Our favorite books are generally not the ones that we disagree with strongly, and neither are they the books which simply reiterate everything that already know. Our favorite books are the ones that put to words the ideas that have been floating in the back of the our mind for months or years or decades, the ones which reconcile the seemingly disjointed bits of knowledge, giving us a clear picture of what was murky and confusing. Over the summer, NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope did this for me: it made sense of my confusion about historical views of resurrection, about what heaven is, and about my inherent love of God’s creation on this earth. I would highly recommend it for all Christians.
Although I do not celebrate the same days of commemoration as are traditional in the Anglican or Catholic tradition, I appreciate the sentiments behind what Wright says as he discusses “All Saints Day” and “All Souls Day.” He points out that “this commemoration assumes a sharp distinction between the ‘saints,’ who are already in heaven, and the ‘souls,’ who aren’t and who are therefore still less than completely happy and need our help (as we say today) to ‘move on'” (Wright 168). Within my own thinking, it had been well established that there was an important distinction between the ordinary average member of the early church and the saints – St. Peter or St. Paul or St. James. Even though I don’t generally use the name “saint” to refer to them, I viewed them with all the same properties.
Yet as Wright reminds us, “In the early Christian writings all Christians are ‘saints,’ including the muddled and sinful Corinthians” (169). This can be easily seen from a quick survey of the verses with the word saints in them:
- “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” – Romans 1:7
- “Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there…” – Romans 15:31
- “If any of you has a dispute with another, dare he take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the saints?” – 1 Corinthians 6:1
- “To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia…” – 2 Corinthians 1:1
- “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus…” – Ephesians 1
Recognizing that all believers in the church are saints changes our thinking in two ways:
- It calls us higher – it calls us to start acting like saints. Since reading Surprised by Hope, I have started asking myself questions like, “Is my behavior like that of a saint?” “Would a saint do this?” This is mostly a way to not get sick of the other question which I often ask myself, which is “Is this action pleasing to God?” But also, it reminds me that I am a saint, that my character should be fitting my identity as a saint, and sometimes remembering that sense of identity challenges me to behave even better than I would if I simply ask, “Would God like this?”
- It prevents idolatry. Although we should admire and be humbled by those noteworthy Christians of yesteryear who did amazing things for God’s kingdom, remembering that all Christians are saints also reminds me that all saints are human. They struggled with fears and doubts and questions. One of the most surprising revelations in recent years came when Mother Teresa’s letters were published; although she did amazing work for God, she was filled with a spiritual void and emptiness during the later portion of her life. Saints do not have to be perfect. Paul was imperfect. Peter was imperfect. The only one who ever achieved perfection was Jesus.
There are all sorts of other implications from these beliefs, and if you’d be interested in checking them out, NT Wright also has a short book (only 70 pages) titled For All the Saints? which I would happily loan to anyone on campus. But more importantly, check out Surprised by Hope. His discussion of sainthood is only one of many great insights from the book.