:10; 148:14).
It feels good and means a lot to hear God call us his saints, but I wish we were better at thinking of each other in this way. Sometimes we don’t treat each other like saints at all. We talk poorly about one another; we do mean things to one another; we think of ourselves as being better than one another.
You know where we most often see this happen at school? On the playground, in the garment rooms, in the hallways, in the gymnasium, in the bathrooms in the parking lot – places where we think no adult is watching or listening closely, but God always is.
C.S. Lewis, the author of The Chronicles of Narnia and so many other great books you’ll read at Petra, writes in his book, The Weight of Glory, about how he, too, wished we could see each other more as God sees us because of Jesus. Listen to what he wrote:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
We are called to see our fellow Christians the way God sees us – not just as sinners saved by grace (though we are), but also as saints who sin (because we do).
What would it look like if we thought of and spoke to and played with one another in ways that saw the good in one another rather than only the not-so-good? What if we believed – really believed – that when others sin against us and hurt our feelings, we should forgive them because they are saints who sometimes sin rather than dirty, rotten sinners saved by grace and a real pain in the neck? What if we ourselves experienced this kind of forgiveness when we hurt others but were treated as saints who sometimes sinned rather than sinners saved by grace?
As we celebrate All Saints’ Day and think about those who have gone before us, let’s remember to honor those saints we see everyday – at Petra and elsewhere. Let’s believe the best in one another, stand shoulder to shoulder with one another, and talk to and not about one another. And while we can all heartily affirm that, indeed, we are sinners saved by grace, let us also pray for courage for one another to live not just as ordinary people or mere mortals, but as saints – yes, who sin – but as saints nevertheless because of Jesus, who died on the cross to make us so.
This truth (and our unity as saints surrounding them) is what we celebrate today, just as those before us celebrated as well.