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Sermon for All Saints’ Day — Observed

Sermon for All Saints – Matthew 5:1-12 

Note: This sermon was adapted from one in Concordia Pulpit Resources.

Click here for mp3 audio

Grace and peace to you from God our Father the Lord, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to an Eastern Orthodox church.  Years ago I went into one and the first thing that really struck me was the large screen that separated the altar in the chancel from the nave.  It’s covered with icons, pictures of the saints of the church, many from centuries ago.  Walking into a church like that you can almost get a physical sense of being surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.”

Lutheran churches, in fact most western churches tend to be far more, well… “restrained,” even though there were times in our history when Lutheran churches were much more enhanced by art than is typical today.  And even though in Lutheran churches our attention is supposed to be drawn to the altar where the gifts of Christ’s body and blood are given out to us, our worship services are still places where we are surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses, namely the saints of God both past and present, including all of you.  And if you’ve ever looked through the hymnal, you’ll notice that throughout the year on various dates, we commemorate saints of the past, men and women, clergy and laypeople.

Today is a little different though.  Today we observe the feast of All Saints.  You might wonder why we would have such a day on a Lutheran church calendar and whether the saints have any significance for us today.  Just to be clear, the Bible in no place suggests that we should call upon the saints or pray to them.  We don’t pray to saints because we have access to God directly through Jesus Christ, the only mediator between God and all people.  Yet along with all the saints in heaven, we all are sitting here today as members in the One, Holy, Christian, and apostolic Church.  Not even death can dissolve membership in this Church.  Together with them we pray to Christ, we from our side, they from the other side of eternity because we, like them, are totally dependent on the undeserved grace of Christ and the forgiveness He has promised to give freely to any repentant sinner.  And so it is that Christ Himself shows us what kind of encouragement the saints can provide and why it is good to remember them.

We remember the saints, because it frees us from relying on our own spiritual achievements, because it encourages us to grow always in faith, and because it directs us to the final goal, eternal life with Christ.

We should never rely on our own spiritual achievements.  The Gospel reading today has us witness a most impressive beatification, that is, an action that turns sinners into saints.  It is Jesus who does it.  The great crowd that has come out to hear Jesus teach becomes blessed in the hearing of His preaching.  All of these sinners are turned into saints on the green hillside along the Sea of Galilee.  To become a saint, one need not die, at least not bodily.  One is a saint when Christ calls him or her “holy.”  Being blessed is being holy.  It means something akin to belonging to God.  And you belong to God when Christ Himself declares that you belong to God; you now live in fellowship with God and will live in that fellowship with Him forever.

Christ our Lord has already said this to each and every one of you.  He called you and has made you a saint in Holy Baptism.  So all of you who have been baptized, you are all holy, you are all saints.  You did not earn this title because of the life you’ve led or even the because of the live you will live from now on.  You are holy because God Himself has called you by name, washed your sins away and claimed you as His own.  The situation on the hill in Galilee was a little different.  Jesus led those who had gathered to hear Him preach, He led them into the kingdom of heaven that day.  He didn’t do it because they were special or because they could all point to some spiritual achievement in their life or had passed some holiness test, or even a testing of their faith.  Nothing of their own qualified them to be called “blessed” by God.  Nothing, except this, that they came to Jesus with completely empty hands, that they had nothing to offer God that could have impressed Him.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.”  That’s how Jesus makes saints.

That’s how Jesus made you a saint and there was nothing you added to it.  Infant baptism is a tremendously powerful testimony to the belief that it is Jesus who makes holy, not the believer who makes himself holy.  There in the water, God took you to be His own child.  What counts at the end of your life is not the number of spiritual brownie points you’ve racked up.  At the end, only this counts: that you stand before the judgment seat of Christ, with completely empty hands, and beg His grace, completely for you.  And this is what we ought to be practicing in our spiritual life now: asking Christ to constantly shower us with His gifts of grace and mercy and teach us not to consider ourselves worthy of any of it.  This is what the saints who have gone before us can teach us.  In many old Lutheran churches in Germany, you can still find the old Lutheran confessional booths.  In Wittenberg, there are two of them in St. Mary’s Town Church.  On the confessional booths in this church there are depictions of the saints.  There is Peter and the rooster, David after his adultery with Bathsheba and the prodigal son.  What an encouragement these sights must have been over the centuries for those going to confession and absolution.  Behold the 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 who trust in Him.  Don’t try to rely on your meager spiritual achievements.  Learn instead from the examples of Peter, David and the prodigal, and all the saints of old.  The only thing that counts is the undeserved grace of Christ Jesus.

