Have you ever heard of someone ‘praying to the saints’? There may be some people who actually do this, but mostly it is a misconception. Protestants, Anabaptists included, have told tall tales about this sort of thing for a long time. The Bible calls all those who are in Christ ‘saints’. We have come to use the term more narrowly, though, to identify someone whose life is obviously holy. A saint is a role model, a hero of sorts. It’s a description we don’t use glibly. We don’t usually identify people in this way until years after they have died and some of the biases have settled out. In the wake of so many new allegations of sexual harassment and abuse this seems like good sense. Celebrity culture pushes us to admire public and powerful figures in a way that ignores their shadow side. The tradition of identifying saints isn’t perfect, but it is more patient.
In the very early days of the faith Christians began to give special honor to the memory of martyrs and others who led exemplary lives. These ‘saints’ were people the broader community was confident dwelt with God. It was natural, then, for some Christians to ask these saints to pray for them. To put it a different way, they might ask a saint to intercede for them. One of the earliest widely regarded saints was an African woman named Perpetua. She was killed for her faith. People were confident she was in the presence of God, so they would ask her to ask God to help them.
Many centuries later Protestants would reject this idea. They rejected it because the idea had become overblown and weird. They also rejected it because they rejected the book, II Maccabees, that spoke explicitly of a high priest praying long after he had died. II Maccabees was written between the time periods represented by the two Testaments in our Bible and Protestants roundly rejected it. Even so, there are passages in our Protestant biblical canon that suggest we should take our connection to the saints seriously. For example, in Ephesians 2 Paul tells his readers that they “are no longer strangers and aliens, but [they] are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” Passages like this show that early Christians believed those of us who are alive are members of the same household as the saints. Isn’t that interesting? We and they are not separated by death. God’s love holds us together.
One of the names that shows often comes up in current conversations about recognizing saints is that of the Lakota leader Black Elk. Black Elk was born in 1863 in Montana. Early in his life he fought in several prominent battles against the US government. He became a spiritual leader and promoted the traditions of his people. He went to Europe with a Wild West show, missed the boat coming back, and toured the continent a second time. He did eventually return to the lands of his people and years later became a Christian. Black Elk then spent decades working as a preacher and a teacher exploring the profound links between his native spirituality and his adopted Christian faith. Black Elk spent his whole life pitched between cultures, navigating the impact of a growing American empire on his people. And now Lakota Christians are thinking that he might be worthy of being called a saint.
Our congregation’s central reading on November 5 came from I John 3. I John is not a letter. It’s more of an essay. In it John wants to point out some of the ways his readers have been duped by pretend-prophets and unaccountable TED Talk gurus. His readers had begun making a mental distinction between the spiritual Jesus they believed in and the physical world they experienced. They believed that Jesus only seemed to be an actual, physical, skin-bone-muscle kind of a creature. The word theologians would later use to describe this is ‘Docetism’. This is probably why John says in the essay’s opening that he has seen, touched and heard the things about which he is going to tell his readers. On this basis John wanted to reinforce the idea that they are God’s beloved children. They are part of God’s household even now. John believed that we are joined to the Anointed One and through him to the other members of the family, alive and dead.
One night this a few weeks ago I was home while Sarah and the kids were out. It was after dark. The doorbell rang. I went to the door and opened it slowly. On our front porch stood a child holding a knife. He was probably still in the single-digit age range. We looked at each other. He was wearing a white sheet, scribbled on with red marker. He had glued a bunch of single-serving cereal boxes to it. I said hi. He didn’t say anything. I asked about his costume. He looked at me like I was the dumbest person he had met all day.
On that particular night I had already seen many super-heroes, a little girl dressed up as poison ivy, several grim reapers, lots of sheriffs and swat team members, some hockey players, a scarecrow, a couple of knights, many cartoon characters I didn’t recognize, and clumps of teenagers who had simply drawn on their faces and put on some of their parents old clothes. There were even some adults advertising their home-businesses. They were all participating, whether they knew it or not, in this Christian tradition of remembering dead saints and celebrating our continued union with them.
The kid in the marked-up sheet with the cereal boxes stared at me and then matter-of-factly said: “I’m a cereal killer.” I laughed, shuddered a bit, and let him choose some candy from the bowl. The little guy, with his knife and bloodied sheet, had reversed the process described in the passages we heard on Sunday morning. He took a relatively good sheet, a relatively good kid and turned them into a bloody felon. What scripture tells us, what the lives of the saints like Perpetua tell us, is that it works the other way around: God takes bloodied, suffering, damaged people, people who don’t always know the way forward, people maybe like us, and heals them. God purifies them and then brings them into God’s very presence.
This is the deep truth implied in our second reading, the one from the book of Revelation. I happen to think that the best reading of Revelation is one that doesn’t assume the whole book is a documentary of the future. The scene in the seventh chapter involves a crowd of people. They came from every corner of the globe. They had gone through extensive suffering, but they had been restored by God. The trick-or-treater at my door had bloodied his robe. The ones in this scene from Revelation have been to the spa. They’ve been washed and purified. They’ve been given clean, white robes.
I don’t think we need a clearly defined list of saints. I don’t think we need to fill our calendar with days devoted to them. I’m not going to suggest that we fill our church’s alcove with statues and icons. But I do think, at times when feel we suffer alone, at times when we think there is no way someone with our backstory can really love God and our neighbour, at times we may wonder if our future can possibly be anything other than the logical conclusion of our past—at times like those it is worth remembering the saints. At a time like those, maybe right now, it’s worth taking scripture seriously on this point.
We are members of a large household. We have many siblings, many, many more than we greet on a Sunday morning. And some of them are very much like us. Some of them have traveled a path from damaged and bloodied to healing and wholeness that looks very much like ours. I don’t know if we can ask them to pray for us, but they can be our companions.