Ordinary Saints

Rev. Christopher Raffa

"Lutheran theology left no place for a wonder-worker or a super-human intercessor; the Reformation saint's sole task was to point to God through word and example." (Robert Kolb, For All The Saints, p. 138)

St. Vincent (2014) is an American comedy-drama film. It stars Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy. The movie is not for everyone. It has material that is not suitable for young children. And it certainly doesn't conform to the popular and pietistic belief that a "saint" is a wonder worker, flawless human being, or a super-human intercessor. Vincent is a Vietnam War veteran and retiree living in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. He is a grumpy alcoholic who smokes and gambles. His wife, Sandy, developed Alzheimer's many years ago and no longer recognizes him. Yet he still cares for her, doing her laundry and visiting her weekly. Maggie and her son, Oliver, are his new neighbors. Maggie, forced to work long hours, has no choice but to leave Oliver in the care of Vincent. A strange friendship develops between this odd couple. Vincent brings Oliver along on all his routine stops: race track, strip club, and the local dive bar. Vincent helps Oliver to grow to become a man, while Oliver beings to see in Vincent something that no one else sees: an ordinary saint.

One day Oliver is sitting in his new 7th grade classroom at a Roman Catholic school. Oliver's teacher is a tolerant priest who accepts all "faiths" in his classroom. When the priest asks Oliver to lead the class in morning prayer, Oliver responds, "I think I am Jewish." The catholic priest indifferently responds, "Good to know." At one point the priest asks the classroom of kids, "What is a saint?" The kids rattle off a few names, the principle one being, St. Jude. But then the priest asks if they know any modern-day saints? This got Oliver thinking. Through highs and lows of their relationship, Oliver begins to see Vincent as a broken yet strangely sanctified saint. Oliver decides to do his presentation on Vincent. He opens his presentation with these words, "On the surface, one might think that my saint is the least likely candidate for sainthood. He is not a happy person. He doesn't like people and not many like him. He's grumpy, he's angry, he's mad at the world, and I am sure full of regrets. He drinks too much, he smokes, he gambles, curses, lies, and cheats. And he spends a lot of time with the Lady of the Night. That's what you see at first glance. If you dig deeper you see a man beyond his faults." Oliver goes on in his presentation to paint the picture of a man broken by the world, by his sin, by his flesh, yet redeemed as one who carries out a life of courage, compassion, and self-sacrifice. I would encourage you to watch the full clip of Oliver's presentation. You can find it by clicking here.

Sainthood: It's a squirrelly thing. Its definition is far more flexible than our minds are willing to admit or our eyes opened to seeing. November 1st in the church year marks the Festival of All Saints. The word "saint" comes from the Latin word sanctus, which simply means "holy." By your Baptism into Christ you are declared a saint, a holy child of God, washed clean of all sin. All Saints Day is a day not of your own making but rather of the Lord's doing. All Saints Day is a day which the Father has made by His Son's all cleansing fleshly Word, "I forgive you all your sins." In this proclamation, He dresses His bride, the church, in white, in His Word that redeems and renews all things. This is the day that we confess that Lord has joined in His blood the one church, the una sancta, militant and triumphant, we who struggle down here below and those in glory who shine above in the heavens. We must understand: The Word displaces all our errant thoughts concerning the saints of the holy bridegroom. At the time of the Reformation it was Martin Luther's "emphasis on the Word of God, active in human history, that changed the definition of God's power and how it works in the world. No longer could mythical heroes displaying their own power command attention; those, rather, who had announced and pronounced God's saving power in his Word throughout Christian history became the new heroes of the faith. What was really important to Luther, however, was not the hero but the Word, as it brought God's power to bear on human life" (Kolb, For All The Saints, p. 16. Italics mine).

The Festival of All Saints brings together remembrance and confession, example and gift. We remember the lives of the saints and martyrs even as we confess their existence and their life hidden beneath Christ who is the life of all the living. If every Sunday is a "little Easter," it must also be said that every saint's day is a "miniature Sunday." The death and resurrection of Christ are celebrated in the lives and deaths of the saints and martyrs. Remembrance, thanksgiving, redemption, and fulfillment all come together as the Word of God testifies, "these are the ones coming out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Revelation 7:14).

Like Vincent, we are all ordinary saints. Broken yet blessed. Flawed yet forgiven. Sinful yet sanctified. Holy yet hypocrites. The world only knows and sees saints made of gold and silver, of extraordinary lives lived beyond the call of duty. Christ and His church knows and sees saints made of water and Word, bread and Word, wine and Word, whose lives are lived in this Word and this Word alone. "In our life, when we are exercised by the Word in the church and use of the sacraments, we are also plagued by various trials, and our faith is tested like gold in a furnace. This is true saintliness, because of which we are called and are saints. For the Holy Spirit sanctifies through Word taken hold of through faith, and he mortifies the flesh by means of sufferings and troubles, in order that the saints may be quickened and may present their bodies as a living sacrifice" (Kolb, For All The Saints, p. 20).

Rev. Christopher Raffa is Associate Pastor of Pilgrim Evangelical Lutheran Church in West Bend, Wisconsin.

Created: November 2nd, 2015