A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
November 2, 2017
This week we mark a major festival – as I am sure you are well-aware. All Hallows’ Day, also known as All Saints’ Day, has been celebrated on November 1 annually by Christians in the west since the ninth century. Yes, we give a minor nod also to All Hallows’ Eve, but the day of the Saints is much more significant to the church. At least it should be so.
From its earliest days, the church marked anniversaries of the deaths of its martyrs. But as their numbers grew, the church began remembering all the martyrs on a single day. Originally, that took place in May, but eventually the Roman church moved the observance to November, and began including non-martyred saints with the martyrs.
In the Roman tradition, “All Saints’ Day” is a celebration of all the canonized saints, especially those who do not have a special festival day of their own (such as Patrick on March 17, or Valentine on February 14). November 2 is marked as “All Souls’ Day,” and includes all the other faithful who have gone before us, with special focus on those who departed our world in the past year.
Protestant churches that celebrate All Saints’ Day ordinarily do so on the first Sunday after Reformation Day, October 31. We conflate All Saints’ and All Souls’ into a single day, making no distinction between mighty church warriors and the least among us.
In the New Testament, all believers are granted the title of “saints,” literally “holy ones.” Our only claim to “holiness” is that the only truly Holy One claims us as his own. The holiness of Jesus is the only holiness we have, and the only holiness we need.
To be “holy” has nothing to do with our purity or perfection. It means literally to be “set apart” by God as children and household heirs together with Jesus. To be a saint is to belong to God, rather than to ourselves or to any other worldly loyalty.
I belong to God, therefore I am a saint. Period.
My charge is not to become a saint, but to live in a way that befits the sainthood already given to me by God in Jesus Christ. My sainthood has nothing to do with how sinless I am, yet because I am a saint, I seek to put away sin. The Holy Spirit helps me with this process of “saint-ification,” or, “sanctification,” which begins with God’s claim on me made in the waters of baptism. For the rest of my life, I seek ever-increasingly to embody my sainthood. With God’s help, I put away the works of darkness, and demonstrate the fruit of the sanctifying Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) It will take me a lifetime to develop these good fruits to their full ripeness, which arrives only when my earthly race is done. This is why we say that at a Christian’s death their baptism is made complete. (Book of Common Worship, p. 932)
It is an accident of history that the anniversary of the Reformation occurs on the day before All Saints’ Day. Yet it is a sad irony that the day before the common sainthood of all believers is celebrated, a movement is birthed that scatters the saints. We must confess that, as heirs of the Reformation, we have come to accept as normal the brokenness of Christ’s body we perpetuate by separating ourselves from those who are just as much God’s saints as we are.
We find it far easier to affirm the sainthood of the dead who have gone before us than of the living who are still among us. As much as we owe a great debt to our ancestors in the faith, our most pressing need is for the gifts and graces of the saints with whom we yet walk the journey of faith. Saints need saints, if they are to live fully into their sainthood. And those we need most may be those whose perspectives differ from our own.
So, what are we doing to join our hearts and hands with saints beyond our own homogeneous circle? I offer one modest suggestion as a place to begin: Develop prayer, study, and mission partnerships with saints from other congregations in our own presbytery, especially from congregations that are significantly different from our own. From that small beginning, who knows what momentum could arise toward the day when all saints will be united in adoration of the One who has called us, redeemed us, and granted us the gifts of eternal life? (Revelation 5:9-10)
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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