Filling the Pedestal: Hero? Saint? or Sinner?

A Christian Perspective

Sign with text; Saints & Sinners
Filling the Pedestal: Hero? Saint? or Sinner?
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Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes

The Reverend Dr. Morar Murray-Hayes is the Minister of Maple Grove United Church, and is a member of the Interfaith Councill of Halton. A chatty extrovert with a conversational preaching style, a multi-tasker who is a “multi-worrier” when it comes to caring about people’s problems, and a leader who treasures teaming with the lay people in her church, Morar says that at Maple Grove she has experienced “a deeper level of ministry than I thought possible.” Anyone who has personally received Morar’s deeply compassionate caring and wise counsel will testify to what an inspirational, healing and encouraging ministry it is.

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We do seem to need heroes, don’t we? We like to put people up on pedestals.

The definition of hero includes honor, nobility, bravery, compassion, and fortitude — a moral example.

But the trouble with heroes is that they don’t always stay up on those pedestals.

There is intense pain in having our heroes knocked down.

I must admit I wish I didn’t know about the accusations against Jian Ghomeshi, erstwhile host of a radio program on the CBC. I like to have heroes.

But “a hero cannot bear close examination.” (Alan Edelstein, Everyone is Sitting on the Curb: How and Why America’s Heroes are Disappearing)

Christians have some experience with heroes — historically we have called them saints

November 1st is called ‘All Saints Day’ by Christians. Hallowe’en is the day before and All Souls Day is the day after. All Souls Day is a day when Christians pray for the souls of the dead. All Saints Day is a day when we lift up heroes . . . a day of celebration of all the saints, known and unknown.

Saints …
Some religious traditions distinguish between saints, who obey God’s will, and sinners, who disobey. Others set apart saints as super-holy people. Regular Christians like you and I aren’t particularly bad, they would say, but we haven’t done anything extraordinary enough to be called saints.

… and Sinners
But one could equally argue that we are all sinners. The Lutheran confessions define sin as the self-centered failure to trust God (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article II). Adam and Eve’s problem wasn’t just that they ate a piece of fruit or broke one of God’s rules. Their real sin was their desire to be “like God,” relying on their judgment rather than trusting God’s word. For us, too, our specific sinful behaviors are only symptoms of this self-centered condition that theologians call “original sin.”

Martin Luther’s teaching on saint and sinner
Let’s look at Martin Luther. He was certainly a hero of the Reformation. And he argued we were all saints, so he must have believed himself a saint.

Even in his own life Luther was sometimes better at demonstrating the sinner than the saint.
Let’s be honest: Luther wasn’t always a very nice man.

  • He insulted his opponents
  • He was very very anti semitic
  • He gave lousy advice to Philip of Hesse — yo marry in secret even though he was already married — Luther’s reputation was dramatically damaged by his allowing of a polygamous marriage.

Some feel that all of these things (and many others besides) should be excused in Luther. Yes, defenders might say, Luther was given to inflammatory language, but then so were his opponents. Yes, he wrote On the Jews and their Lies, they continue, but he was a product of a larger anti-Semitic medieval culture.

It is easy to understand why people seek to justify Luther’s errors. We consider Luther to be a hero of the faith. Consequently, we sometimes feel compelled to gloss over that which is distasteful about him.

But Martin Luther himself describes Christians as “simultaneously saint and sinner.”

Luther calls Christians “simultaneously saint and sinner” because he redefines “saint” as a forgiven sinner. We are called saints not because we change into something different, but because of God’s relationship with us.

Any changes are as a result of God’s grace. Luther said: “The saints are sinners, too, but they are forgiven and absolved.”

Our pain is our punishment for putting him on a pedestal

Luther himself taught that saints were simply forgiven sinners.

Being a saint isn’t about what I do or don’t do, but about who I am in relationship with God.

God justifies us despite our failings. He covers us with the blood of Christ and forgives our sin. The recognition that we aresimul iustus et peccator (“at the same time righteous and a sinner”) is a cornerstone of the faith rediscovered by Luther. On the one hand, we understand that we are sinners because of our evil inclinations and actions; on the other hand, we know we are saints because God has forgiven us.”

This truly is why we remember Luther: not because he was always nice, not because he was always good, and certainly not because he was always right. He wasn’t. Instead, we remember Luther because he directed attention always away from himself to Christ.

It is to Christ we look for salvation, not our own holiness.

Luther is calling us to be honest about our sin—to recognize its severity—so that we more fully understand our need for Christ. “We will commit sins while we are here,” Luther continues, “for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.”

Luther, then, did not excuse sin. Nor should we today ignore Luther’s sin or anyone’s. But with Luther, we recognize that the sacrifice of Christ is greater than our sin

God has taken away the sin of the world—our sin—through the free gift of grace. We therefore still stand where Luther himself took his stand—indeed, where all the saints throughout the long history of the Church have always stood: at the foot of the cross.

The fact is, Luther was a man. God accomplished incredibly important things through him . . . but he was nevertheless human. He was flawed and sinful, like you and me.

And really, when you think about it, that is the good news of the Gospel.

We so desire Saints with a capital ‘S’! We yearn to give our allegiance to someone or something. Hero, Saint.

I think this week, I’ve learned it’s time I closed the book on wanting heroes. Whatever good there is to come out of this sad sordid story about a hero pushed off a pedestal, it will be up to the rest of us, to look at ourselves, examine ourselves, and ask if we are putting our trust in God rather than ourselves.

It’s got to be less about them and more about me — am I a saint or a sinner?
We are all saints. Like Martin Luther, we can do saintly things, valuable things.

We are also all sinners. Jesus warns us not to create heroes out of those who may teach us how to be good saints but we shouldn’t emulate them, because they won’t necessarily be following their own teachings. Matthew 23:1-12

Look to yourself and your need for forgiveness.

“Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in faith. Test yourselves.” (2 Corinthians 13:5.)

Rely on God for your relationship with God, not your behaviour.
And may the God who created us all in God’s image bring us closer to God’s heart, where all truth is found.

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