Sunday message: Corrupt sinners, or saints?

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost – November 3, 2019


Psalm 149

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

Luke 6:20-31

As we put Halloween in the past, the day when people dress up as ghosts or ghouls, dragons or movie characters, it’s good for us to remember that the English word “Halloween” comes from the word “All-hallows evening”.

It’s the night before November 1, known as “All Saints’ Day” or “All-hallows day”, the day after “All-hallows evening.”

Let’s move Halloween aside now.

Frank Logue asks, “How would you define a saint? Would you recognize an actual real-life saint if you came across one?” 1)

Let’s consider this definition: “A saint is a dead sinner, revised and edited.” This was the way early 20th-century satirist Ambrose Bierce described a saint in his 1906 writing, The Cynic’s Work Book.

Isn’t it a bit far-fetched for us to be “saints”? James Hannington worked in East Africa in 1885 as a missionary. He and a team were tasked with building up the church in East Africa. Soldiers of King Mwanga captured the group as they were building a road through the highlands to the banks of Lake Victoria. A week later, on October 29, 1885, King Mwanga ordered their executions. They died while trying to live out God’s love on the shores of Lake Victoria. Today the description of these missionaries could even be described as tainted, merely because they were colonialists. Yes, even here in Canada colonialism doesn’t have a good name anymore, and some would say Hannington and his helpers (and us, too) were villains at the same time as being virtuous well-doers. Isn’t there regularly both in all of us; good as well as bad? 

In our reading from the gospel according to Luke chapter 6, after the section on Blessings and Woes, we hear Jesus say: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt” (Luke 6: 27-29).

This is the kind of faith that Hannington and his team lived out as missionaries in East Africa.

When we search for “saints” or “believers”, we find to our surprise that their lives are complicated. Hailed in her lifetime as a living saint, some were troubled to learn that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had told her spiritual director that she spent most of the years of her ministry in deep doubt, including about the existence of God. This was discovered through sixty-six years of correspondence between Mother Teresa and her spiritual confidants which came to light after her death. The publication of the correspondence was not intended to mar her international reputation; those seeking her sainthood wanted to present the nun as she really was, serious doubts and all. 

That’s why Ambrose Bierce’s tongue-in-cheek definition is actually quite accurate, and even scriptural. Bierce said a believer – a child of God – is a “dead sinner, revised and edited.”

We have all sinned, and we all lack God’s glory.

See, the principle of the church reformer, Martin Luther, still stands. What makes a person a saint is not that they are holy, but that God is holy. Each of us in baptism is buried with Christ in his death, to rise with Him in the resurrection. We are all called to be saints — dead sinners, reviewed and edited by the fact that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross saved us.

We may simply go ahead and serve Christ by serving others, loving God, and loving our neighbours as ourselves. Let’s go out from here with the assurance that we as a community have changed. Even just a little. And the world with it. In no way are we going to do these actions so that we can earn God’s grace and love. This grace and love have already been given to us for free. On the contrary, we love our neighbour as ourselves as a response to that love, with no expectation that anything will come back to us, for God has given us everything.

Friends, there are many other dead sinners who need to know that God loves them as they are, even though God desires to work on them to revise and edit them. It will continue until we join all the saints who have already passed away, along with Hannington and all the others, while the Lord God wipes the tears away from all their faces and we cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

We do not define saints. God does it. And the Holy Trinity wishes everyone would come together around the heavenly throne in that saintly chorus, even you and me.

1) From “Sermons that Work” at


Copyright 2019 – Heinrich Grosskopf, Minister of Dayspring Presbyterian Church

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