The Blessedness of All Saints
Sermons have to be written in such a way that when a person is asked, "What did the preacher preach on?" he can answer in one sentence. Today you can answer, "He preached on the blessedness of all saints."
There is blessedness in this holiday, this holy day, called All Saints. You can read its history in the bulletin. Lutherans have always had it on their Church Year calendar, although we've only been making a point to celebrate it for 10 years or so. Before that the bulletin inserts ignored it, and you know why? That's Catholic. But you know what? People want to remember their dead. That's why European Protestants in the early 19th century created an alternative to All Saints' Day. They called it Eternity Sunday, and it was celebrated on the last Sunday of the Church Year (Oxford History of Christian Worship, 556). Dating to this same time is the German Totenfest, Feast of the Dead, or Festival for the Dead (http://www.ucc.org/assets/pdfs/totenfest.pdf).
It is fit not to forget our dead, especially our dead in Christ because they're not gone but gone ahead of us. St. Chrysostom said, "Say not then, He is perished and shall no more be;' for these be the words of unbelievers; but say 'He is gone on a journey and will return with the King" (Homily I, 2 Cor., NPNF, 276). It is not that our loved ones in Christ are forever gone. It's not that we have to speak about them in the past tense: they were a good cook; they liked the Longhorns; they were very funny. No, they are still these things in Christ. To us, death is like the Mississippi River at New Orleans: a wide un-swimmable mile across. To Jesus, in Jesus, death is the Mississippi at Itasca (I-tas-ca) State Park, Minnesota. Narrow enough to step across.
All Saints' is a day of blessedness because we remember that in Christ our dead are not in some distant past but here and now in a light and life that is beyond what we can see, hear, think or even imagine. What is in the distant past is their death. That day is dead and gone. The pain, the sorrow, the loss, is a chiseled date on a tombstone never to be repeated and no need to be remembered.
There is blessedness in All Saints, but it is for all saints. A lot of the year end remembrances of the dead are more like Memorial Day which began as a day to remember all who died in the Civil War. Now it commemorates all who have died in all wars. The Army holds such services after every battle in which they have losses. They remember their fallen brothers. And how are the fallen always regarded on Memorial Day, at year end remembrances, or at battlefield services? As being in heaven, alive and well, on the fields of Elysian or in the halls of Valhalla. In American Civil Religion the only requirement to be in heaven is that you die. For us the blessedness of All Saints is for saints only.
Who are the saints? For Catholicism you're only a saint if the pope declares you to be one. You have to be canonized. This is where the pope declares a soul, previously beatified, to have eternal glory. Among other things, this enrolls a person among the saints (LW, 44, 186, fn. 184). For Protestants, sainthood is more of a wish like the song says, "O how I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in."
Is it any wonder that Catholicism makes so few saints and Protestants only wish for sainthood when you read whom the Lord Jesus declares blessed? The blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted because of righteousness and insulted because of Jesus.
I can't say for you, but I don't think anyone has ever called me meek, merciful, pure, or a peacemaker. And sure I've poor mouthed with the best of them but that's not poor in spirit. I've mourned in the sense of Linda Ronstadt's: poor, poor pitiful me. I've hungered and thirsted after many things and I'm sure righteousness was in there some place but not prominent enough to be persecuted for. And I've been insulted, maybe even because of Jesus, but I gave as good as I got.
So, as far as the blessedness of all saints goes, I conclude that it ain't me or anyone I've ever knownexcept Jesus. Though He had a right to be equal with God, He became poor in spirit. Though He knew the joys of heaven, He wept over death and the Jerusalem that hated Him. Though He could've crushed men with a look, He was so meek He endured their slaps, blows, and spit. Though as God He was righteous, He hungered and thirsted to be righteous as a flesh and blood Man. To sinners who caused Him eternal pain, Jesus was merciful. Before sights and sounds that defile all human hearts, Jesus' heart remained pure. In the midst of war between God and sinners, Jesus made peace at the price of His own suffering and death.
The only reason Jesus was persecuted, beaten, whipped, stripped, and crucified was because He was winning righteousness for a hell-bent world. Therefore His is the kingdom of heaven; therefore, great is His reward in heaven. Power, riches, wisdom, and might rightly belong to the Man Jesus. His flesh and blood had to be spit out by Death because He had no sins or sinfulness that Death could point to as reason and right for holding Him. The Devil no longer had a debt of sin owed by flesh and blood that he could demand payment for. So the flesh and blood Jesus ascended bodily into heaven, there to take His rightful place and rule.
