One of the pillars of Lutheran theology is that we are simultaneously saints and sinners (or since we like to throw around latin words, simul justus et peccator). In other words, we are both. We are saints AND we are sinners. Unfortunately I have to confess that my experience of Church teaching focuses much more, if not almost exclusively, on the “sinner” part.
Our sinful nature takes such a prominent place in our theology, that it defines us. It even defines our relationship with God. We are taught that we are sinners, and we are desperately in need of God’s forgiveness. It’s why we begin all of our worship with confession and forgiveness. Supposedly, Martin Luther was “terrified” by his understanding of our relationship with God being based on our sinfulness and our need to beg for God’s mercy. On an even more general level, we say the whole world is in fact screwed because of how much we are sinners, beyond any sense of redemption on our own, and our only hope lies in God’s grace.
This would be an awfully depressing way to understand our relationship with God if it were not for the Gospel: the Good News that God is in fact gracious, does in fact forgive us, and certainly redeems us. However, this model of theology still reduces our relationship with God and the cross event to being solely about the fact that we are inherently evil and in need of forgiveness
What about the fact that we are saints?
I have to admit (again from my experience, anyway) that this is usually used to refer to the fact that we are “made right” with God through forgiveness. It’s the fact that we can stand before God despite the fact that we are sinners. Again, I just feel like this still lets sinfulness define us.
If being a sinner means we are inherently selfish and evil and do things that hurt ourselves, others, and the world God made, can’t the fact that we are saints mean that we are inherently good, and capable of doing things out of compassion for ourselves, others, and the world God made? In other words, don’t forget that you are inherently good.
Let me say that again: you are inherently good. You have inherent goodness. You are good. Despite the fact that even the Church perpetuates the belief that creeps in the backs of our minds that we are not good, or enough, or lovable, or capable of being a positive force of change in the world… Once more: you are good, you are enough, you are lovable, and you are most certainly capable of being a positive force of change in the world.
Our inherent “goodness” is fundamental to Zen – the understanding that we are inherently compassionate and, well, good. This comes from the fact that we are connected and interdependent with each and every living thing and aspect of creation. We are one, living, breathing, interdependent system. Or as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor 12:12 NIV). We need each other, and this world that God made, and so despite the fact that we mess up all the time, we are compelled to care for each other and creation.
Mahayana Buddhism has a concept of the Bodhisattva: a person who is able to reach nirvana but delays doing so out of compassion in order to save suffering beings. In other words, their lives are lived out of compassion for others. We have limited time on this earth. Bodhisattvas use it to help others and make the world a better place.
It’s actually very much in line with the way Christians are called to live: imitating Christ in our words and deeds by living compassionate lives of service to others. Suffering is part of the world we live in. We get bogged down by it in the news, in our communities, and even at home. But as Bodhisattvas, as saints, as God’s people, we can do something about it. Maybe we can’t end all of the suffering in the world today, but we can always act in the present moment to address suffering by acting compassionately towards those around us.
Tell you what: next time you feel bogged down or hopeless by the suffering of the world, rather than despair, or wait until the end of days until God can redeem us, try to be a Bodhisattva instead. Do something nice for someone else. Hold the door. Pay for the coffee of the person behind you in line. Let that person who appears to be in a hurry cut in front of you in line. Offer a friendly smile to someone on the bus. In doing so, you are the light of the world, and the salt of the earth. This is what it means to be a saint.