I had a guy call me and become confrontational about our tendency as Anglicans to name our churches after saints. His argument was that you name your church after whom you worship and so it looked to him that we were worshipping saints. He failed to see the irony concerning all the churches named after roads, like Franklin Road Baptist Church, or declaring that they are first, like First Baptist or First Methodist or First Presbyterian. Does that mean that those Christians are worshipping a road or being number one? Of course not.
He was for some reason very angry and could not be reasoned with but his argument does point out that there is a lot of misunderstanding about the saints in much of the Protestant world. I think it would help us to be in greater unity if we could clear up some misconceptions and be clear ourselves what we believe about the saints. We confess have confessed over the centuries in an ancient creed that we believe in the Communion of the Saints and if it is important enough to be in the Creed then it deserves our attention.
Let’s be clear from the beginning that we do not, we do not, we do NOT, worship saints. Worship is for the Blessed Trinity and only the Blessed Trinity. That what commandment number one is all about. What we do is to venerate or to use a more modern word, honor the saints. Why do we do that? Because that is what the Bible tells us to do. We are told to give honor to whom honor is due and in Hebrews 11 we are given a long list of men and women who lived their lives by faith and we are admonished to follow their examples.
We are hard wired to have heroes. From ancient stories like Beowulf and Hercules to World War II heroes like Patten and Eisenhower to modern sports heroes like Paton Manning and Tom Brady. If you have been listening to the news this week about the showdown between these two you would have thought some gods had fallen to earth. But most of us have people that we look up to, people that inspire us, people that challenge us to be better or to do more.
That is what the saints do for the Church. Because they have finished the race, lived a lives of faith in God and stand as proof of God’s faithfulness, they serve as much better role models than fictitious warriors, flawed fighters or fading sports figures.
When I first began preaching in my 20’s I chose two nationally known preachers as my preaching heroes but both of them fell into adultery and lost their ministries. It was not that long ago that Steve McNair was the golden child of Nashville until he was killed by a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair. My point is that it is safer to follow those who have finished the race than it is to have as heroes those who are still in the race because we don’t know yet if they are going to stay on the right course.
Every now and then, when I get into a discussion on this topic of the saints a more fundamentalist brother will ask why we need the saints at all if we have Jesus. While I understand the nature of this question it betrays a very anemic understanding of the Body of Christ. He in essence is asking if we have Jesus why we would need the Church. But if you read especially the pastoral epistles it becomes very clear why we need the Church. Each of us is a small part of Christ’s Body and we are joined to one another in life giving relationships. We can’t make it alone any more than a finger can survive if it is separated from the hand. As St. Paul put it, the eye cannot say to the ear “I have no need of thee” or where would the hearing be? We need the saints for the same reason that we need one another because together with the saints we form the one Body of Christ. So why do we need the saints?
We need their teaching. Over the years I have come more and more to appreciate the writings of the early church fathers. I own a set of commentaries by the fathers on the New Testament. It only makes sense to look to their wisdom because those men were so much closer to the time that our Lord walked on the earth. Many of them studied at great ancient libraries like Alexandria or sat under the Apostles or their immediate successors. It is not hard to imagine that they would have a much better understanding of Jesus’ teachings than a 24 year old who just graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary.
Straying from the foundational teaching of the saints is how we end up with erroneous doctrines like the Rapture. It may capture people’s imaginations so much that they make movies about it, but theologically speaking it is the new kid on the block and it teaches the exact opposite of Jesus’ point. If you read Jesus’ statements in Luke you will find that those who get taken are the wicked. It is the wicked that the flood took away and it is the wicked that the the Son of Man will take away. When the disciples asked Jesus where they were taken He said “Where the vultures gather.” So you want to be left behind! We open ourselves up to misinterpretations of Scripture when we stray from our roots.
But beyond their doctrinal teaching we need their practical teaching on how to walk this Christian journey. We don’t have to create new paths because they have already blazed a trail for us if we will see it. There is no telling how many generations have benefited from the practical wisdom of Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God. What great insights he had in seeing the everyday affairs of life, like washing dishes or going to the market, as occasions to be in God’s presence. Who today could not benefit from such wisdom? If you have read Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and see the temptations of Christian there are parts of it where Bunyan seems to have been reading your diary. What a privilege it is to learn from their ancient wisdom and follow them as they follow Christ.
We need their fellowship. We need their fellowship just as we need each other’s fellowship. But how can we have fellowship with dead people? We don’t because they are not dead. “For to your faithful people, O Lord, life has changed not ended.” We need to remember that God is a God of the living not a God of the dead and that Christ’s Body is one Body. That is why we can join our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. Thus one way that we fellowship or have communion with the saints is in the context of worship. I can tell you that it comforts me as a priest when I celebrate Mass, and only a handful of people show up, to know that in realty that there are much more present than a handful.
Some of you have heard this story but for those who have not, I want to tell you about a time that the communion of the saints had a profound affect on me. We were building All Saints’ Church in Smyrna and to say it was not going well would be the understatement of the century. We ended up hiring crooks and beyond the interpersonal wars it looked like we were going to run out of money and not be able to finish the job. The stress of it all was about to kill me so the Bishop encouraged me to get out of town for a few days. Beth and I chose to go to St. Augustine Florida and while we were walking in the historic district we came across an orthodox chapel. I decided to go into the chapel and say a prayer for God to intervene in the construction fiasco. The chapel was filled with very large icons of various saints and as I lit a candle and knelt down to pray I had a strong impression of those various saints were surrounding me and comforting me like the angels who comforted Jesus in his travails. I was filled with assurance that the project would be completed and so it was. I was not praying TO the saints but it sure seemed to me that they were praying WITH me. There is a huge difference between the two.
