Remembering Some of the Saints

Heritage Presbyterian Church

November 7, 2021
24th Sunday After Pentecost
Scripture reading – Mark 12: 38-44

“Saints”…that’s a word we don’t often say in our Reformed, Presbyterian Church.  We don’t say it when we refer to the various Apostles, even though we know that all but Judas are considered to be saints.

We don’t say it when we refer to the various readings from the New Testament, such as the Gospel of Mark, the Letters of Paul, or even the Revelation to John.  It’s almost as if we are afraid of the word, or that we feel close to them somehow and don’t need the title “Saint” in front of their names.

I could easily give you a dictionary definition of the word “saint” or I could read the entry I found in my special Biblical dictionary.  I could even refer to the various players on the NFL team that is from New Orleans.

But instead, let’s begin with what a saint is NOT:

  • A saint is not someone who was high and mighty.
  • A saint is not someone who pretends to be perfect, flawless, and wise.
  • A saint is not someone who put either himself or herself first ahead of others, especially those who were more deserving.
  • A saint is not someone who leaves behind a body of work from his or her life that points to monuments, awards, and plaques –  instead of all the people who were changed because of knowing them.

Those are my definitions of what a saint is NOT.

Now let’s try for the true definition of a saint: 

  • I believe that a saint is an ordinary human being, born with no special or supernatural abilities.  
  • I believe that saints lived and died in perfectly ordinary ways.
  • I believe that most of the saints who have ever lived are not even mentioned anywhere in the Bible – although many of the greatest saints are in there.
  • I believe that a saint is not marked from birth as a special person born to fulfill God’s call in some heavenly way.
  • Finally, and this one is especially my own opinion, I believe that saints live and breathe all around us, and I further believe that we know many of them.

In the earliest days of the church, there were those who were marked as “official saints” by the Christian church.  As centuries passed, the church even codified in great detail what it would take for someone to be officially recognized as a saint.  

It is now a process that must be followed strictly and with great evidence before an individual can be named as a saint.

Beginning in the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church began to put too much emphasis on believers offering saints their specific prayers.  Also, believers – and often the church too – began to make almost a whole economy out of holy relics and holy sites where the Lord had walked or touched something – or one of the saints had.  I remember as a child seeing a big golden cross with a deep blue fabric center; in the middle of that center – under glass – was a tiny white speck; it was a speck from the robe of St. Louis, the patron saint of the church I attended for most of my childhood.  I was told that such a relic from an actual saint was “priceless.”

Perhaps things like this are why the Reformed denominations turned away from these practices so long ago.  From our own Book of Confessions, we can find the following:

Q. 30. Do those who seek their salvation and well-being from saints, by their own efforts, or by other means really believe in the only Savior Jesus?

A. No. Rather, by such actions they deny Jesus, the only Savior and Redeemer, even though they boast of belonging to him. It therefore follows that either Jesus is not a perfect Savior, or those who receive this Savior with true faith must possess in him all that is necessary for their salvation.

B. THE SAINTS ARE NOT TO BE ADORED, WORSHIPPED, OR INVOKED. For this reason, we do not adore, worship, or pray to the saints in heaven, or to other gods, and we do not acknowledge them as our intercessors or mediators before the Father in heaven.

C. Much less do we believe that the relics of the saints are to be adored and reverenced.

So, as you can imagine, the concept of saints has caused much pain, confusion, and difficulty among believers since saints were first identified more than 2000 years ago.

When Jesus was pointing out the scribes to his disciples, he made absolutely sure that they understood those men were not saints…not even close.  Note what Jesus said about them:

  • They like to walk around in flowing robes.
  • They like to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces.
  • They like the most important seats in the synagogues.
  • They like to receive the best seats in places of honor as banquets.  They also like to attend banquets!

And the most damning comments of all:

  • They devour widow’s houses and make a big deal out their long-winded prayers.

The part about the long-winded prayers is pretty easy to understand, so I won’t comment on it…for fear that it might make this sermon longer than it has to be.  

But note the first part, where Jesus said the scribes “devour widow’s houses.”  What does this mean?  In those days, the people in the Holy Land were forced to pay multiple taxes to multiple authorities: they paid to the Romans, King Herod, and to the Temple.  When those taxes could not be paid, their lands were seized and sold to pay the tax bills.  Often, the scribes – who were the wealthy religious authorities – would buy up those properties, throw out the previous owners, and hire their own people to work the land.  This happened most often to widows, as you can imagine.

Not exactly saintly behavior, especially when it came from those charged with enforcing the Law of Moses so the people of God could be closer to God.  It seems that the more the scribes pretended to be pious, the more un-saintly they were.

Now let’s take a 180 degree turn and carefully talk about saints.  We have heard quite a bit about what a saint is not…now let’s focus on what a saint is…

Again, from our own Book of Confessions:

  • We do not despise the saints or think basely of them. For we acknowledge them to be living members of Christ and friends of God who have gloriously overcome the flesh and the world. Hence, we love them as brothers and sisters, and also honor them.
  • We confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all.

So, we have instances in which honoring and holding saints as examples of righteous faith is a good thing.  We all seek good examples in our lives, if not for ourselves, as least for our children.  This is what helps to make a healthy faith community.

And did Jesus even acknowledge a saint at work?  Yes, he did in the second part of today’s reading.  Note what Jesus said about the widow’s offering:

  • The widow was poor – but she still gave to the Temple treasury.
  • Her offering was only two copper mites worth only a fraction of a penny; yet it was all she had.  Jesus understood that no gift of love was too small to count.
  • The widow was surrounded by others who gave great and impressive amounts, but their gifts came from the givers’ excesses, and did not represent “all they had.”
  • When Jesus pointed this out to his disciples, he prefaced it by saying that familiar phrase of his: “Truly I tell you…”

Jesus knew a saint when he saw one.  Jesus recognized saintly actions when he saw them, especially if those actions were not noticed by most people.

Today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel represents both the “do this” and the “don’t do that” of Christian behavior.  Since we just finished a week that included two major Christian holidays – All Saints’ Day on November 1st and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd – it seemed the time to discuss how the Presbyterian church handles the matter of saints.

But any day – and I mean any day at all – is fitting and proper to discuss saintly behavior, and saints who live among us, and the wonderful examples of saints throughout history and saints throughout our own families and churches.

I have personally known many saints.  I’ll bet you have too.  The ones that I have known still make me smile and miss them so much whenever they come into my mind.

I can only hope that each of us can invoke the same reaction among believers when our time is done.  

If so, then we will be gathered with all the saints of heaven.

And with the Lord!