(My comparison of heroes and saints is inspired by Sam Wells in Improvisation)
Who is your hero? Heroes fascinate most of us, even at a young age. I have a lot of heroes. And I’ll let you in on a secret, if you promise not to tell. Most of my heroes are imaginary. They wear capes, masks, and have superpowers. They have odd names like Superman, Spiderman, and Batman. My bookshelf at home is full of their stories.
Who is not captivated by the story of the hero? The evil villain threatens to destroy the entire city and the superhero steps up and saves the day. The hero inspires, motivates and opens up our imagination. They usher us into a new kind of world where good wins and evil is destroyed. We are let down in our daily lives and relationships, but we can always trust the hero. The hero never fails.
I have had a lot of heroes throughout the years; only a few were not imaginary. One living hero was Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong is a cyclist who survived cancer and then went on to win the Tour de France seven consecutive times. This is unparalleled in the world of biking. I wanted to become like him in high school. The problem was that I didn’t have a bike. So I began to wake up at six o’clock and run 5 miles before school. Most of you have probably heard the news that Lance Armstrong has been stripped of all of his titles for doping. I didn’t want to believe it; the guy was like the living superman. But the truth of the matter is that Lance cheated. His teammates no longer deny the allegations; they tell us that Armstrong is a bully and a liar. Now, when you Google the name Lance Armstrong, you will find the word, “cheater.”
What happens when a hero fails? Heroes cease to be heroes. Are there any real, living heroes? Or, can they only be found on pages in a book?
It’s no surprise to me that the word ‘hero’ does not appear in the New Testament. In scripture, there is no such thing as a hero. Scripture prefers a different word to describe those people who inspire and motivate us. They choose the word saint. It is a word that occurs sixty-four times in the New Testament.
The word saint is dangerously close to the word hero. Right? Saints are the people who challenge, inspire, teach and they achieve extraordinary things. But there is a crucial difference. A saint isn’t called to achieve a mythic state of perfection. Rather, the saint is exemplary only because of God. In other words, the beautiful part about sainthood is that you can’t be a saint without being a sinner. Sinning is the first requirement. King David murdered, Moses murdered, Paul hated Christians, and Peter was hot and cold. Saint Augustine struggled with his love of women—his most famous prayer being, “Lord grant me chastity, but not yet.” Martin Luther King Jr. cheated on his wife over and over. Remember when we found out that Mother Theresa wasn’t perfect? Even Mother Theresa had a serious crisis of faith and lived a life of intense darkness.
We don’t look up to these people because they were perfect. We look up to them precisely because of the opposite: they are flawed. My favorite funerals are the ones that tell the truth. “Yeah, Joey drank too much, but do you remember that time he gave his coat to that homeless man?” “Man, Elizabeth had a really bad temper, but do you remember that time she gathered us together to pray for our enemies?” Instead of saving the world, saints realize that they are the ones who need saving. And so, maybe the difference between a saint and a hero is that saints are not expected to be perfect, they are expected to seek forgiveness. For their imperfections teach us that we can’t become saints on our own; God mysteriously makes us one.
For the saints know that they are not at the center of the story. The life of saints is a life spent on the sideline—constantly pointing to something bigger than their own lives. They are God’s sidekicks—the regular people who are faithful to their master. In fact, some of the greatest saints are the ones who never wrote a book or appeared on television. They are the ones who lived faithful, quiet lives making ripples in the lives that they touched. We think that real saints must be famous, but Scripture tells us that they are all around us. Some of the greatest saints are our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, spouses and friends.
It might have been a Sunday School teacher who never said a negative word about someone else; a spouse who showed you what love really is; or, the parents who sacrificed everything to give you a better life. These are the people who never saved the world. They led imperfect lives just like the rest of us. Yet, despite their faults they gave us a peek at Jesus Christ.
Some of my best friends no longer have a heartbeat. Wesley taught me salvation is a process, Bonhoeffer taught me that the Church is worth it even though it puts my blood pressure out of the roof, and Saint Luke taught me that Jesus cares for the most unlikely people. Sometimes I talk to these friends more than I talk to my living friends.
We need these people. Christians are an odd group of people because a lot of our friends are already dead. They are the tenured professors of sin and righteousness 101. They teach us how to forgive. They teach us to say no to sin. They teach us how to smile. They teach us how to love. They made our lives a little more beautiful. For they are saints. They are the ordinary people who fall down, and get picked up by God. They are the ones who show us quick glimpses of the divine, even if it only lasts a second. They are the people who the world calls ordinary, but God calls extraordinary. Who are your invisible companions?
These are the people who are now eternal. They have fought the good fight and have gone to be with God. There is no more suffering or pain and they have been filled with the holiness, righteousness, and infinite knowledge. One day we will be together again. But until that day, we remember the saints—the lessons that they taught, the places that their feet took them and the love they shared. We learn from their mistakes and are inspired by their example. We remember our invisible companions. They weren’t heroes. Thank God. They are saints. God’s saints. May God make us saints, too.