Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12
What is a saint?
I think that our culture has an unhealthy and extreme view of what a saint is.
On one hand, we use the word saint to describe someone, anyone who is kind hearted and good to us. When someone helps us we say ‘Oh they’re such a saint’. In this use of the word, a saint becomes a common thing something, or rather someone, you might encounter on a daily or at least a regular basis.
On the other hand, the word saint is used to describe someone of great holiness and power, someone who has performed miracles or lived the holiest of lives. In this use of the word, a saint becomes a rare thing, an occurrence that perhaps shows up once in a generation, not someone that we would likely meet and certainly not someone we would aspire to be like.
Neither of these definitions is particularly helpful or biblical, to be honest, and so on this All Saints Day, a day devoted to the celebration of the saints throughout every age, let us explore the definition of a saint.
Our reading from Matthew, the Beatitudes as it is commonly known, provides us with a glimpse and a framework for how we might understand sainthood.
First, it is important for us to understand the context of Jesus’ teaching. The Sermon on the Mount, which begins in our passage and extends for two chapters, is Jesus’ first public teaching. It is in a way the foundation for all of his teaching and ministry in the Gospel of Matthew. Like a politician laying out their platform when they announce their decision to run for office, this is Jesus laying out what he’s all about. So we are right to pay particular attention to this passage, in Matthew’s eyes this is foundational in our understanding of who Jesus is and what he is about.
Secondly, it is important to understand who Jesus is teaching. This is not a public speech to a massive crowd, in fact, Matthew tells us in verse 1 “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down his disciples came to him.” Jesus wanted to get away from the crowds, he went up the mountain – a place of wilderness – and he sat down, not something you usually do when trying to reach the largest crowd possible.
Jesus’ teaching was for his disciples, it wasn’t a proclamation of the Kingdom, it wasn’t evangelism, it wasn’t a speech to rally support for his cause – he was seated with his students, away from the hustle of the ones seeking healing, or chasing after his celebrity and he was teaching.
And this gives us our first clue as to what a saint is: saints are people close to Jesus. They are the ones that stick close to him, not after his celebrity, not after only healing, but they are the ones who want to learn from Jesus, who is close enough to understand what he teaches but also to see how he acts, how he lives. A saint is therefore at the most basic level a disciple, someone that has chosen to follow Jesus.
For the remainder of our passage, Jesus speaks about a number of blessings, that many here know well. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, meek and son. While each of them is blessings which come with the promise of reward, they are also responsibilities.
The poor in spirit might inherit the earth, but being poor or poor in spirit requires humility and perseverance – especially in a world that values strength and wealth above all else.
Those who mourn might be comforted, but their grief is not diminished or less real in this world just because of future comfort.
Hungering and thirsting for righteousness may come with the promise of being filled, but it also means your life will be filled with the struggle to achieve justice and righteousness in a world so often devoid of them.
The peacekeepers might be called children of God, but keeping the peace in a world that is so often full of violence, hatred and division is not an easy task and takes every ounce of faith and willpower to not give in to desperation.
None of these beatitudes suggest perfection though: nothing suggests that all of the blessings are intended for one person to emulate – nothing in Jesus’ teaching suggests that we are able or required to exhibit every quality.
Additionally, nothing in each beatitude suggests that the people reflecting those blessings and responsibilities do so perfectly. In fact, many of the beatitudes point to less than perfect or even ideal circumstances culminating in Jesus’ assertion that his followers would at times be reviled and experience persecution for his and righteousness’ sake.
So a saint is someone, a student or disciple, who tries to remain close to Jesus, but isn’t necessarily perfect while doing so. A saint doesn’t live a rosy perfect life but experiences the pains and sorrows, the joys and triumphs of life like anyone else.
Finally, Jesus is very clear in his teaching here in the Beatitudes, that his followers are called to be in the world and not withdraw themselves from it. How can we hunger and thirst for righteousness if we do not care for the plight of the poor and the oppressed? How can we mourn if our hearts do not break for those who suffer and die? How can we be peacemakers if we do not care enough to seek to end the violence and destruction that we humans wreak on one another and on Creation?
It is important to note that Jesus does not tell his disciples that the meek will inherit heaven, he is clear that they will inherit the earth. This is a clear suggestion that this world matters, and God’s saints are called to care for it, just as God cares for it. So, a saint is someone who is in the world living through the brokenness of sin, but seeking to proclaim and bring about the kingdom of God where they can.
So what is a saint? A saint is someone who stays close Jesus; a saint is someone that listens and learns from Jesus – both from his teaching and from the way he lived his life; a saint is someone who is not perfect, who does not have everything figured out, but is working it out on the way; a saint is someone who is broken and yet is full of love for this broken world we live in. A saint is someone who experiences the blessing of God and understands that blessing as a privilege and responsibility to share that blessing with the world.
That’s what a saint is, but the question remains who a saint is…. And you want to know a secret? The answer is simple – each and everyone of you, no matter who you are or how good you feel about yourself, have the opportunity to be the saints of God.
Each of us can stick close to Jesus by reading his Word – spending time in the scriptures soaking in the Truth of God in our lives
Each of us can stick close to Jesus through prayer – spending time in conversation and developing our relationship with God in the quiet times and amidst the hustle and bustle of life.
Each of us can stick close to Jesus by modeling our lives after the way he lived his life – we can seek to make his priorities our priorities, we can seek his kingdom over the personal kingdoms we build up for ourselves.
On this All Saints day we certainly celebrate the saints that have gone before us in the faith, but let us not forget that each and every one us can be numbered among God’s saints, each and every one of us can claim the blessing and the responsibility of God’s blessed Kingdom, today and forevermore.
Video of worship including sermon available here