Note on today’s liturgy: November 1 in the Western Christian liturgical calendar is All Saints Day—a day to remember and thank God for the lives of God’s people down the centuries who have faithfully witnessed to Christ, often at great cost. Today’s sermon picks up that theme, correcting a common misunderstanding concerning what a saint is.
Scripture Readings: Ruth 1:1-18; Ps. 119:1-8; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34 Sermon by Martin Manuel (from Mark 12)
True Devotion: True Sainthood
When you hear the word saint, what comes to mind? For many, a saint is an extraordinary person—one with special devotion to God. A holy person. When someone says, “I’m no saint,” they typically mean that they are imperfect. Thus the common understanding is that a saint is a person who is essentially free from sin—one who has devoted their life to doing good and being devoutly religious. However, that understanding is not what the Bible means when it speaks of saints.
The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, referencing Ps. 85:8 (KJV), notes that the word saints “seems to be synonymous with the people of God.” It notes that the emphasis in the Bible’s use of the word “does not fall on character… but on divine choice and the bestowal of God’s favor.” In biblical terms, a saint is a person who God, by his initiative, has set apart (sanctified) for his purposes. Just as a person might choose a decorative vessel to hold a plant in their home, God has chosen human vessels for his household. The Bible calls these vessels saints.
Devoted by God, for God
To call a person a saint does not mean they possess goodness of themselves. Saints are ordinary people (sinners all) who God has set apart (sanctified) by the Spirit, to be participants in the sanctified life of Jesus, our representative and substitute. Thus saints cannot boast of their holiness; neither should they be ashamed about being different from the non-believing world around them.
Those made saints of God can consider themselves early participants in the desire God has for all people. All Saints Day, which occurred last Thursday (November 1), and is celebrated by many churches this Sunday, celebrates these facts. One of the common themes of the day is devotion to God—the devotion that characterizes the people of God—those the Bible calls saints.
Our Scripture readings today emphasize this theme of devotion. In our reading in Ruth, we saw the extraordinary devotion that Ruth had for her mother-in-law Naomi. In this sermon, we’ll see what is said about devotion, and about being a saint, in our readings in Mark’s Gospel and also in the book of Hebrews.
Generally speaking, devotion involves committing to the service of the object of our devotion the things we possess and control—our time, energy, interests, finances. As people who are devoted to God, we commit all that we are and all that we possess to him—we choose God above self in every aspect of life. But don’t misunderstand a vital truth of the gospel—before we chose God, he chose us. Before we devoted ourselves to God, he devoted himself to us. Biblically speaking, a saint is a person set apart (sanctified) by God through his initiative, not the initiative of the person being set apart. God then expects set-apart-ones to live the set-apart (devoted) life—the life we share with Jesus. What does that life look like? Glad you asked.
Jesus defines true devotion, true sainthood
Our Gospel reading today in Mark sheds light on this important, though often misunderstood topic. It tells of Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem for the last time before his arrest, and the attacks upon him by various Jewish religious leaders who sought to have him killed. Different groups of these leaders took turns trying to trap Jesus with their questions. Each took their turn in the debate: first the priests, then the Herodians, then the Pharisees, then the Sadducees. All failed to outwit Jesus. Then came a teacher of the law. We pick up the story in Mark’s account:
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” (Mark 12:28)
Unlike the previous challengers, this teacher’s query does not appear to be a trick question. Perhaps he genuinely wanted to understand what Jesus believed. In any case, Jesus gave him this answer:
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)
In his answer, Jesus first quoted the Shema from Deuteronomy 6. To this fundamental creed of the Jews, Jesus added an ethical requirement of the Levitical law that beautifully explains the right relationship between people. We’ll look more at this in a few minutes.
