The word saint comes from the Latin word “sanctus” meaning “holy” or “set apart for God”. It is the language used in the Old Testament to describe Israel as God’s called out people whose life is meant to be a living witness to God’s purposes for the earth and all peoples. When Jesus calls his disciples the “salt of the earth” he is calling them saints - a distinctive, peculiar, set apart people. The early church understood that it was essentially a school for saints - a training ground for salty, yeasty disciples of Jesus.
Once membership in the church became a nearly universal reality in Europe the word saint changed in meaning. When everyone in the society is called a “set apart” person then no one is peculiar anymore. This is the reason that, in the world of Christendom, the word saint came to mean a particularly faithful Christian whose life merited imitation and veneration. Hence our resistance to being called a saint. We know that our lives are more flawed than they are perfect and so decline to be counted among the saints.
Yet we find ourselves joining in to sing: “I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in”. This is the song of a people who know that they long to be part of the redeeming, reconciling work of God and who, therefore, seek to live the peculiar lives of sinners who are being saved by God’s astounding mercy. As Martin Luther King and others understood so well such a people need to be carefully trained for sainthood. The determination to share the suffering of others without resorting to violence - the willingness to bear the painful cost of discipleship - requires a church that knows it is, at heart, a school for saints. In such a church all the baptised understand themselves to be set apart as God’s saints for the sake of the world.
In a culture like ours where it is once again a peculiar thing to live a life as a disciple of Jesus Christ this recovery of the church as a school for saints seems not only possible but necessary. The curriculum of a school for saints is meant to be the basis of everything we do at University Hill Congregation. As a result the celebration of All Saints Day is becoming an important festival in our life together. On the Sunday nearest All Saints Day we replace the scheduled lectionary readings with the texts for All Saints. We celebrate the Eucharist. We teach the children that we are all God’s saints - God’s set apart people. And we celebrate a rite of healing for those who wish to move from the Lord’s Table to a kneeler or a chair to be anointed with oil and to receive a blessing with a prayer for healing. This reminds one and all that the saints are not pure and perfect. The saints are those who live with aching brokenness, great grief or chronic despair and yet know the saving love of the God met in Jesus. They are sinners who are being saved. Who among us does not want to be in that number?
(from "Telling Time" by Edwin Searcy)