Sunday, November 6, 2011

All Saints (transferred)

Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 6, 2011 (All Saints Day, transferred)

There are a number of days during the course of the Church Year that are known as “Saints’ Days,” or festivals of various saints.  These festivals are devoted to remembering the lives of certain Biblical saints, not because they themselves were especially good and holy—they were sinners like the rest of us—but because God was able to work through them in a significant way.  The saints honored in this way include the 12 apostles, the Evangelists (in other words, the authors of the four Gospels), as well as several other men and women from the Bible whose role in salvation history was especially significant.  These days are usually attached to a particular date rather than being a Sunday observance, and so we only end up celebrating most of them an average of once every seven years or so, give or take how the leap years mess things up.  The Roman Catholic Church traditionally celebrates significantly more saints than we do, so that almost every day on the calendar has somebody associated with it.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but traditionally for the sake of simplicity and in an attempt to restrict certain superstitious abuses that have sometimes become associated with remembrances of specific saints among the Roman church, Lutherans have tended to restrict ourselves to only celebrating specific days for characters from the Bible and a few other significant individuals in Church history.

But if these men were sinners just like us, and they only became famous and significant in the history of the Church because God chose them by His mercy and grace to work through them in His kingdom, then what about all the other saints?  What about us?  After all, we work in God’s kingdom, and even though what we do may not be as spectacular and world-changing as the Biblical saints, each of us plays a part in how God provides for His people, both physically and spiritually.  Or, if we aren’t inclined to toot our own horns, what about the millions who have gone before us?  What about those who have died in the faith whose names are known only to God?  When do we celebrate them?

Well, there is a festival to celebrate them and us, known as All Saints’ Day.  Now, technically All Saints’ Day is November 1st, which is why Halloween is on October 31st. Halloween is an archaic way of saying, “All Hallows’ Eve,” or, “All Saints’ Eve.”  During the middle ages, All Saints’ Day was a very important holiday, almost as important as Christmas and Easter.  Anyway, on October 31st some people, especially the more superstitious peasants, were afraid that demons would try to disrupt the high festival that was going to take place the next day, especially since October 31st was also the ancient pagan high festival of Samhain, and so they would try to scare the demons away by carving faces onto pumpkins and dressing up in outlandish costumes.  Now, of course, Halloween has mostly lost its nominally Christian origins and become a secular holiday in its own right, much like the “Festival of Santa Claus” and the “Festival of the Easter Bunny” have.  In fact, Halloween has become an opportunity for many people to act more than a little bit demonic themselves, a celebration of ancient, pagan Samhain rather than a repudiation of it.  However, this Christian festival of All Saints is, in fact, the origin of Halloween.

In any case, All Saints’ Day is set aside to remember the lives of all of God’s holy people, both those still living in the Church Militant, and those who have been transferred to the Church Triumphant through death, especially those members of the Church who have died in the past year.  It is about all Christians.  In today’s Gospel lesson we have a description from our Lord of these saints, these holy ones.  This is a fairly well-known section of Scripture called the “beatitudes.”  They get that name from the word blessed, which stands at the beginning of each section.  The word beatitude is a Latin word which means “blessing,” and so in calling these the Beatitudes we are really calling them the Blessings.  Many of us have heard the Beatitudes many times.   But have you ever stopped to think about the Beatitudes?  Of course, we were born sinners, born under the law, and so we by nature tend to think that blessings come as rewards for good works on our part.  And so, when we read these lines, what we are tempted to see is a series of commands or a series of Biblical principles on how we are to live our lives, if we want the blessings mentioned by Jesus in the second part of each verse.  In fact, they have sometimes been referred to by various people as “be-attitudes,” with a hyphen in the middle.  This is silly from a linguistic perspective, because beatitude is a Latin word meaning “blessing” that has nothing to do with either the word be or the word attitude.  And the Beatitudes aren’t really intended as a series of moral instructions for us to follow if we want to get the rewards listed from God.  After all, we can’t keep these completely, any more than we can keep the Ten Commandments perfectly.  And two, at least, of the Beatitudes, aren’t something that we do to fulfill God’s Law anyway.  “Blessed are those who mourn.”  Mourning is not something we do deliberately in order to please God.  Mourning simply comes upon us because we live in a sin-filled world, where death and suffering are unfortunate realities.  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”  Again, this is not something that you do to fulfill the Law.  It’s something that happens to you because you live out who you are as a Christian and the world doesn’t like to see it.

The other Beatitudes can, of course, be understood in some sense as moral exhortations; after all, being poor in spirit, being meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful, being peacemakers, these are things that we can in some ways try to do.  And it is good to examine ourselves according to these Beatitudes so that we can get an honest picture of ourselves.  Are you poor in spirit?  You should be; everything you have is a gift from God, the way a rich man gives a coin to a beggar.  Are you meek?  You should be; the Christian is humble and does not exalt himself.  Do you hunger and thirst for righteousness?  You should; after all, being righteous is how God wants us to be.  Are you merciful?  You should be; God was merciful to you.  Are you pure in heart?  You should be; God has taken up residence within you and your heart is to be His temple.  Are you a peacemaker?  You should be; God has made peace with you, so you should make peace with others.  To a point, it can be useful to look at the beatitudes in this way.  But only to a point.

You see, the real reason Jesus gave these beatitudes, is as a description of who and what Christian saints already are.  You and I, and those of our loved ones who have joined our Lord in heaven before us, are these things whether we can see it or not.  They are these things because Christ is these things.  The Beatitudes are first and foremost a description of Christ Himself.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”  “Blessed are those who mourn.” We remember Jesus weeping at the tomb of His friend Lazarus.  “Blessed are the meek.”  Here we remember how Jesus was led away to the trial from Gethsemane without fighting or complaining.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”  “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?”  “Blessed are the merciful.”  “And Jesus went out and saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them and healed their sick.”  “Blessed are the pure in heart.”  Here we remember that Jesus was without sin.  “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  Jesus is the one who makes the ultimate peace, the peace between God and man.  “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.”  Is there any greater persecution than what Jesus suffered on the cross?

When you were Baptized, as your baptism is renewed and restored through daily prayer, when you hear the Word of Absolution and hear the Gospel preached to you, and especially when you receive Christ’s body and blood, these attributes of Christ become yours as well.  Christ’s righteousness covers your sin, and that’s why you are acceptable to God, but it also enters you and makes you perfect and holy like He is.  It makes you a saint.  And so therefore all of these descriptions of saints we find in the Beatitudes are descriptions of you as well.  And because of this, the blessings which are listed here are yours as well.  To you belongs the kingdom of heaven.  You shall be comforted.  You shall inherit the earth.  You shall be filled with righteousness.  You shall obtain mercy.  You shall see God.  You shall be called sons of God.  And again it is said, yours is the kingdom of heaven.  And finally, because you share to some extent in the sufferings of the prophets and the saints who were before you, sufferings which depict in us the sufferings of Christ Himself, you shall share in their reward.  The saints in heaven are gathered around the throne of the Lamb, singing His praises and receiving His victory banquet.  There we shall be as well.  In fact, there we already are as we eat His body and drink His blood, joining with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven lauding and magnifying His glorious name.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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