Holy Saints

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I’ve been following the process of Mother Teresa’s journey to official sainthood with interest. A special dispensation has already named her a woman of “heroic virtues,” awarded her credit for a miraculous healing, and declared that she may be “beatified.” Following proof of another miracle, she can be declared a saint.

While I don’t deny that Mother Teresa’s self-sacrificing ministry to the poor was a model of Christian piety, I wonder if I could ever meet those qualifications for sainthood. For one thing, I’d have to be dead, which isn’t very appealing. Then I’d have to have lived a life of supernatural goodness and grace, which even on my best days seems way beyond my grasp. And then there are those two miracles I would need to initiate. Does raising three teenagers count for one?

In the Reformed tradition, we’ve rejected this idea of sainthood by removing saints’ images from our churches, purging their feast days from our liturgical calendar, and distancing ourselves from the notion that certain Christians have a claim to a greater state of grace. All of us are saints, we confess rightly, because all of us have been claimed by God and are part of the visible and invisible church.

But what exactly does it mean that I’m a saint? If no one is a big-letter Saint and we are all small-letter saints, have we devalued the title? In setting aside the glory and honor of being called a saint, have we lost sight of what God calls us to be?

Paul, in his epistles to the early churches, calls those who name Jesus as their Lord “the holy ones.” To be a holy one is to be called by the Holy Spirit into a redeeming relationship with Christ. Because of Christ’s sacrifice, we are declared holy in the sight of God, and as God’s people, holy behavior is rightly expected of us.

That holy behavior, described with enthusiasm by Paul in Romans 12, stirs me—because it isn’t about who I am, but who I am with others.

It’s not about how much time I spend in prayer or whether I devote myself to an ascetic lifestyle. It’s about whether I’m a person of sincerity, cheerfulness, joy, and hospitality. It’s about using my holiness to help others be more holy. To laugh with my friends over good news, to look at ugly behavior (my own or someone else’s) and still see the beautiful image of God in that person. To restrain myself from striking out when my feelings are hurt, and to share living water with a thirsty companion. That’s a saintly life I not only want to live but even feel that, with the Spirit’s help, I just might be able to pull off.

And that prompts me to look for help—help from those saints, like Mother Teresa, who have gone before me. Holy people of God like my fifth-grade Sunday school teacher, who taught me how to pray. Like my high school band director, who canceled practice one day to sit us all down so we could repent over how our harassment of a fellow student had contributed to his attempt to take his life. Like my friend who reaffirmed God’s call when I was ready to call it quits at seminary and go home. All those saints in my life who have shown me God’s love, who have sung songs of grace and shared words of light, who have named God’s will and dreamed God’s vision.

For all their help, give thanks for these saints of God. With God’s help, give thanks for being one.

About the Author

Thea Leunk is a pastor at Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.