Monday, April 23, 2007

Saint Misbehavin'

James Martin, evidently not a big fan of Pope John Paul II, nonetheless feels that those who oppose the late pontiff's fast track to sainthood miss the point. I agree with him. But I think that there's another point that Martin himself misses.

Writes Martin:
The naysayers, mainly on the left, see John Paul not as one of the great religious figures of the age, but as a person with whom they often disagreed, particularly on issues of the ordination of women, the Vatican's response to the sexual-abuse crisis, and treatment of gays and lesbians. The most common arguments against his canonization can be boiled down to two: First, I disagreed with him. Second, he wasn't perfect.

Both objections fundamentally misunderstand who the saints are, and were. Many people envision the saints as perfect human beings whose flaws, if any, miraculously evaporated once they decided to become, well, saintly. Popular iconography does little to correct this misconception. Those pristine marble statues, romantic stained-glass images, and kitschy holy cards make it easy to forget that the saints were human beings who sinned not only before their conversions, but afterward, too.
The simple Biblical definition of a saint, as I read it, is this: A saint is a forgiven sinner who lives in fellowship with Christ and the Church.

Saints are neither perfect or super-virtuous, although through their connection with Christ in God's Word, prayer, the Sacraments, and the fellowship of Christ's Church, the Holy Spirit is able, over time, to create Christ-likeness in Christ-followers. Believers in Christ are, as Martin Luther put it, "the Holy Spirit's workshop." They submit to a sometimes painful process by which God weans them from their addiction to sin and self and replace it with a wholesome, healing, liberating connection with God. Every living saint you know is in the process of becoming their true selves, their God-selves.

When I worship with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, I'm surrounded by saints. Imperfect? Yes. Sinners? Yes, just like me. But imperfect, forgiven sinners who seek to live in relationship with the only One Who can give us forgiveness and new life, God as revealed in Christ.

And in Christ too, we see just how desperately God wants to give us forgiveness and new life; His cross makes that clear. "We are all beggars," Luther mused shortly before he died. And so we are, beggars saved from sin and death not by any virtues or powers we possess, but saved solely because we surrender to Christ and let Him give us eternal gifts.

So, saints aren't and, as Martin briefly catalogs, never have been perfect.

But I think that he and my Roman Catholic friends contribute to the misconception that saints are or should be perfect by their very approach to sainthood. They reserve the designation for an elite who've had a doubtful hand in miracles wrought by God. They do so by encouraging believers to speak to dead Christians, asking these supposedly super-saints to pray for them.

I feel very strongly that if the nun whose medical history is the bases on which John Paul's case for beatification is being advanced truly has been delivered from Parkinson's Disease, her deliverance had nothing to do with the late pope. The New Testament teaches that all believers in Christ have unfettered access to the ear and the heart of God through Jesus Christ. It is through Christ that the power, love, and grace of God come to us.

And it is through Christ alone.

[Though I didn't agree with him on many things, I'm an admirer of John Paul II. See here and here.]

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