"Don't take it personally," we say, but complain when someone is "impersonal." And as long as we preface something with, "personally", we think whatever follows is unassailable. Why? Because it's personal.
Don't take all Saints' Sunday personally. All Saints' Day, November 1, is contrasted with All Souls' Day, November 2. All Souls' Day is when the church remembers the faithfully departed of her time and place. All Saints' Day is the day we remember them all. It's bigger than Trinity Lutheran Church and those in Christ we know who have gone before us. This is as we sing a celebration "For all the Saints"; today we remember that "From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast, through gates of pearl, streams in the countless host." This is "a host arrayed in white, like thousand snow-clad mountains bright." Today we celebrate the "mighty legions", and the "myriad voices" of all the saints.
Already in 1st century Christianity, they celebrated this. Hebrews invited them and us to see that "we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses." The Message Bible invites us to see "all these veterans cheering us on." And since Hebrews describes what is set before us not as a race but as an agona, that is any athletic contest, we may picture the great cloud of witnesses as siting in a football stadium. Can you see them? In the text they are those in chapter 11 who "were all commended for their faith." Chapter 11 names names like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, and even some of the struggling saints like Gideon, Barak, and Jephthah. Then the Spirit lists nameless ones "who conquered kingdoms, administered justice,...shut the mouth of lions, quenched the fury of flames, escaped the sword." Finally He goes on to groups of people: "Women received back their dead others were torturedsome faced jeers and floggingThey went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and holes in the ground."
Among this great cloud of witnesses see your loved ones who died in Christ but don't limit it to them. This cloud is the Holy Christian Church we confess to be a member of. This is the Communion of Saints into which we were baptized and to which we are bodied and blooded to for all time and eternity. This is not, however, only the kingdom of grace, the Church Militant; this is also the kingdom of Glory, the Church Triumphant. To us death is an unbridgeable barrier, a wide river, a raging torrent. Not so to the Lord of Life and Death. In Him those in the process of dying and those living eternally are one Communion, one fellowship divine. As we sing, "We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine." If we did a roll call of the Holy Christian Church not only would you and I answer "present" when called, so would all of our loved ones in Christ. Yes, they have passed out of our sight but not out of the Church, not out of Christ.
Don't take All Saints' Sunday personally; it's much bigger and better than just you. On the other hand, do take All Saints' Sunday personally. "Throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles" you. This could be referring to not 2 things to throw off but 1. It could be translated, "After setting aside every weight, that is, the easily ensnaring sin." Whether 2 things or 1, one thing is for sure, no one can throw them off for us. But it must be done. You can't take that "closely besetting sin" with you into the contest. O you can, but you will lose. You will be like a baseball player trying to bat with the donut ring weight still on his bat. But how does one put off closely betting sin? Not by doing better. The batter with the donut weight doesn't deal with it by swinging faster. And he doesn't addresses the weight by saying, "Who could expect me to hit the ball with this extra weight on the end of my bat?"
No, the baseball player addresses the donut weight around his bat by taking it off. And how do you take off sin? Repent. Confess you have sin that easily entangles you; confess you have a weight you can't run with; admit that you are a lost and condemned person; out of the depths cry to the Lord for mercy. Then "Hope in the Lord for with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption." Confess, not defend, not excuse, not ask for another chance, but confess your sin and He is faithful and just to forgive that sin because the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses all sins.
Take All Saints' Sunday personally because no one can run with endurance the race, the agona which might be what it is in English an agony or anguish, laid out before you. Your course is not my course; your contest is not my contest; your struggle, agony, anguish is not mine. This is one of those cases of thinking you have it bad because you have no shoes till you see a man who has no feet. This is a case of thinking that course on the other side of the fence is less steep than yours. But no matter the race, the contest, the agony, it's a marathon not a sprint. It's not just a matter of running but "perseverance" says NIV, "endurance" says NASB, "patience" says KJV, "patient endurance" says AMP, and "never quit[ing]" says The Message. What do you call someone who runs 26 miles of a 26.2 mile marathon? Not a finisher but a loser, a quitter, a failure. Realize this: In the marathon of the Christian life, most quit; most don't finish; most "grow weary and lose heart".