But the saints also encourage us always to continue to grow in faith.  We all need to be reminded that becoming a saint is not another step in your spiritual career advancement; rather, it is a gracious gift of God to those who rely not on themselves.  We all need a little encouragement while we struggle in this world.  Our own Augsburg Confession puts it this way:  “We teach that we are to remember the saints so that our faith may be strengthened when we see that they received grace and how their faith helped them; and also that we take example of their good works, each according to his calling.” (AC XXI)

Did you see the same thing here in the Gospel reading?  The great crowd whom Jesus receives into the kingdom of heaven is pretty much the opposite of what most people in our society would aspire to.  Poverty is not our goal; we seek more and more possessions and wealth.  Instead of suffering we would much rather have fun.  Meekness is certainly not apparent on most people’s Facebook profile.  Instead of mercy, we choose cleverness.  And we certainly don’t want to sacrifice our lives; we do anything we can to keep them.  But let me repeat: our Lord is not issuing a new set of demands that need to be fulfilled in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.  Rather, He is consoling those who do not seem to fit into the kingdom of this world.  It is not you who are unfit for the God’s kingdom but those who are the leaders of this corrupted world.  When Christ invites people into His kingdom, He puts His imprint on them, empowers them to live lives that from then on follow in His footsteps.  The examples of the lives of the saints gone before us encourage us to lead the different life.  Instead of being consumed by leadership of the people of this world we are surrounded and supported in faithfulness to Christ by those who have gone on before us.

We could spend the rest of the day recounting examples of extraordinary faithfulness.  But where to start?  And probably more important, where to stop?  Let me offer just one.

In the year of our Lord 304, in the small village of Abitene in what today is called Tunisia, North Africa, forty-nine Christians gathered for their usual Sunday service.  But it was a time when the Christians were being persecuted by the Roman emperor, Diocletian, and Christians were prohibited to assemble on Sundays under threat of execution.  The group was found out while they were celebrating Holy Communion.  When they were interrogated about why they disregarded the imperial law, they answered: “We cannot live without Sunday.”  What they meant, of course, was that as Christians they could not exist without the Sunday Divine Service.  Well, the Romans were not impressed.  They tortured all forty-nine of them and then executed them.  Today some might think the forty-nine of Abitene were terribly naïve, perhaps even stupid.  Yet to my mind they give us a marvelous example of what Christians ought to consider important for nourishing their faith.  They were right: we cannot live without Sunday.

Now, we are certainly not saying that the forty-nine Christians of Abitene earned their way to eternal life by their faithful deeds.  It took tremendous strength not to back down to the Romans.  Our takeaway is that God gave them grace to remain faithful.  The Augsburg Confession is right, “We see that they received grace.”  Remembering the forty-nine of Abitene encourages us always to continue to grow in faith.

Remembering the saints also keeps us pointed toward our true goal.  Our Lord makes some amazing promises to those He calls blessed—promises that go far beyond anything that we see fulfilled in our lifetime.  Jesus promises nothing less than heaven itself to the poor in spirit, to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, to those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  And He promises never-ending consolation to those who mourn and are reviled for His sake.  They who are pure in heart shall see God.  Jesus directs our eyes to that goal at which so many before us have already arrived.  He fulfilled the promises He made in the Sermon on the Mount.  They now stand in the presence of God.  They see what they believed, participate in heaven’s unending life, and are forever consoled, and sing God’s unending praise.

Dear friends in Christ, this should be great encouragement to us to stick to it, to persevere in the faith delivered to us, never to give up or fall away, always focusing on the goal to be achieved.  Don’t let up.  Don’t be seduced by the temptation of this world or think you are too weak.  God has led the saints of old to their goal in faith; He will do the same for you.  He baptized you.  He promise is sure.  From before the throne of God today, the saints of old join our celebration today, or maybe we theirs.  We join them and the whole heavenly angelic army of God, in worship and sing, “Glory be to God on High” and “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Sabaoth,” Lord God of the heavenly army of angels.  The liturgy here is part of the unceasing praise before the throne of the Lamb and the Table around which Christ Himself has gathered us today is the table of everlasting life and joy and peace, the foretaste of the great feast of heaven.

We do not walk toward the goal by ourselves, alone.  What a great comfort to us to realize we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.  Not just those we can see in the pews around us, but those who have joined our sings of praise in eternity.  “Rejoice and be glad,” Jesus said to all of those on the green hill in Galilee.  Rejoice and be glad.  You have not taken the wrong road, even though some might try to convince you otherwise, or it may, at times, even look like that to you.  You are on the right path headed to the right goal, already you are part of the kingdom of heaven.  Rejoice and be glad.  You join David and Peter and the forty-nine saints of Abitene, and the innumerable others who have gone before us.  Rejoice and be glad.  You are blessed.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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