Note: I preached this sermon today for the commemoration of All Saints, which we transfer from November 1 to the following Sunday. Lutherans make a rather peculiar use of this festival, for two reasons: First, our approach to the cult of the saints was not total rejection but modification. For this reason many Lutheran churches bear the names of saints, usually apostles, but our (lack of) piety around saints reflects a sort of auto-immune reaction to the theological misuses of the saints before the Reformation.
Second, Luther’s theology made sanctity a gift that comes through grace by faith in Jesus Christ, rather than through the gradual progress of believers from sin into ideal formal righteousness. So believers are at once saint, in the sense of being fully holy and redeemed in the eyes of God by their trust in the promises made by Jesus Christ, and yet still sinner, in the sense that on their own account they do and will only things contrary to God.
Luther was right, I am convinced, about the power and centrality of faith. But the history of our tradition shows how easy it is to forget the sharp edge of this doctrine. We tend to make faith a virtue taken for granted–ironically, as Luther himself claimed that faith had been made into an easy virtue–and to minimize the human sinfulness that could only be answered by a drastic existential leap. As a result of both these Reformation developments, filtered through modern optimistic American culture, All Saints can decay into a feast focused on grandmothers and others among our own dear departed. This, of course, was and is part of the function the November 2 feast of All Souls or All Faithful Departed, but that category being folded into the saints of God writ large swiftly took over the whole observance. I appreciate the great leveling impulse of my tradition, but when it comes at the expense of remembering and treasuring those lives that are given as a witness and example to all the faithful, it’s a bad thing.
Today’s sermon was an attempt to do something different.
Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When Christ ascended to heaven, he left his little church with almost nothing we would recognize today if we were looking for a church.
He left no book of his teachings.
He left them no patrons or protectors among the rich and powerful of the earth.
He left them no program for teaching and raising up new leaders.
He left them no buildings in which they should worship.
He left them no pattern of worship alongside the worship in the Temple and the synagogues.
He left them no armed militia and no instructions to create one.
He left no system for preserving and reproducing the church over the centuries.
He did leave them his words: words proclaiming the forgiveness of sins to all who repent; words heralding the coming of God’s kingdom; words about goodness and justice and mercy, the resurrection of the dead and hell and heaven and life everlasting.
He left them a command to teach the good news to the whole creation, to people from all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. He left them the command to eat his body and drink his blood, mysteriously present in bread and wine in their midst.
He left them each other, and promised to be with them to the end of the age. And he left them his Holy Spirit to guide and preserve them in faith, through whatever the world, the flesh, and the devil would throw at them.
So it happened that this group was cast upon the world. They were few in number. They were unarmed. They were naked before the power of kings and armies. Just a bunch of country fishermen and others of little consequence. All they had was the Word of God, and charity for each other, and the occasional miracle to make God known and call new believers into their fellowship.
It shouldn’t have lasted. It should have fallen apart or evaporated into nothing through infighting, division, the needs of daily life or just boredom. All that waiting for Christ to return. All of that daily grind of prayer and obedience and putting up with these difficult brothers and sisters. This should have ended the little church before anyone important ever thought to persecute it.
It should not have lasted. But somehow, some way, it did. They survived the infighting and the boredom and the false teaching. They survived their own ignorance and their own weakness in the world. They survived the spasms of violence that get aimed at weird religious minorities, then and now.
And the Good News that was entrusted to them spread to new places and new languages. As they died, new people took their places—people they had taught and loved and prayed for.
Some of these early pioneers on the frontier of God’s kingdom are known and revered today: Mary Magdalene, Peter, Paul, Lydia, Silas, Barnabas. Others are just names included in a New Testament letter or a Gospel. Mark the Gospel writer says that Simon the Cyrenian, who carried Jesus’s cross to Calvary, was the father of Alexander and Rufus. Mark’s audience knew these two men; they must have been part of the church. But nothing else is remembered of them except that their father carried Jesus’s cross to the place of his execution. Paul urges two women, Euodia and Syntyche, to work out their conflict, whatever it was. I hope they did. Nothing else about them has survived. And there were many, vastly many more who are not recorded or remembered at all, except by God.
I have been thinking of these people and the hard situation Jesus left them in recently, especially since the big Reformation celebration. In the Reformation we see the Christian world dividing up a household of possessions that Jesus never gave the church. Who gets the support of the Holy Roman Emperor. Who gets this or that university.
And I have been thinking of these people as we talk here at Messiah about going forward in faith, passing on the gift we have received.
Because that gift of faith passed through so many hands on its way to us. Famous hands and anonymous hands. Hands that wrote ferocious defenses of the Gospel in its purity and hands who worked quietly and unobtrusively day by day. And hands that prayed.
People walked this earth, following Jesus, without weapons or privilege or protection, and kept that Word that they heard from Christ holy, cherished, and safe for us to hear.
These are the saints, the holy ones, the blessed by God. Jesus describes them in today’s Gospel. I am struck whenever I turn to this passage by how much these blessed are known not by what they have, but by what they lack. They are poor in spirit, not rich. They are mournful, not rejoicing. They are meek, not filled with boldness and confidence. They hunger and thirst for righteousness, they are not filled with it. They are merciful because they renounce the right to exact payment for a debt or vengeance for a wrong–that’s what mercy is in Jesus’s world. Their purity is only in their hearts, they wage peace instead of war, they are persecuted for the sake of righteousness because they have no one to protect them.
These blessed ones were not morally perfect or ideal. But with the Word and the Holy Spirit, they defeated a vast and powerful empire devoted to the worship of demonic false gods. As St. Augustine would write after the Roman Empire had come under the rule of Christian emperors–who turned out to be almost as bad as the pagan ones, though that’s a story for a different sermon–these saints were victors not by resisting the evil of the empire and its demons, but by enduring it. They outlasted the greatest power human beings had ever known.
In what they lacked, their lives revealed God. They showed the world a God who makes all things and wants for nothing, who needs no offering but lovingly seeks out every soul, who rules through mercy and conquers by the cross and gives life to the dead and kindles the flame of hope and charity and justice in the heart of everyone who hears his Word and believes it.
The other day I was making a visit to a member at Good Shepherd hospital. As happens pretty often, the person I was visiting was asleep when I got there. Just so you know, I have a strict policy of never waking up someone who is in the hospital just so we can have a little Jesus talk. So I said a silent prayer and a blessing, I wrote a note, and I left. On my way out of the hospital I stopped by the new chapel, which is beautiful. At the entrance I saw a great big fabric panel with prayer requests on post-its. “May my son find peace on his new journey.” “Let my dad live through surgery today.” “Lord, help me fix my ways.” Poor in spirit. Mourning. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness. I added my own prayer, for a friend and her daughter, who is struggling with severe addiction. A friend I happen to know prays all the time and desires to make Christ known.
Here it was again: unknown people, praying for other unknown people, leaving their prayers for still other unknown people to repeat for them. So if for no other reason than to bear witness to the faith that spills out these needs and puts them up for anyone to see, I did my part. I said my prayers for all those needing healing and comfort.
That is the communion of saints. That is what we pray ourselves into each Sunday and what we remember with special reverence today. This great web connecting past, present, and future in the Body of Christ, united in faith and prayer. And the prayer of those faithful never ends. Alexander and Rufus, Euodia and Syntyche, Mary Magdalene and Peter and Paul and Augustine and all those unknown others, all those in whom and through whom God won the victory, even as we pray God will win the victory in and through us—their prayers mingle and join with ours in the God who has called us together out of darkness and into his own brilliant light.