Sunday, November 5, 2017

All Saints 2017

Matthew 5:1­–12

 

THE BLESSED SAINTS

 

Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.

 

I look forward to All Saints Sunday every year. On the one hand, it can be sad as we remember loved ones who have died. We miss members of St. Andrew who have died in the past year. We miss family members and dear friends who have gone before us.

 

Last Sunday after the Reformation Sunday service at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, I had a brief conversation with a Holy Trinity member who is an oncologist. He had participated in the “Meet the Relatives Gatherings” here at St. Andrew in the spring. He was amused by the story I told during my homily about my mother telling me when I was a boy to make sure that I did not marry a Catholic girl. In the course of our conversation I shared that my mom had died of cancer at the age of 37 at St. Vincent’s Hospital. As an oncologist, he was curious about the circumstances. I did not break into tears as we talked; but the emotions came flooding back, even though it has been more than forty years since she died. These emotions were not as acute as they once were, but they were a sign that I still miss her, particularly on special occasions. It would have been fun to have her in the congregation on Sunday as I told the story about her telling me not to marry a Catholic girl.

 

Even as we experience feelings of sadness, All Saints Sunday can, on the other hand, be deeply comforting. One of the most reassuring texts for memorial services is Romans 8:31–39. In verses 38 and 39 Paul writes: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” All Saints Sunday reassures us that God has been present with all the saints who have gone before us and that we are connected with them in the community of all the saints. Death is not the final word. Death does not permanently disconnect us. We dare to believe, as we confess in the Apostles’ Creed, in an everlasting communion of saints.

 

Since coming to St. Andrew, I have appreciated the tradition of naming aloud those baptized in the past year in our congregation. It reminds us of our connection with the saints alive with us here and now and also brings to mind the saints who are yet to come.

 

The Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1–12, our gospel reading for All Saints Sunday, are perhaps the most familiar words of comfort for followers of Jesus in the New Testament. The point of the Children’s Sermon was that each one of us is a saint, someone loved by God. In the Beatitudes Jesus offers a description of those we might call the “blessed saints.” Is there a difference between a saint and a blessed saint?

 

If a saint is someone who is loved by God, then every person could be considered a saint. Later in Matthew 5:44–45 Jesus teaches his disciples: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” In loving even our enemies we embody God’s love for every human being. God does not love good or righteous people more than evil or unrighteous people.

 

On Reformation Sunday we focused on Martin Luther’s discovery of God’s amazing grace. The gospel of Jesus Christ revealed to Luther a gracious God, who loves us unconditionally. Salvation is a gift from this gracious God; it is not for sale. We are made right with God by God’s grace. We cannot do anything to earn or achieve a right relationship with God. We can say and do things that will make God sad or perhaps even angry. But we cannot say or do anything to make God love us more or love us less. God’s love for each person is firm. In that sense each person is a saint.

 

But who then are the blessed saints? Who are the blessed saints being described in the Beatitudes?

 

A number of times through the years I have heard someone facing death or facing the imminent death of a loved one say words to the effect, “How do people face death without faith?” What difference does faith make in facing death? What difference does faith make in our relationships to God, to our neighbor, and to the world?

 

As implied above, faith does not somehow make God love us, nor does faith make God love us more Faith is the assurance of God’s love for us. It makes so much difference in our relationships when we know we are loved.

 

We are two months into a new school year. Teachers have a fairly good idea when the children they are working with are receiving the love they need in the home. Teachers are responsible for teaching children to read, to do math, and so on. But loving their students, especially those who do not experience love elsewhere, may be the most important thing teachers do for their students.

 

In a marriage relationship it makes so much difference when spouses know they are loved by one another.

 

It makes so much difference when we know we are loved by God. It is good to know in our minds that God loves us. But it is especially important to know in our hearts that we are loved by God. That is why Luther put so much emphasis on faith as trust.

 

The blessed saints are those who know in their hearts and minds that they are loved by God. In the religious community of Jesus’ time there was a prominent strain of thinking that poverty, powerlessness, persecution, and the like were signs of God’s disfavor. For these early followers of Jesus faithfulness did not necessarily lead to wealth, power, and status— which many viewed as signs of God’s blessing.

 

Jesus’ Beatitudes directly challenge such a view of blessedness. As F. Hauck explains, in the Beatitudes “all secular goods and values are completely subsidiary to the one supreme good, the kingdom of God.”[1] The Beatitudes reverse expected human values. Jesus assures the poor, the mourning, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the reviled and the persecuted among his followers that they are blessed— that is, loved and favored by God. The poor are those living in poverty, those whose spirits have been broken, those who lack any shred of arrogance.

 

The mourning are those lamenting the loss of loved ones, but also those lamenting the present condition of God’s people and God’s way in the world.

 

The meek are those who have renounced violence and been rewarded with oppression. They are not pursuing a strategy for worldly success. In true humility they recognize their need for God.

 

Those hungering and thirsting for righteousness are actively seeking to do the will of God, even as they are aware of their shortcomings in fulfilling God’s will. They long for the coming of the kingdom and are open to the guidance of the Spirit of God.

 

The merciful recognize how dependent they are on God’s mercy even as they seek to share that mercy with others.

 

The pure in heart are those who live with a single-minded devotion to God. Faith in the one God is all about loving the Lord God with all your heart and loving your neighbor as yourself.

 

The peacemakers focus on seeking shalom, the Hebrew word for peace. Making peace is all about seeking shalom in our relationships to God, to other people, and to the whole creation. The children of God, the blessed saints, are all about peacemaking.

 

The blessed saints persist in bearing witness to Jesus, even when they are persecuted and reviled for Jesus’ sake.

 

The Greek word makarios, translated as “blessed” in the NRSV, has been translated elsewhere as “happy.” Our understanding of “happy” does not get at the depth of the blessedness Jesus is pronouncing in the Beatitudes. Makarios is the deep and abiding joy that followers of Jesus experience in knowing in the depths of their hearts that they are loved by God. Only those filled with such a deep and abiding joy could possibly heed Jesus’ words to “rejoice and be glad” when people revile them and persecute them and utter all kinds of evil against them falsely on Jesus’ account.

 

Being a saint— that is, someone loved by God—is a gift. Being a blessed saint— that is, someone who knows deep within that they are loved by God— is a special gift, indeed. Such heart knowledge is a source of deep and abiding joy. On All Saints Sunday we experience a taste of that deep and abiding joy. We give thanks to all those who have gone before us and passed on this knowledge of God’s love for us. We give thanks for the privilege of being part of a community of saints that knows of God’s deep love for us and all God’s people and creatures. And we give thanks for the assurance that God’s love will continue for all those saints who will come after us. What could be more important than to devote our lives to bearing witness to such love?

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, volume IV, page 368.