I’m writing this immediately after our church’s celebration of the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul. A few years back, we began commemorating this holy day on the closest Sunday (the date of the festival is actually June 29). It’s the “name day” of our congregation (St. Paul’s), and it’s a good way to give a special touch to the last Sunday in June. One odd tradition we observe (yes, it was my idea) is to give out Mounds and Almond Joy candy bars after church. For the simple reason that...those particular candies are made by the PETERPAUL company!
A question that continually arises in my ministry is...exactly what do Lutherans think about the saints? The one thing people know is something negative: we don’t pray to them. Actually, I learned something a few weeks ago. When I was trying to figure out what color we should have on the altar immediately after Trinity Sunday, I discovered that June 13 is the Feast of St. Anthony of Padua...the patron saint of my home town of San Antonio! And I realized that he is the Saint Anthony that my Roman Catholic friends pray to when they’ve lost something!
But Lutherans don’t pray to the saints. We feel that we can go “straight to the top”, direct to Christ Himself. Does that mean that Lutherans ignore the saints? Certainly not! In the hymnal that we use, there are many saints’ days. They are all Biblical saints–St. Andrew, St. Stephen, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter and Paul, St. Mary Magdalene, and many others. But certainly our hymnal does not ignore the saints of the Bible.
What about saints after the Bible? Certainly great figures like Athanasius,
Augustine of Hippo, and Bernard of Clairvaux were very influential on the Lutheran tradition. But Lutherans have been a bit skittish about recognizing them in church. Then in 1978, the Lutheran Book of Worship was issued, and it included a calendar of many, many post-Biblical saints–including figures like Martin Luther King and Albert Schweitzer. The LBW upped the ante on saints for Lutherans.
However, our Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod ultimately didn’t accept the LBW, and came up with its own new hymnal. The 1982 Lutheran Worship pretty much rejected all the post-Biblical “saints”–with three exceptions. Lutheran Worship had special feast days for Blessed Martin Luther, our father in the faith...for Blessed C. F. W. Walther, the founding father of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod...and for Saint Laurence.
Whoa! Saint Laurence? No Athanasius, no Augustine, no Bernard...but St. Laurence? Who exactly was St. Laurence? He was a third-century Roman deacon who gave his life for Jesus. A worthy believer, certainly. Two stories stand out in my mind about St. Laurence. The first: When he was arrested, the Roman authorities demanded: “Show us the treasures of the church!” They expected, of course, a bunch of jewel-encrusted, golden chalices. Instead Laurence gathered the poor and the lame, and told the authorities: “Here are the treasures of the church.” Then, Laurence was killed on a kind of giant griddle–fried to death. And legend says that as he was frying on the griddle, he told the authorities: “Turn me over; I’m done on this side.”
Even if these legends are not completely true, Laurence was certainly a worthy figure to celebrate. But the question still arises: Why Laurence, and not Augustine or Athanasius or Bernard?
The answer lies...in Frankenmuth, Michigan. Frankenmuth is one of the cradles of our Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. It began as a Lutheran mission to the Indians (which, alas, did not work out very well). Frankenmuth is the most popular tourist destination in Michigan. It has the largest Christmas store in the world. It has a wonderful glockenspiel that, several times a day, tells the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. It has the two of the busiest restaurants in the country (Zehnder’s and the Bavarian Inn). Our beloved Pastor Herbert Kern went to second grade in the Lutheran school in Frankenmuth (in German!) And...Frankenmuth has a huge Missouri Synod church...called St. Lorenz. The second largest church in the Missouri Synod. Lorenz is, of course, German for “Laurence”! And , amazingly, a son of that huge Frankenmuth congregation was on the committee that assembled the 1982 hymnal.
So St. Laurence beat out Augustine, and Athanasius, and Bernard...simply because he had “clout” on the hymnal committee. This is one among the many reasons why I would never, ever use the 1982 Missouri Synod hymnal (even though I adore Frankenmuth!)
The situation is much happier in our church’s 2006 hymnal. Instead of just three post-Biblical saints, there are many. Yes, Athanasius is there, and Augustine is there, and Bernard is there. (Francis, alas, is not–don’t Lutherans like animals?)
But exactly what do Lutherans do with saints? If we don’t pray to them, what role do they play?
First of all, they are role models. We think about the way they served Jesus and loved Jesus...and it inspires us! We think of how St. Athanasius stood up for the truth that Jesus is God...and it inspires us to stand up for truth in our day. We think of how St. Peter and St. Paul gave their lives as martyrs for Christ...and it inspires us to proclaim Christ’s truth in our day. No, we do not seek them as intercessors...but they do something even more important for us. They show us what it is like to revere Jesus and serve Jesus.
Secondly, even though we don’t pray to them, we pray with them. Today in our service we sang a great hymn, “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones.” And in that hymn we called upon all the ranks of angels, upon the Blessed Virgin Mary, upon the Apostles and the martyrs and all the saints to join us in praising God. Lutherans don’t pray to the saints, but we pray with the saints. As the liturgy says, we join “with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven” in praising the Name of the Lord.
But one thing we need to emphasize is this: all believers are “saints”. Indeed, we celebrate St. Laurence, St. Athanasius, and all the rest...but everyone who belongs to Jesus is a “saint,” a holy person. In his letters. St. Paul often addresses “the saints” in Ephesus, in Rome, in Corinth, etc. And Paul wasn’t addressing a spiritual elite–he was talking to all the believers. All those who belong to Jesus are holy people–saints! If you want to see a saint...look in the mirror! I often refer to something I heard Bishop Kallistos Ware once say: that the key words in Christianity are “one, some and all”. Applying that to “saints”, one arrives at this: there is One who is holy, Jesus Christ the Saviour. There are some who are holy, special saints like Laurence and Augustine. But ultimately all believers are holy people, all believers are saints.
If I believe in Jesus, if you believe in Jesus...WE ARE SAINTS!
Now the challenge is...to act like saints and behave like saints!
God loves you and so do I!