“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
We observe the Feast of All Saints today. But you may rightly ask: Why? Why have such a day on the Lutheran church year calendar? Do “saints” have any significance for our faith?
Let me say this at the outset: The saints are not important for us for our faith because they might in any way be the mediator between Christ and us. And certainly, the saints are not important because they might be the recipients of our prayers and petitions, as if we were afraid to address almighty God directly. And most certainly, the saints are not important to us and to our faith because they performed so many good works that they could pass some of them on to us.
Friends! There isn’t anyone on the face of the earth who is able to over-fulfill the works our faith calls for. On the contrary, there is no saint in heaven or on earth who is not totally dependent on the mercy and undeserved grace of Christ and the forgiveness He has promised to grant to any repentant sinner. However, Christ Himself shows us what kind of help for our Christian faith the saints can provide and why it is good to remember them. We commemorate the saints:
- Because it frees us from relying on our own spiritual achievements.
- Because it encourages us to grow in faith.
- Because it directs our focus to the final goal.
We are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), the faithful here on earth and above in heaven, encouraging and helping us to persevere in the Christian faith. The saints are with us and they are waiting for us.
Fittingly, each of our readings for this day has an already now/not yet feel to it. Theologians describe this already now/not yet view as eschatological, a word meaning, “regarding the end times.” As Lutherans, we understand that we are already now living in the end times—the period of time from Christ’s ascension to His return on Judgment Day. Jesus is now seated at the right hand of the Father, reigning over heaven and earth. His kingdom has come in His life, death, and resurrection. It comes to us already now individually as God makes us His children through water and Word, a deposit on the even greater blessings to come.
In the first reading, St. John has a vision of the throne room in heaven. He sees a great multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, clothed in white robes and worshiping God. Drawn onward and upward by the magnificence of this hope in Christ, God’s people join in the heavenly chorus even now, as we sing “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” How incredible to be part of that blessedness!
In our Epistle, St. John reminds us that we are God’s children now, and we have even greater things ahead—what we will be has not yet appeared, when Christ appears we shall be like Him.
In the Gospel, this already now/not yet tension is reflected most obviously in the tense of the verbs, repeated in each verse: the present, “Blessed are…” and the future, “they shall…” Though we will not fully experience the glory of His kingdom until the Last Day, we nevertheless possess the blessings of the reign of heaven even now: forgiveness, Baptism into Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit for faith and obedience, the nourishment of the Eucharist, the fellowship of the redeemed. Jesus declares that we are eschatologically blessed, already now.
It is Jesus Himself who turns sinners into saints. Those thus made saints in our Gospel are not dead; rather, they gather as a large, lively group on the hillside next to the Sea of Galilee to listen to the Sermon on the Mount.
You become a saint when Christ calls you “holy.” “Holy” means something like “belonging to God,” “set apart for God.” And you become holy when Christ Himself declares: “You belong to God; you can now live in fellowship with Him forever.” Therefore, let me tell you this: Christ already declared you holy, made you a saint, in your Baptism. So all of you here this day, you are all saints. And you didn’t earn this title of honor because you have led or will from now on lead an exemplary life. You were beatified, declared to be a saint.
Just such an action was carried out by Jesus among the people gathered on the hillside at the lake. He led them into God’s kingdom—not because they were able to point to some immense spiritual achievement or because they passed a holiness test, not even the testing of their faith. Nothing of their own qualified them to be called “saints”—except this: that they came to Jesus with completely empty hands, that they had nothing to offer to God that could have impressed Him. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v 3). That’s the way Jesus makes saints.
That’s the way Jesus acted on you, and there was and is nothing that you added. You became a saint, were made holy, because in Baptism, God took you to be His child, without you adding anything to that act. And nothing will change that until the day you die. What counts at the end of your life is not the number of spiritual brownie points you accumulated through all sort of “good works.” At the end, only this will count: that you stand before the judgment seat of Christ, show Him your totally empty hands, and beg Him to fill them for you.
This is what we ought to practice in our Christian life on earth: asking Christ constantly to shower His gifts of grace and mercy on us, not to expect anything from ourselves but to expect everything from our Savior. This is what the saints who have gone before us can teach us.
