What do the saints teach us, and why honor them? A whole lot, and because it’s a good idea. (But not “How to pray to them, and “Because they give us merit.”) Read the whole thing, after the jump. (Sorry about the spelling. Spell check on Word is not working, for some reason. But I promise, all the words were real words when I read it out loud.)
Who thought last year at this time that we would be where we are this year. Three of our members were called out of the church militant, and into the church triumphant. It is never easy to lose a loved one. This last year has not been an easy one. Called out of the midst of this congregation were ____, ____, and ____. They served the church variously as Sunday School teachers, an elder, making quilts, faithful members of the ladies aid, and a thousand other little details. Now, they have joined the saints who have gone before. That great multitude that no one can number, from every tribe and nation and people and language. We are here, without their help, their friendship, their counsel. But they are better off than we are. They now stand around the throne of God and the Lamb.
It’s not the start of a new church year, but all saints day, to some extent, marks a year gone by better than many other measurements. Today we mark those – not that we have lost – but those that have gained beyond our ability to see. Their prayer has been fulfilled – Lord now lettest thou thy servant, depart in peace, according to thy word. They have departed in the peace of God, we continue our time in the fight that is fierce, and the warfare that is long. We feebly struggle, they in glory shine. And yet, in our struggle we can not always understand the glory. The fog of war makes it hard to see the victory that is already ours; a victory won for us by Jesus death and resurrection.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus speaks of those who are blessed. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the merciful, the pure in heart, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, and especially, those who are persecuted for rightesouness sake. God promises great blessings. Yet, these are not some list of laws that we must keep in order to receive the blessing of God. These are promises of gifts given by God to hsi people.
This list applies to those who are covered in the righteousness that Christ gives. The blessings are given to those who look to the one who was made poor for your sake, who showed mercy in suffering and dying for you, the one who freely feeds all those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. That is what Jesus gives you. He gives all these blessings by virtue of your having been claimed as his own in the waters of Holy Baptism. Being a Saint is not some status decided by church law after a long and loborious process. The word saint means nothing more than “Holy.” To be a saint is to be holy. And the church only gets to declare people holy in the way God has given to the church to do that. Holy Baptism is where you were claimed as his own and made holy. God makes saints, through the means he has determined. All the baptized are saints.
This does not mean that we live without sin. The way theologians like to say it is “At the same time saint and sinner.” That is what you are. You are a saint, forgiven all your sins for Jesus sake, holy and rightoues in His sight, and you are at the same time by nature sinful and unclean, you have sinned in thought word and deed by what you have done and by what you have left undone. Your whole life you must live in tension between these two mutually exclusive things. A sinner, worthy of temporal and teranl punishment, and a saint, redeemed by God and awaiting the reward he promises to all the faithful.
That is why the Book of revelation can say “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, for they rest from their labors, and all their works do follow them.” In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus himself says to the sheep – that is, the saints, “I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink, etc.” It sounds like works do the saving, doesn’t it. Do works make saints? Well, that depends.
If you look at it from your own perspective, then no, works do not save you in the least. There is nothing you can do for your salvation. It’s all Jesus. We are told in the same parable that the saints didn’t even know that they were doing good works. Lord, when did we ever see you hungry, or thirsty…” They didn’t even know they were doing them. The works were the result of faith. Just like an apple tree produces apples – not to the credit of the tree. It’s just what it does. From the perspective of the child picking fruit, it is a miracle of creation. From the perspective of the tree, it’s just what is done. A tree that produces poison berries instead of apples, is not an apple tree.
So for the saints as well. From the perspective of the saint, that is, from your perspective, you know that you are a sinner, deserving nothing but eternal damnation. From the perspective of those who see you, you are a saint of God, producing fruit in keeping with your calling. And that fruit is seen in love shown to others. That doesn’t mean you do it perfectly. No, you are saint and sinner. God sees saint. So do those who love you.
After Richard Nixon died, there was a brief period where people said, “Lok at his accomplishments. We all know about Watergate, but now is not the time for that. Let’s look at the good he did our nation.” When we remember those who have gone before, it isn’t that we don’t recognize that they were sinners. It’s that we look at what Christ accomplished through them. The love that God allowed them to show to others. The way that they helped to build and sustain the church trhoughout the years. We see the love we have for them as a brother or sister in Christ Jesus, and that love cover over a multitude of sins. We don’t remember the bad, just the good. That’s how it is when Jesus looks at you. He doesn’t see the sin. When you, by faith, grab hold of the promise of salvation, God doesn’t see your sin anymore. He sees the merits and worthiness of Jesus instead.
We spend a day remembering the saints that have gone before, because God has given them to the church as a great and precious gift. Not only those who died for the faith, there very blood becoming a witness to the hope that is in them – and yes, that still happens today. But also those whose lives were lived under the sign of the cross, who are examples to us of faith toward God and love toward their neighbor.
Today we remember them, we rejoice that they have been given the crown of life, even as we are sad that they are no longer with us. We look at the struggles they endured as they looked to Jesus, we remember hte lvoe they showed to us and those around them. We see in them an example of how God works in the lives of sinners to make them saints. We are encouraged in our struggles. We know that they won the victory, and we pray that God would give that victory to us when our time comes to leave this valley of sorrow, and go to be with him in glory. For when that day happens, the sin is left behind. Then there is only saint – the holy and redeemed of God, called by him to be his people, now and forever.