SERMON FOR ALL SAINTS’ DAY, 11-3-2019
LUTHER MEMORIAL CHAPEL, SHOREWOOD, WI
Rev. Michael Larson
First Reading: Revelation 7:2-17
Epistle: 1 John 3:1-3
Holy Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12
A blessed Feast of all Saints to you all. Last Sunday we celebrated Reformation Sunday. It’s a nice setup for All Saints, or should be! Because the Reformation was not about starting some new church or denomination. We are not a sect. Lutherans have never claimed only Lutherans go to heaven. The Augsburg Confession in the BOC confesses that the church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught and the sacraments are correctly administered. The Smalcald Articles, also in the Book of Concord, lays things out even more simply than that: “Thank God, that today,” writes Luther, “even a seven year old child knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice their Shepherd.” What’s the church? It’s little lambs, the believers who listen to the voice of Jesus. We are not one denomination among many. We are the bride of Christ, members of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. It’s an article of faith in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and so we say, “I believe [credo] in one Holy Christian Church.” We say Christian because we were nervous about saying catholic, but of course, it’s the Christian church – what other church is there? But catholic, that means the whole church, all believers, all saints, made holy by the blood of the Lamb. All those whose sins are forgiven, whose names are written in the book of life. All those both in heaven and on earth who have been called by the Gospel, enlightened with His gifts, and sanctified in the one true faith.
So last Sunday we celebrated the Reformation, not to celebrate Martin Luther or German or Scandinavian heritage or anything like that. It’s not a day for triumphalism or for chest-thumping against Roman Catholics, evangelicals, or anyone else. Let us all be on guard against every form of Pharisaism, a plague which infects each and every one of us, by nature. Instead, Reformation Day is a day for a different kind of chest-thumping! Mea culpa! ‘I am culpable. I am responsible for great and many heinous sins. I am the sinner.’ And then to thump our chest, like the tax collector, and to pray in this way: “God be merciful to me…be propitious to me…make payment…cover my sins, O Lord.” That, dear Christians, is repentance! Repentance, after all, was the first of Luther’s 95 theses - that the whole life of the believer is to turn toward Christ to be recipients of His mercy…And mercy Christ brings! Cover our sins, that’s why He came! Jesus brings this Gospel to you. He says to you, “Mea culpa. I am culpable. I have taken responsibility for your sins. I am the sinner.” For our sake, He who knew no sin, became sin so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.
The Lutheran Reformation was a conservative reformation, meaning there was a desire to retain, to keep, all that which was lovely, right, and good about the church and her life, her ceremonies, her worship, her prayers and her hymns, and simply to dismiss those practices and teachings which were contrary to God’s own Word, revealed in the Holy Scriptures, such as, well, praying to the saints, a practice without scriptural foundation.
But remembrance of the saints? Honoring of the saints? For the Lutheran reformers of the 16th century, absolutely! Augsburg Confession article 21 says this – “Our churches [that is, our Lutheran churches!] teach that the remembrance of the saints is to be commended in order that we may imitate their faith and good works according to our calling.” Now, do we honor them for their own sake? No way! Instead we focus on their eyes focused on Christ, the Lamb. We focus on their ears, open to the voice of their Shepherd, Jesus. We see their feet, advancing toward the heavenly city – walking by faith in the Gospel. We draw encouragement from them.
Fundamentally, this is no different from having a picture of your sainted grandparents on the mantle or your dresser. You remember that God preserved them through a world war. That they remained faithful to their marriage vows. That they endured crosses, tears, and losses but did not forsake their faith. Were they perfect? Of course not. Broken lives, just like yours. But they were Christians! They went to church. They believed in Jesus and followed His voice. They taught your father or mother the Lord’s Prayer, who in turn, taught those same words to you. Words which have created and sustained faith in your heart, your whole life. How could we ever honor and thank the saints enough?
There is great comfort in our readings from Holy Scripture this morning. In our first reading St. John the Evangelist is lifted up into heaven for a front row seat to a heavenly liturgy. “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands…all worshipping and singing to the Lamb.”
Who are these clothed in white robes, and from where have they come? Well, you sang it in the introit this morning, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.”
Still, who is John speaking of? Who are we singing about? Who are the ones John sees in that heavenly vision, coming out of the great tribulation, with blood-washed robes, and facing toward the Lamb on the altar?
Is it not you! Is John the Evangelist not seeing the saints at Luther Memorial Chapel in that heavenly vision? I’m talking about you, as you sing, walk, limp up to the altar where the Lamb is slain, offering His heavenly meal, and victory over sin, death, and the grave. Who are these in the Book of Revelation - those in white robes? Where have they come from? Is it not you, the baptized saints of God, who have washed your robes in the blood of the Lamb through confession/absolution and through the ongoing ministry of Jesus and His righteousness for the forgiveness of your sins?
Can you see it? You are in the Bible! Your face is in that crowd. John, in the book of Revelation, sees you. In the church militant, you’re still struggling with daily crosses, yet merging with the church triumphant – the church at rest – in the one communion – one fellowship of Christ’s holy church.
If you’re poor, if you’re mourning, if you’re crippled with fear and anxiety, the altar is always the place to be. Because there, in that sacrament, is peace – refreshment – comfort in the splendor of paradise. At the sacrament – where Jesus offers His body and blood – there heaven and earth meet. The church militant and church triumphant join ranks and sing in ceaseless song. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Jesus preaches to us in the Gospel, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, happy are those who know their need for God. Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are put away. Blessed are those whose lives have been sanctified and made holy by the word of God. Blessed are you, above all, when God gives you the gift of a Christian death, and rescues you from this valley of sorrow and brings you to Himself in heaven. In the name of Jesus. Amen.