Jesus made it, and for Jesus' sake, in Jesus' name, clothed in Jesus, in His Blood and Righteousness, what do we see, what do we find, what do we hear? "My how much like Jesus he/she is!" That's how we look to the angels in heaven. That's how we look to the God of heaven. What else do you think St. Paul means when he declares, "Now there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus?" What do you think St. Paul means when He says, "You who have been baptized have been clothed in Christ?" What do you think Jesus means when He says, "Whosoever sins you forgive they're forgiven?" Do you think forgiven sins, sins sent away from you, are still on you? And do you think Jesus gives His Body and Blood to people He's still mad at?
The blessedness of All Saints' Day is about the blessedness of all who've died in Christ. The definition of a saint is a sinner forgiven in Jesus' name. The pope has no say in it; those of you've baptized, absolved, or communed in Jesus' name have no need to wish for sainthood. You've been given it. You will be in that number when the saints go marching in. So get in line now; gather round Word and Sacrament for your marching orders.
Yes, there's blessedness in this holy day of All Saints, but it's only for saints not all people, and it's not limited to one day a year. Death is a regular, a common experience in this fallen world. Death is not an if it's a when written in our decaying DNA and felt in our conscience. Our dead in Christ can help keep Death in perspective. We don't really want to be like Shakespeare with "Every third thought shall be my grave" (The Tempest, V, 1). But neither do we want to be like a Tolstoy character. Levin who thought he had plans, dreams, and energy to last a lifetime says to himself, "I had forgotten it must all end; I had forgotten death" (Anna Karenina, 317).
We don't want to forget death. My parents, my grandparents, all the dead who all seemed to die too soon preach to me, remind me, that Death is before me surer than the sunrise. And it can only be a bitter, frightful experience according to Ecclesiasticus if I must face death alone. "O death, how bitter you are to one whose peace lies in his own substance" (41:1). If this softly beating heart, this thin skin, this breath of life is all I have against Death, then Death is frightful for it easily, swiftly, sharply puts an end to these. But those in Christ didn't and don't go into the grave with only their own substance and resources. They don't into the grave alone. It's true that no man or woman can go with them, but the God-Man can and does.
And this journey doesn't start when a terminal illness is diagnosed or when hospice is called in. It starts when you are baptized. St. Martin Luther said, "Therefore the life of a Christian, from Baptism to the grave, is nothing else than the beginning of a blessed death" (LW, 35, 31). St. Irenaeus said, "The business of the Christian is nothing else than to be ever preparing for death" (Fragments, XI, ANF, I, 570). In Holy Scripture, in Christian theology, death is the entrance into real life for the Christian. St. Augustine called it "the instrument by which life is reached" (City of God, NPNF, II, 247). St. Clement writing to St. James says of St. Peter's death he "exchanged this present existence for life" (Clementine Homilies, ANF, VIII, 218).
All those coming out of the great tribulation, the mighty anguish, the many afflictions that is this life who've washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, they don't pass away; they pass on. And while their bodies sleep in the grave, Revelation 7 portrays them arrayed around the Lamb in worship even as we are here. It is Homer who depicts the dead existing in the twilight of existence and nonexistence. It is the Greeks who have their dead alive in a shadow world. It is Epicures and Socrates who speak of death as dreamless sleep. And it is Shakespeare who saw that the rub is whether death was a dreamless sleep (Hamlet, III, 1). If not death could be a nightmare.
The blessedness of All Saints is that the bodies of the saints do rest in peace, but not their souls. No Scripture shows them worshipping the same Lamb of God we do. We remind ourselves each Sunday that the Communion service extends beyond this space and time to all the company in heaven, to all the saints. Churches with Communion rails in the shape of a half circle were made that way historically "because the other half was in heaven, and Christ is the center both here and there" (Formula for Parish Practice, 110).
What did I preach on today? The blessedness of all saints everyday both in this life and the next which we celebrate every Sunday in the Holy Communion. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
All Saints' Sunday (20111106); Matthew 5: 1-12