“A saint is a sinner who keeps on trying” (Nelson Mandela)
Martin Luther once said that a Christian is simultaneously and paradoxically both a saint and a sinner. A Christian is at the same time holy and corrupt, righteous and wicked, blameless and defiled. They are sinners who have been declared holy, righteous, and blameless through faith in Jesus Christ.
November sees us celebrating the festival of All Saints. A passage often used on the day is part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus lists what we call the beatitudes. We may well see these as guidelines for saintly living. We may think we are great examples of being a saint. It’s all too easy to see the beatitudes as requirements for becoming a saint, a goal which we can achieve and fulfil, if we just try hard enough.
But then sometimes we hear these words of Jesus and we despair of becoming a saint altogether. We evaluate our lives according to these characteristics that saints are supposed to have and we realise that we don’t have them. As a result we despair of the fact that we’re not saints and we lose all hope.
But another way of reading the beatitudes is to see them as not being about you and how you should be, but about Christ and how he is, and how his characteristics are given to you. So, then, the beatitudes aren’t telling you how to become a saint, nor are they telling you to try harder at being a saint, they are telling you who you are now in Jesus.
As Christians we live in this life as saints and sinners simultaneously, living by faith in Jesus who forgives us our sin and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. But the day is coming when sin will be no more, when we will only be saints and not sinners – and that is something we start to think about when our thoughts turn to the weeks of Advent, when we reflect on our preparations for the coming of Jesus at the end of time.
In the meantime, we can live under the promise of God’s blessings in Jesus, and remember that we don’t need to pretend, but can accept that he has made us saints, his holy people.