Take this Sunday personally; no one can lay aside your sins; no one can run with endurance your race; AND no one can fix your eyes for you on Jesus. And that's where they need to be: Did you catch that? You're eyes are not to fixate on the cloud of witnesses, though it is great; or on the weight of sin that so easily ensnares you; or even on the agony laid out before you, but on Jesus. Why? Because whatever you fix your eyes on that is what you'll steer towards. My dad taught me to drive across narrow bridges by fixing my eyes on the center of my lane not the oncoming traffic or the guard rail. I read an article on bird hunting. It said the mistake most hunters make is fixing their eyes on their barrel and then looking at the bird. But if you focus on the flying bird your hands will bring the barrel where it needs to be.
You know what the problem is? Most think Hebrews is pointing you to Jesus sitting on the right hand of God. Unless you're the dying Stephen, I don't know that you'll see that. I do know that Hebrews speaks of Baptism which saves us and is the answer of a good conscience. I do know it speaks of us having an altar which no one but those in Christ have a right to eat. Yes, yes. Fix your eyes on that font and believe that Jesus is in Baptism covering you personally; fix your eyes on this altar and believe that in this consecrated Bread and Wine you see the Body and Blood of Jesus given and shed for you. Fix your eyes on where Jesus promises to be for you.
Don't take All Saints' Sunday personally, it's bigger than your person. Do take it personally; no one can celebrate it for you. But do realize the most important person is Jesus. That's why we fixate on Him. In Luther's day, "Burial in a monastic habit was a privilege granted to lay supporters of the monastic order, conferring participation in the good works of the order" (LW, 58, 256). That of course did nothing for the deceased. However, being wrapped in the Person and Works of Christ does everything. He is not only the Author of your Faith, He's the Completer, the Finisher, the Closer. The cross you are so lousy at enduring, He endured to the bitter, painful, damning end for you. Who Jesus is, perfect God in your flesh and blood, and what He did, lived your life perfectly and died the death you're afraid of, this is what Holy Baptism wraps you in; this is what you eat and drink in Holy Communion.
Fix your eyes on Him and what He did, not on you and what you do or don't do. Fix your eyes on Him and the agony He finished not the struggle laid out before you. You can't see over the next hill or around that bend; you can only drive yourself to needless agitation wondering what agonies lay on your course. Fix your eyes on Jesus who waited for you before bringing everything to completion. Consider what He personally endured under sinners for sinners. The Spirit expressly says: consider, think over, study how the God in flesh and blood endured such hostility and rebellion from the very sinners He was there to save, so that your soul, your life, your self doesn't even begin to grow weary and lose heart. You have run so far already, you have endured such agony, you have feebly struggled but struggle you have, don't give out or up now. It's precisely when the sailors in the water from the sunken USS Indianapolis saw the rescue planes circling that many gave up and drowned themselves.(Two non-fiction accounts report this cf. http://blog.trinityaustin.com/2008/10/06/hopelessness/).
The Message Bible is good here. In the final verse it paraphrases, "When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over the story [of who both began and finished the race you're in]That will shoot adrenaline into your souls." C.S. Lewis goes one better. "They say of some temporal suffering, No future bliss can make up for it,' not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory (Great Divorce, 69). St. Paul goes one better still. He calls our tribulations here and now light and momentary compared to the eternal weight of glory which is worked in us by Jesus (2 Cor. 4:17).
Take this day personally in the Person of Christ. Luther did. The day before he died he was asked if we would recognize one another in heaven. Luther didn't think this a trivial question. He thought those renewed in Jesus would know each other spiritually better than Adam knew Eve in Paradise (Brecht, Luther III, 375). Paul says the same. "Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I have been fully known by God" (1 Cor. 13:12). Personally, I'm looking forward to that. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints' Sunday (20181104); Hebrews 11:39-12:3