Unlike the others, this Jewish teacher seemed to recognize the wisdom and understanding in Jesus’ answer. He also seemed to understand Jesus’ association of the two commands:
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:32-33)
When Jesus heard this answer, he replied, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). What was it about this Jewish teacher’s response that triggered Jesus’ compliment? Two things:
- Jesus saw that the teacher was sincere. He had approached Jesus with a respectful attitude, unlike the others. He listened to, agreed with and summarized Jesus’ statement—quite a contrast with the approach of the others. Though they were, presumably, devoted to the teaching of the Law, including the Shema, there was nothing saintly about their approach! Thus, when it comes to true devotion, intent is important.
- Jesus saw that the teacher understood that devotion is not synonymous with religious practice. His comparison of the Great Commandments with ceremonial worship showed that he distinguished between true and counterfeit devotion. The ancient practice of offering many religious sacrifices—hundreds and even thousands of animals by some—fell short of revering God and respecting all people. Strangely, people who do not consider themselves religious often understand this truth, a matter that too often evades super-religious types. Jesus said that one who understands this truth is closer to the kingdom of God than those who practice what is essentially empty and thus vain religious devotion.
The makings of a saint
Thus Jesus gets at the heart of what true devotion to God looks like. But who can live up to that? We all fall short. Are we thus without hope? Our reading today in Hebrews gives some needed encouragement and instruction:
How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! (Heb. 9:14)
Here is the solution to our quandary. Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, perfectly obeys God—he is perfectly devoted to God—on our behalf, as our representative and substitute. Jesus’ unblemished life—a life of perfect submission to the Father, out of love—fulfilled the Great Commandments to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Jesus’ blood, shed on the cross, cleanses us inwardly by erasing our sins and consecrating us as holy and devoted to God. The ESV, NASB and NRSV translations of this verse all have “dead works” instead of “acts that lead to death” as in the NIV. Dead works include not only violations of the Law but also fruitless religious activity.
It is this consecration of humanity by Jesus that is the basis of our being saints. The ultimate purpose of that consecration is to set us free, as saints (those set apart by God), to minister to God as his holy (sanctified) vessels. That is what the word serve in Hebrews 9:14 means in context.
Saints are vessels that have been devoted, by God, to his purposes and will.
This then takes us back to what Jesus said in Mark’s account concerning the two Great Commandments of the Law. As those set apart by God (saints), we share, through the Spirit, in what Jesus has done to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
“But,” you might be asking, “what does that sharing look like?” The answer is important, for misunderstanding it leads to many bad results—things like discouragement, weakened faith, self-righteousness, legalism, and even licentiousness.
The truth is that 1) Jesus accomplished obedience for us, and 2) now the Holy Spirit is working that obedience out within us over the course of our lives as we trust in and follow Jesus. Knowing and relying on these twin realities encourages us to confidently live in Christ, yielding to him in all things. Then when we fall short (and we will), we admit it, face it, prayerfully confess it, and go forward with our lives, knowing that we are saints, not sinners. Yes, we are saints who sin, but our sin has been forgiven, and we live accordingly as the saints we were chosen to be.
Instead of saying, “I’m no saint,” we can confidently declare that, in Christ, we are saints, set free to live accordingly, in Christ, by the Spirit. Think about what that means: We have been set apart by the Creator and Owner of all that is! That is a special status—a high calling. Being a saint is not a matter of personal pride—we did not earn this designation. Being a saint is not about being better than others—God selected us because he is good, not because we are good. He did so that we might participate with him in his plan for the restoration of all humanity, indeed all the cosmos!
I’m sure you know the lyrics to Louis Armstrong’s famous song:
Oh, when the saints, go marching in
Oh, when the saints go marching in
I want to be in that number
When the saints go marching in
Here is the wonderful truth: If you are a follower of Jesus, you are in that number already. You have been set aside as a saint of God! You and I have been forever devoted to God in and through Jesus. Therefore rejoice! Our Father, who set us apart in his Son before creation and gave us the Holy Spirit, placed us in that number. So saints—march on! March on in your devotion; march on in your participation in the Father’s mission!
The hymn embedded below addresses the All Saints Day theme. It could be shown as an alternate conclusion to this sermon.