I went back a year later to offer thanks for God getting us through it all and while I was hoping for a similar experience I did not have one. I guess I didn’t need it at the time but I am grateful for that experience to this day.
We need their stories. As you read the lives of the saints you see such rich variety in the Body of Christ. Some like Mary demonstrate amazing faithfulness and humility and they inspire us to seek those qualities in our own lives. Some like St. Jerome, who was famous for being ornery, are like a crazy uncle at a picnic. You’re glad he is there but you hope not to be like him when you get to be his age. Some, like St. Peter, who was forever putting his foot in his mouth, give us hope that saints are real folks just like us with all the same human failings and yet the Lord was able to use them in powerful ways. They give us hope that God can do the same in our generation.
We need their prayers. Let me honest and say that this view is a bit controversial and not held by all Anglicans. The Roman and Orthodox Communions are up front about the prayers of the saints and invoke them in their liturgies. But in our founding document called The Articles of Religion, Article XXII calls the invocation of the saints “a fond thing, vainly invented” and many Anglicans quote this to repudiate this practice. But what is not clear to me is that this article begins “The Romish Doctrine concerning…” and then lists a number of items including the invocation of the saints. So it may be that what the Reformers repudiated is not the idea of the saints praying for us but rather how the Roman Church understood and practiced it.
I lean this way because the Article goes on to say that it is unwarranted in Scripture when in fact the Scripture is full of the prayers of the saints. In nearly all of his Epistles St. Paul asks for the saints to pray for him. Now admittedly these are the saints on earth but are we to conclude that once they passed into glory that those same saints stopped praying or no longer cared what happened to St. Paul? In the Book of the Revelation the bowls of incense are filled with the prayers of the saints. What would that part of Christ’ Body be praying for in glory if not this part of Christ’s Body as we fight the good fight?
I will also admit that this can be a dicey proposition and needs to be handled with discernment. We don’t want to get into necromancy or try to communicate with the departed. But also we don’t want to go Puritan and whitewash over a precious truth. This is how I view it. My father loved his family and he got up early and prayed for us every day. I find comfort knowing that death did not stop either his love or his prayers. I don’t pray to him, I don’t ask for his guidance. That is the role of the Holy Spirit in my life. But its good to know that in the Mass my father and I are worshipping together and that I am being strengthened by his prayers in glory as I was strengthened by his prayers when he walked in this life. I will admit that most of the time we are not aware of the prayers of others but I have no doubt that we would be very aware of it if those prayers ceased.
Another way I utilize the prayers of the saints is through confession. The Scripture says in James that we are to confess our sins one to another so when I am preparing for the Mass I use an old form of prayers that not only has me confess to Almighty God but to the John the Baptist, the holy apostles Peter and Paul and to all the saints. I also say, “and you my brethren,” if I am praying this confession with others at the altar. I find this prayer helpful because is a more accurate portrayal of the role of the whole Body of Christ in our lives and it acts as an antidote to the “me and Jesus” virus that has infected much of American Christianity.
This idea of the intercession of the saints is certainly no cardinal doctrine so feel free to disagree with me on this point. I simply find my life enriched by looking to the full Body of Christ for support and prayer and not just a portion of it. I believe, as it implies in Hebrews 12, that being surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses is what encourages us to run with endurance the race that is set before us. I find great comfort in knowing that I am not in this race alone. I need heaven cheering me on and I also find great comfort to think that one day I get to sit in the stands and cheer on the next generation.
Lastly, we need their light. I don’t have to tell you that these are dark, dark days. ISIS, Ebola, $14 trillion dollars in debt, more Americans on food stamps in the history of our nation, home grown terrorism and the end of Duck Dynasty. Dark, dark days. There is a lot to be concerned about and even afraid of. And yet Jesus said that we are to let our light so shine before men that they might see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. The saints of old did just that in their generation and many if not most of them did it in times that were as trying as ours. How would you have liked to be a follower of Christ and seek to let your light shine in the days that the bubonic plague was killing half of Europe or when the Muslim hoards were sweeping into Spain?
When Beth and I traveled to Italy we were on a very new airplane that had a feature on it I loved. Each seat had its own computer and you could use the computer to access a number of cameras that were on the outside of the airplane. This allowed you to see what the pilot was seeing and even to look behind like looking through a rear view mirror. As we were landing I watched from the pilot’s perspective and what I saw was a series of lights on either side of the runway that marked the way for a safe landing. When I saw them I thought that this is what the saints do for us. They are lights that beckon us home and as followers of Jesus they point us to Him. As we read in Ecclesiasticus some are famous and these are the ones that we celebrate on All Saint’s Day. Others are unknown but they are the ones we celebrate today on All Souls Day. In celebrating them we are actually celebrating what God has done in their lives and the glory goes to Him. This way, rather than living in concern and fear, we can, as the collect says, come to know the ineffable joys that God has prepared for those who truly love Him. Amen.