I don’t know about you, but in the Protestant church I grew up in, we didn’t hear a whole lot about saints at all. And there’s probably some good reason for that. It was probably something of an overreaction to the cult of saints in Roman Catholicism. Because in the pope’s church, observing the saints is riddled with idolatry and superstitions that obscure the glory of Christ.
Nowhere in the Holy Scriptures do we have a single command to invoke the saints or to pray to them. In fact, the very idea that our Lord should show mercy to us by pleading through the merits of the saints is really absolute blasphemy, because it takes away glory from the work of our Lord.
Now on the other hand, it’s also equally dangerous to say nothing about the saints. Because to not remember them, to not give thanks for them, to fail to hold them up before us as examples of the holy life of faith would also surely deny the glory of Christ, who shed His blood for the saints and led them in the steps of holiness and righteousness.
Therefore, Lutheran Christians have understood that there is great benefit in remembering the saints whom God has given to His Church. The Apology to the Augsburg Confession gives three reasons for such honor. First, that we give thanks to God for giving faithful servants to His Church. Second, that through such remembrance our faith is strengthened as we see the mercy that God extended to His saints of old. And third, that these saints should remain examples by which we may imitate both their faith and life according to our calling in life.
To object to celebrating the saints would be no different from demanding that you take down pictures of your sainted gramma in your home. You remember her. Her piety. Her faith. Her life which was redeemed and sanctified by Jesus.
So let’s work out some basic definitions here first. What is a saint? Well, for a Roman Catholic it gets a little complicated, because it’s someone who has been beatified by the pope. And that can only happen after an application for sainthood is filed with the diocese. Then there needs to be provided proper proofs and evidence of a sufficient holiness and virtue to be considered a saint. Furthermore, you’ve got to provide some miracles which need to be attributed to the intercessions of that particular saint. And only then can the saint be beatified and canonized. It’s a long and complicated process – and a very misguided one.
But if we really want to talk about saints, and get serious about it, we’ve actually got to go all the way to the very source of holiness – the only source of holiness – which can only be Christ Himself. Saint, the very word, simply means “holy one.” And ultimately there can only be one holy one, and that’s just got to be Christ Jesus. Because He is THE Saint, the holy one.
A saint, contrary to public opinion, is not just a super virtuous or perfectly behaving human being – because there are none! Remember out epistle last week: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” A saint, quite simply, is one who has been redeemed by Christ Jesus – justified by His grace as a gift. The Psalmist prays, “Blessed [holy] is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed [holy] is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity.” (Ps. 32:1-2). He is not holy and blessed because he was holy in the eyes of the world. He is holy because his sins have been taken away and covered by the righteousness of Jesus.
If you want the straight story of who a saint is, let’s just go to Saint John in our first reading today. John is lifted up in heaven – and he gets a front-row seat to the holy liturgy – to worship on the Lord’s Day. And what a vision he sees! “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, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
And then the question is asked, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come.” Well, someone in that heavenly assembly tells John who they all are. “They are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” They are before the throne of God. They serve him day and night in his temple. They hunger no more. They thirst no more. The sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat. “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd.” And this Shepherd “will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
How beautiful! A vision of the heavenly worship. While John is lifted up in heaven, he sees a giant panoramic view all saints, that is, Christian pilgrims, each on their journey, trudging forth, eyes on the Lamb, and wearing robes made white in the blood of the Lamb, being translated from the Church Militant – that is, the Church here on earth (the tribulation), to the Church Triumphant, and the Church at rest. So it brings the question, Who are all these folks? Who exactly is John seeing?
Well, first we’ve got to get away from the Roman cultic view of saints. Do you remember how St. Paul greets his listeners in nearly all of his epistles? You know, the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, and Ephesians? Those folks, those churches are filled with sinners – rife with real problems. But the apostle Paul addresses them as holy ones, dearly beloved ones. He addresses them quite literally as saints. And he’s not talking to folks who have died and are buried. No, he’s preaching to ordinary folks, walking, talking, living, breathing, everyday saints! Not perfect folks with perfect behavior, but folks whose sins have been covered, whose sins have been washed away.
John’s heavenly vision – spanning eternity – is also a vision of you. Who are the ones he sees with robes made white in the blood of the Lamb? Well, he’s seeing you, a fellow pilgrim, with your eyes and ears focused on the Lamb on his throne. Walking, trudging forth, repenting, believing, suffering, falling, being forgiven and restored. You’re in the Bible. Did you every stop and think about that? You’re in the book of Revelation. Saint John the Evangelist, 2000 years ago, had a vision of you – of this Church – and the communion in Christ that we share. That white robe, that’s your Baptism. And what are they all doing? They’re worshiping the Lamb on his altar.
Is that not what we do every Lord’s Day when the Holy Spirit calls us together? We surround the Lamb on His altar – all eyes on Him. We eat His body and drink His blood and participate in the communion of saints – with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. Holy Communion is the heart of our holy religion because the blessed Sacrament links us not merely to Bethlehem and Calvary, but to the whole world beyond the grave as well. For the altar is shrined in the infinite. And in the Divine Service the heavens come down to earth and the seen and unseen meet.
This morning we remember those who have fallen asleep in saving faith and gone on ahead of us over the last year at Luther Memorial. We remember Irma Weber, Jerry Zimmerman, Anita Luetkens, Shari Hagedorn, Dorothea Ede, and Carol Habeck.
Dear friends, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith,” who declares us to be his holy and beloved saints (Heb. 12:1-2). In the name of Jesus. Amen.
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