I first read Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air, when I was traveling through Africa in between semesters when I studied at the University of Cape Town. “Traveling through Africa” conjures up all kinds of romantic images for people, but the actual travel part of traveling is like a lot of places: long, monotonous roads; slow buses; and a lot of time to kill. So I think I read Into Thin Air, Krakauer’s harrowing account of the deadliest climbing season on Mount Everest in history, on one long bus ride between Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. And then I read it again. And again. Partially because we were traveling light and it was about the only book I had at the time besides guidebooks. But partially because the narrative was so gripping.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t the story itself which captivated me, despite its action movie plot of a group of hikers who struggle to survive a sudden and devastatingly powerful blizzard as they descend from the heights of Mount Everest, ultimately resulting in the deaths of eight climbers. What was truly mesmerizing was the journey into the culture and mindset of the community of high-altitude climbers. You expect such people to be extremely adventurous, obviously. But what is odd about climbing Everest in particular is that very little of it is technically challenging. In other words, you can be a pretty inexperienced climber and still climb Everest, because it does not challenge your climbing skills so much as your endurance and resolve. “Above the comforts of Base Camp,” Krakauer reflected, “the expedition in fact became an almost Calvinistic undertaking. The ratio of misery to pleasure was greater by an order of magnitude than any mountain I’d been on; I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking above all else, something like a state of grace.” Now, that’s a terrible definition of both grace and Calvinism, but that’s mostly the legacy of bad Calvinist theologians through the ages, not Krakauer himself, who is neither Calvinist nor Christian. But it’s interesting because climbing Everest is in many ways the exact opposite of grace: it is not an unearned gift, it is achieving something beyond the grasp of most human beings who have ever lived by enduring a grueling, life-threatening experience: pushing yourself to the very limits of where humans can survive in order to stand on top of the highest mountain in the world.
But even that achievement is considered somewhat dubious by many of the most respected and skilled mountain climbers. Most people who climb Everest pay nearly $100,000 for a guide company to help them make the summit. That includes not simply guidance up the mountain, but also providing you with bottled oxygen to breathe above 25,000 feet, carrying literally all your supplies for you, setting ropes to help you get up and down more quickly, even pitching your tent for you and making your food. As a result, a hierarchy within the climbing community developed. If you are a “real” climber, you make the summit without bottled oxygen, which is immensely more difficult because of what a lack of oxygen does to your physical and mental functioning at that altitude. If you’re truly elite, you do the summit not only without oxygen, but solo, carrying all your own supplies up and down with you. And if you want to be a legend, you do all that up a route that nobody has ever climbed before. Only one person in known human history has ever done that on Mount Everest: Reinhold Messner, the patron saint of high-altitude climbing.
I say that because that’s how we typically think about who a saint is: someone who is so extraordinary and accomplished in their faith, someone with such rare achievements as a Christian that they are held up as someone to both inspire and challenge us in our own faith. Saints, as they are commonly understood, are remarkable Christians who lived out their faith remarkably, in ways that border on or even embrace the miraculous. In fact, in Roman Catholic Christianity, you can’t be considered a saint until you are first found to have lived a life of “heroic virtue” and there are at least two “verified miracles” that can be attributed to your intercession with God on behalf of someone after you have died and are in heaven. And that has informed the popular understanding of what saints are: a sort of Hall of Fame of Christianity, a truly elite group of “real” Christians who achieved lives that were so holy, so powerful and pure, that they simultaneously show us the best ways to live out our faith and show us how far away we ourselves are from doing so.
But that is not actually the earliest Biblical understanding of saints. My dear friend and mentor Fred Anderson, who was the senior pastor at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City when I was an associate pastor there, likes to tell a story about learning what it means to be called saints. It begins with him and Tom Tewell, whom some of you know from Tom’s ministry as an associate pastor right here at First Presbyterian of Bethlehem back in the 1970s. They were good friends as students at Princeton Seminary, and one day they were walking across the campus when their paths crossed with Jim McCord, the already-legendary president of the seminary. “Good morning, saints,” Dr. McCord greeted them. Fred and Tom glanced at each other, and then Fred said, “Oh, Dr. McCord, if you knew us, you wouldn’t say that.” But Dr. McCord didn’t laugh or even smile, he just shot back immediately, “If you knew your New Testament, you would know what I mean. Have you forgotten your baptisms?” And with that, he left them in his dust staring at each other, realizing that they had failed a test they didn’t even realize they were taking.
What Dr. McCord meant was that the Biblical understanding of saints is not an elite collection of outstanding Christians, not a Hall of Fame of the Faithful. In his letters, the Apostle Paul frequently addresses the churches to whom he writes as “saints.” In the Apostles’ Creed, we say we believe in the “communion of saints.” In the most traditional communion prayers, there is a place that talks about “joining our voices with all the faithful of every time and place;” that is the communion of saints. It is the full community of the people of God, past and present; all those joined to Jesus Christ in and through their baptisms, and living out that calling together through the power of the Holy Spirit. Sainthood is a community, not a commodity; it is something that is lived out in relationship, not something achieved on its own. So even just Tom and Fred together could be called “saints,” regardless of how they thought of themselves individually, because as friends and fellow students and disciples, they were helping each other grow in their life of faith and embodying something of Christ’s love and grace to each other.
Today is All Saints’ Day on the Christian calendar, the day that we celebrate the lives and ministry of all the saints of the Christian church throughout the ages, and we remember especially those saints who completed their baptisms as their life on this earth ended and they joined “the nearer presence of God,” as heaven is sometimes called. But it is also the perfect time to remember that we are all saints, not because of our remarkable spiritual achievements or our spiritual perfection, but because in our baptisms God claimed us and called us together in the communion of saints, growing in grace and in discipleship together. In the Christian faith, we are never alone; each of our stories is part of the greater saga of God’s people.
And each of us has a seat at the common table in Christ’s presence. In a few minutes, we will share the sacrament of Communion together, which is often described as a foretaste of the heavenly feast that Christ sets for us in eternal life, the communion of Christ in the communion of saints, of all the faithful of every time and place. Our passage from Isaiah this morning, though, is perhaps my favorite description of what that will be like. On a mountain, yes, but not on a mountain that a heroic few are able to climb and conquer on their own. Rather, Isaiah says, “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.”
All those saints who have gone before us, whether this year or long ago, are already seated at that table, reveling in the richness and fullness of God’s grace. All the ones who lived dramatic lives of faith, and the many more who lived ordinary lives of faith, infusing even the most drab, mundane moments of life with the warmth and brightness of Christ’s love. And there are seats for all of us, as well, all of us who are still running the race of faith.
So where are you in that race right now? Do you feel energized, the spiritual endorphins pumping, confident of your calling and your capacity to answer? Do you feel weary, because it seems you’ve been running so long and don’t seem to be getting anywhere? Do you feel numb, knowing that your legs are still moving but you can’t even feel them anymore? Wherever you may be, however you may be, come to Christ’s table and be refreshed and renewed. Join in with all the saints, past and present, and be filled and satisfied. Because the road is long, and can be hard at times; but you are never alone on it, and never without sustenance, and together with all the saints, Christ will make sure that we all make it home in the end.