Saints aren’t just people who appear on somebody’s official list. That’s one meaning, of course, and a legitimate one. But “to sanctify” originally means “to set apart,” or “to single out,” so “saint” means God’s “set-apart,” “singled-out” people—the people singled out by God to be gathered up with Christ into God’s common life (Eph. 1:10).
According to Revelation that’s “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9).
According to a few other New Testament writers that multitude might just include everybody—not just Episcopalians, not just people called Christians, but everybody, period. With Christ “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col. 1:20). That’s how one writer puts it.
And so on All Saints’ Day we celebrate the communion we share with all God’s singled-out people in Christ—and that means everybody. It’s not just the departed, it’s not just the “heroes” or even the “extraordinary” Christians. It’s not just Christians. It’s everybody. Even you. Even me.
Sure, we can refuse to be saints every day of our lives, and that’s why we can make such a mess of things, but God has still singled us out to find our lives by letting them go into God’s common life, and there’s nothing we can do to change God’s mind about that.
That’s such an attractive thing to say until I apply it to people I can’t help loathing. And if I’m honest, I have to confess that there are lots of people I can’t help loathing. And I’m pretty sure you have to say the same thing, if you’re totally honest.
So picture one of those people you can’t help loathing. Maybe all you have to do is turn on the news for a reminder. Now remember: just like you, just like me, God has still singled that person out to find their life by letting it go into God’s common life, and there’s nothing they or we can do to change God’s mind about that. That person is a saint, because if not, you’re not either, nor am I, nor is anybody we’ve canonized.
I’m not suggesting that this person you can’t help loathing hasn’t actually done loathsome things. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t call them out for that. Please do. We are all accountable for what we do to one another. But when we let our loathing define that person, we are failing to recognize that they, like we, are works in progress, and failing to notice that we too do things that others may find loathsome. And we can’t let our own lives go into God’s common life if we aren’t welcoming the people we loathe to join us in that ongoing, often contentious process.
Of course, I’ve never met anybody, including me, who could be that welcoming, not consistently. But God is that welcoming, consistently. And God’s welcome can empower us to keep at it.
God has still set all of us apart, singled all of us out, to find our lives by letting them go into God’s common life, and there’s nothing we can do to change God’s mind about that. Welcome to sainthood.