“I’m no saint, but I was glad to help!”
I have sometimes heard that phrase spoken by people in response to a compliment they might have received for some good work. But why is this so? What image of saints do we carry within us that makes us reluctant to be counted among their number? Are we perhaps fearful that one good deed might lead to another, carrying us ever more deeply into a life where we eventually find ourselves way out of our spiritual comfort zones? Maybe that spirit of reluctance is expressed best in the old prayer that goes like this: “Make me good, O God, but not quite yet.”
The word saint can be used to describe someone whose actions demonstrate the highest level of commitment to the well-being of the world, whether in one bold event, or over a lifetime of accumulated care and advocacy. This passion may well involve various kinds of suffering and sacrifice. It can seem to place at risk not only personal safety but relationships with friends and family members.
Over the years the word saint has come to be used in a more inclusive way. It may refer to heroic acts that receive public attention as well as the quiet daily expressions of love that take place well off the main stage of life. Sainthood is for the theologically sure-footed as well as for those wracked with doubts about divine intentions. Most of us might find ourselves at home with the title that Anne Tyler used for one of her books: Saint Maybe.
When we use the word saint to describe all those who express love through a vast array of actions, we haven’t lowered the bar. We’ve just returned to the way that saints were described in the New Testament: not as spiritual elites but as people who organized themselves into gatherings around the Mediterranean world to figure out what in the world it meant to be a Jesus-follower.
When St. Paul wrote to small gatherings of faithful people two thousand years ago, he didn’t address his letters to some of the saints, the great saints, or the cool saints, but to “all the saints.” That would have included the gracious and the grumblers, the clear and the confused, the eager and the hesitant. He wrote to them as if they all had two addresses: one in a geographical location (like Philippi or Rome or Corinth) and one in a spiritual location (“in Christ Jesus”). And he reminded them that all saints are great not because of what they do or where they are born but because they are loved by God and needed by God.
We could all try putting a St. in front of our names from time to time. It would be a reminder that we are today what Jesus-followers were two thousand years ago: people with unique gifts living in unique circumstances who seek to allow the love of God through our words and bodies. All saints. . .then and now for the future.