Sunday, November 6, 2016
Homily for The Feast of All Saints (Observed)
Matthew 5:12; 1 John 3:1-3; Revelation 7:2-17
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
What is a saint? A saint is not a sinless person. If that were the definition, then no one could ever possibly be a saint. Neither can you become a saint because of your works, even were you to perform a miracle or two – that in itself is a misguided notion. Further, you cannot earn or merit sainthood, and you cannot make yourself to be a saint. No. But, to be a saint is to be holy and blameless before the Lord and set apart. That is literally what it means to be a saint. And, since these are qualities that you cannot do or earn or merit on your own or for yourself, they are qualities that are applied to you, even credited to you, by your heavenly Father, not on account of your qualities and works, but on account of the qualities and works of His beloved Son Jesus Christ. On account of Jesus’ sinlessness, obedience, righteousness, suffering and death, your heavenly Father declares you to be sinless, obedient, righteous, holy, and set apart – that is, your heavenly Father considers you, and credits you, and declares you to be a saint in and through and because of Jesus Christ in whom place your fear, your love, and your trust. So, what is a saint? You are! Not because of anything in you, but because you are in St. Jesus who alone is holy and makes men to be holy in His innocent and holy blood shed for you and for the world upon the cross. Though you remain a sinner, your sins have been atoned for, your sins have been covered, your sins have been taken away in the blood of Jesus. Though you are still a sinner, in the eyes of God your Father you are 100% saint. Yes! This Feast of All Saints is a feast of you! But, it is not a feast of you alone – perish the thought! Indeed, the point of the Feast of All Saints is that you are not alone, but you, we, are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses to Jesus’ faithfulness and holiness and to the Father’s love for you and for all the world in His Son that we need not be afraid “though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.” Have no fear little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom, for He is fully pleased with you in His Son with whom alone He is fully pleased.
But, what does sainthood look like? Surely there are identifying characteristics and qualities that we can recognize. Of course! The Holy Scriptures call them fruits. What are the fruits of sainthood, of holiness, of faith? Well, Jesus lays out some of them in the Beatitudes, or Gospel reading for the Feast of All Saints: Poverty of spirit which is repentance, meekness, and humility; mourning, grief, and sorrow over sin and the offense they are to our God and Father and to our neighbor; hunger and thirst for true righteousness and holiness before God; mercy towards others; purity in heart and spirit; peacefulness and gentleness; bearing with and enduring and persevering through reviling, mockery, evil, and violence for the sake of Jesus. These are but a few of the fruits of sainthood, elsewhere described as the fruits of the Spirit. Yet, these qualities are descriptive, not prescriptive. That is to say, do not turn this list of qualities and characteristics into a honey-do list that you can check off one-by-one and justify yourself. No. These qualities and characteristics are not prescriptive. They are not a new Law commanding you to go and do. No. These qualities and characteristics are descriptive. And, what they describe is Jesus Himself who alone was perfectly poor in spirit, perfectly sorrowful over sin and unbelief, perfectly meek and humble and repentant, perfectly hungering and thirsting for the righteousness of God, perfectly merciful, pure in heart, peaceful and patient, who was persecuted, reviled, and was mocked, who suffered evil and violence and even death at the hands of fallen, sinful, self-righteous and evil men – even you and me and all who have ever lived and died and will ever live and die. What does sainthood look like? Sainthood looks like Jesus, and so do you look like Jesus, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone.
Jesus is the True Vine, and you are His branches. Once you were not His branches; indeed you were a lifeless and fruitless branch fit only for the fire. But, God the Father, the Vinedresser, has grafted you into the True Vine Jesus Christ so that His life flows through you and makes you fruitful, bearing the fruits of the True Vine Jesus. Once you were profane and cursed, lost in your sins, fruitless, and dead, but the Holy Spirit has called you by the Gospel, enlightened you with His gifts, and has sanctified and kept you in faith – He has made you holy; He has made you a saint – and now He keeps you with all His saints, the one, holy, Christian, and Apostolic Church, in Jesus Christ. However, to be a saint is to be holy, it is to be set apart, it is to be other. This means that you will not be comfortable in this life and world. Oh, your flesh, your passions and desires, and the devil will conspire against you, will tempt you to be comfortable and at peace with the world, to value what it values and to hate what it hates, but you must resist these temptations. For, the world and the flesh value independence, self-sufficiency, and self-righteousness, but you are called to die to your flesh and its desires and passions and to think more of others than of yourself. The world and the flesh value wealth and material possessions, but you are called to live in poverty of spirit and in hunger and thirst for an external, imputed, and declared righteousness. The world and your flesh want you to find peace in worldly and fleshly things – things that are year by year, day by day, and minute by minute passing away. But there is no peace in such things at all, though you are tempted to settle for false peace at the expense of true and lasting peace with God. And so, the world will persecute you and ridicule you and mock you and revile you and speak all kinds of evil against you. But, in all these things rejoice and count yourself more than conquerors through Him who loves you.
