Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
What is it that makes someone a saint? How do we recognize saints today? The various answers to these questions emphasize the drastic differences between the Lutheran Church and other churches. I know this is a sermon and not a Bible study class, but please indulge me for a moment—I promise we’ll get to the point eventually.
Let’s use the example of the Roman Church. Recognizing a saint is a tedious process, one that has changed over the centuries; and I’ll give you a brief overview. The first step in recognizing a saint is that this person must be dead. After a five-year waiting period—except in special cases like that of Mother Theresa or Pope John Paul II—a person can be nominated. They will be called “Servant of God” as their life is researched. At some point, this person’s body must be taken from the ground and examined, and they collect relics of that person. Once it has been determined that this person is extremely virtuous, they are given the title of “Venerable”. If this person was martyred or had a miracle happen because of prayers said to them, then they will be given the title “Blessed”. Finally, if another miracle occurs because of prayers said to them, they are given the title of “Saint”. How many of you think you’d qualify for sainthood by that definition?
So how do Lutherans recognize a saint? What makes someone a saint in the eyes of a Lutheran? Well . . . let’s get back to that. Before we do that, let’s look at two individuals who both the Roman and Lutheran Church consider to be saints. In our Gospel lesson we have Saint Peter. We all know Simon Peter’s story. He was a fisherman whom the Lord called straight from the boat. The first time we see Simon, he says what everyone else is thinking: “Stay away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” And then he does it again in our Gospel lesson: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” When Jesus announces that He’s going to Jerusalem to die, Peter says, “No way, Lord”—and we’d do the same thing in his place. It’s as if Peter is us, only he’s right there as the action is happening. But does that make him a saint?
And then there’s Saint Paul: Paul the tent-maker; Paul the Pharisee; Paul the murderer. Again, we see in Paul our own story. He is, in the beginning, the anti-Christian. He’s the one who finds the Christians and persecutes them. He’s the one who holds the cloaks of the people who stoned Stephen to death. And then, out of nowhere, the Lord takes hold of him and reveals to Paul the truth. Paul goes from persecutor to confessor. Does that make Paul a saint?
So . . . How do Lutherans determine what makes someone a saint? Are you ready for another long-winded explanation? That’s too bad; there won’t be one. There are only two things that make someone a saint in the eyes of a Lutheran. First, was this person Baptized? As we all know, Baptism drowns the old Adam, and a new, righteous, justified, holy person is reborn. And the second question we ask is, “What did this person confess?” Look at St. Peter in this morning’s Gospel. He said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Look at how all the Apostles lived . . . and how most of them died. They confessed Christ in their lives, and most of them confessed Christ by dying rather than denying Him.
This morning we can look around and see a bunch of saints. How do I know this? Each one of you said, “I believe in God the Father Almighty; I believe in Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God; and I believe in the Holy Spirit.” By that confession you have proved yourselves to be saints. The last time I was here, we watched three young men make an adult confession of faith. They are saints, joined in the Communion of Saints.
It’s possible for a person to make a confession that they don’t really mean, of course. It’s possible to renounce your baptism and what God has done for you there. Pastors cannot read what’s in your heart. It’s not up to me whether or not you’re a saint. Merely saying the words does not make someone a saint. I may be fooled; I assure you, God will not be.
As you can see, we Lutherans have taken a different road to recognizing saints. For some, sainthood is about what a person has done. For us, sainthood has always been about what God has done for us. Wait a second, though. Didn’t I just say that we recognize a person by the confession they make? I did, didn’t I? Then how can it be what God has done for us? Aren’t we the ones making the confession?
Look at what Jesus says to Peter in our Gospel lesson. “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” The only way Peter makes this correct confession of faith is that God the Father reveals the truth to Peter. In the same way, we all know how prolific Paul was in confessing the faith in what he wrote. These were not merely the words of Paul; this is the Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit. And the confession of faith we made this morning? We could not make that confession without the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
If being a saint were up to us, if being a saint depended on our own actions, there is no one on earth who could be considered a saint in the eyes of God. By the definition of the world, there are many people who are saints. In fact, the world considers many to be saints who don’t even believe that Jesus in the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the One with the word of eternal life. By the world’s definition, for example, the Dalai Lama is a saint. Certainly the Dalai Lama is enlightened. Certainly the Dalai Lama has lived a righteous life. However, if the Dalai Lama does not speak with his mouth the confession God has given him that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God and the only source of salvation, then he is not a saint. The same goes for anyone who the world considers “holy”. If they refuse to confess Christ as Lord and Savior, then they are not a saint.
You, however, are a saint. You have been washed in Baptismal waters and made holy. You have confessed your sins, and those sins have been forgiven you in the word of Holy Absolution. Those sins have been loosed, both on earth and in heaven! You have spoken the confession that God has placed in you, the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. You have been and will be fed with the body and blood of Christ, the meal of saints. You don’t have to worry about being nominated. In Christ, you are one of the elect! You don’t have to live a life of exceptional righteousness, for Christ has lived that life for you and has made it yours! You don’t have to have people pray to you and have those prayers answered miraculously. That’s God’s job, and He does it perfectly well. You don’t even have to die. Christ died on your behalf.
Like St. Peter and like St. Paul, you are saints. You have been Baptized. You have spoken the true confession of a saint with Peter: Jesus, you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And the gates of hell shall not prevail against that confession. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.