In various old churches in Germany, you can still find the old Lutheran confessionals. On these confessionals, you can see interesting depictions of the saints. You see Peter and the rooster, David after his adultery with Bathsheba, the prodigal son. How encouraging this must have been for those coming to confession and absolution! Look at these saints of old—they were no better than you. The only thing that counts is God’s forgiveness in Christ, so richly promised to all penitent believers. You do not have to rely on your own meager spiritual achievements; in fact, you should not. We learn that from the examples of Peter, David, and all the saints of old.
Did you notice it in our Gospel? The people whom Jesus receives into the kingdom of heaven, the ones whom Jesus declares to be saints, are pretty much the opposite of what most people in our society aspire to. Poverty is not our goal; we seek possessions. Instead of suffering, we would rather have fun. Forget meekness! Use your elbows to shove others out of your way. Instead of mercy, we choose cleverness. And we do not want to sacrifice our lives, but strive to keep them at any price.
But there is one who has done all these things—Christ Jesus! And He has done them for you, in your place. Though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich. The eternal Son of God made Himself nothing, taking the form a servant, and being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient even to the point of death. Jesus, the Son of God is the Prince of Peace. He literally hungered and thirsted for righteousness’ sake, resisting temptation in the wilderness and suffering on the cross. He was mocked and scorned, yet opened not His mouth. Those who trust in Jesus are blessed by being God’s sons and daughters, heirs and co-heirs with Christ of His heavenly kingdom, a kingdom that’s blessings we have even now in part, but will fully enjoy in the new heaven and new earth.
When Christ invites people into His kingdom, He puts His imprint on them, empowers them to live lives that from then on follow His footsteps. The examples of the saints gone before encourage us to lead the different life, not do what “everybody else” thinks proper. That’s why we commemorate the saints. They give us encouraging examples of the counter-cultural Christian life of faith and hope.
All sorts of exemplary models of sainthood could be mentioned at this point, both of the past and of the present. Let me just mention a few examples of sainthood in daily life you might recognize. There’s St. Dorothy, St. Walt, St. Gwen, St. Doris, St. Pat, St. Sarah, St. Dorothy, St. Paul, St. Dorothy, St. Donald. These are the members of the congregations in our parish who have passed away since All Saints Sunday last year.
Like all other saints, none of them earned their way to heaven by their deeds of love or the strength of their faith. They received grace and thus can be an encouragement to our faith. They were baptized into the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. They were clothed in Christ’s righteousness. Fed with Christ’s very body and blood. Declared forgiven and holy through God’s Word. Through these means of grace, they were blessed.
Christ Jesus makes some amazing promises to those He calls “blessed”—promises that go far beyond anything fulfilled in our lifetime. Jesus promises nothing less than heaven itself to “the poor in spirit… those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” And He promises never-ending consolation to those who mourn and are reviled for His sake. Indeed, they who are pure in heart shall see God. Christ Jesus thus directs our eyes to that goal at which so many before us have arrived. He fulfilled the promises He had made in the Sermon on the Mount. They now stand in God’s presence. They see what they believed, participate in heaven’s unending life, are forever consoled, and sing unceasing praises to God’s holy name.
What encouragement to us, my fellow Christians, to stick to it, to persevere in the faith, never give up or fall away, always focusing on the goal to be achieved. God has led the saints of old in their faith; in Baptism, He promised to do the same for you.
You do not walk toward the goal by yourselves, alone. You are surrounded by the multitude of saints, both those visible sharing with you the church pew this day and those who have gone before to their final completion in Christ. “Rejoice and be glad,” Jesus called out to all who were persecuted because of Him. “Rejoice and be glad,” He calls out to all of us. You’ve not taken the wrong road, even though it may at times look like that. You are on the right road to the right goal, to the kingdom of heaven, where they’re waiting for you already: David, Peter, your own loved ones who have died in the faith, and innumerable others as well. Isn’t that a terrific reason to “rejoice and be glad”?
Go in the peace of the Lord and serve Him with joy, you saints of God! You are blessed. You are holy. Yours is the kingdom of heaven. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This sermon is an adaptation of sermon by Wilhelm Torgerson, published in Concordia Pulpit Resources, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House), Volume 22, Part 4, Series B, p. 40-42.