For, you are conquerors in Christ. The First and Last Beatitudes are in the present tense: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” These Beatitudes, these blessings, are realities now in Christ though they remain unseen. You are saints now. You are the kings and queens of heaven and earth now in Christ your Lord, though realized in fullness, not yet. Or, as St. John puts it in our Epistle Lesson today, “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.” Like the saints John beheld in His vision of heaven, dressed in white robes with palms in their hands, you have already, even now, come out of the great tribulation having washed your robes white in the blood of the Lamb Jesus Christ. The reference is to your holy baptism in which Christ washed away your sins with His atoning blood and clothed you with the robe of His righteousness. You are forgiven. You are holy. You are a saint in Christ now. And you are not alone! You are never alone!
Undoubtedly, one of the most awe inspiring and beautiful truths we remember and celebrate on All Saint’s Day is the fact that those we love who have died in the Lord are not dead. They are not as they were created to be, but they are not dead. Their souls are with Jesus even as their bodies lay in rest awaiting their resurrection and glorification when Christ returns. Our blessed dead are alive in Jesus and are with Him where there is no want, no tears, nor hunger or thirst, no sorrow, no pain, and no death. And yet, Jesus is here with us, therefore, so are they! Jesus is here with you in Word and Sacrament, most specifically and particularly in this Holy Meal, “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven.” “All the company of heaven” includes your beloved grandparents, parents, and children, your friends and your neighbors, the elderly, the middle-aged, the young, as well as the unborn – all those saints purchased in the blood of Jesus who believed in Him, who did nor reject Him. Because you cannot ascend to heaven, because of your sin that prohibits you from entering the glorious and holy presence of the Godhead, heaven has come down to earth through the humble means of Word and Water, Bread and Wine, to forgive you, to strengthen you, to equip you, and to send you.
So, if you want to be near those you love who have died in the Lord, don’t just go to their gravesite and say a prayer, but come to the Sacrament of the Altar, come to where Jesus is really and truly present in flesh and blood and spirit. As you kneel at this communion rail and receive Jesus’ precious body and His holy blood, you are not alone, but you are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, all those who have died in the Lord and are with Him, along with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. They are the saints of God. You are the saints of God. And, together, we are the Church of Jesus Christ, His Bride, purchased and cleansed in His precious, holy, innocent shed blood, made to be holy and set apart, saints, elect and glorious in His presence. You are God’s children now, but what you will be has not yet been revealed. This feast is but a foretaste of the Feast that is to come. It is meant to preserve you and to keep you, to equip you, and to send you until that yet more glorious day when Christ returns and our bodies are raised to be reunited with our holy souls to live in His presence and serve Him for ages upon ages that will never end.
What does it mean to be a saint? It doesn’t mean that you are sinless, but it means that you are in fact a sinner, but a sinner who is forgiven in the blood of the Lamb Jesus Christ. Don’t forget: Only sinners can be forgiven! Only sinners can be saved! St. Mary was a sinner who confessed her faith in God her savior. St. Peter was a sinner who was absolved by Jesus after three times denying Him. St. Paul was a sinner, a murderer who murdered the first Christians, but Jesus forgave them and changed them into saints. You are a sinner. And, in the blood of Jesus, you are a saint. The Feast of All Saints is a Feast of you, and of me, and of saints like Mary, and Peter, and Paul, and a countless multitude of others who have died in the Lord, who live in the Lord now, and who will live in Him through your witness to Christ and Him crucified. Come, partake of this foretaste of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb and His Bride the Church in his kingdom of mercy and grace and forgiveness that will not end. Only saints can partake of the Feast, and partaking of the Feast makes you and keeps you in sainthood. You are not alone. You are never alone. Go and share this Good News with all in your words and your deeds and never worry about how imperfect and sinful you may be. Strive for faithfulness, and repent of your unfaithfulness. The Lord is with you, along with so great a cloud of witnesses, that you may be forgiven and encouraged, equipped and sent, to the glory of God the Father, in the holy, innocent shed blood of His Son, preserved and kept by His most Holy Spirit. To God alone be all glory in your life and in your death in Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.