On Wednesday night, there was mourning in St. Louis and southern Illinois. The St. Louis Cardinals, once positioned for game five at home with their ace on the mound, were destroyed in game six as the Boston Red Sox won the World Series.
Now it’s understandable that there would be mourning – for that is just the unique character of sports. When it comes to winning a championship in sports– winning the whole thing - the opportunities are rare and the achievement lasts forever. A championship brings sheer joy when it happens and over time an even greater sense of pride and satisfaction that can never be taken away. Empty platitudes do not dispel the fact that failure in the face of the great prize is an utterly gut wrenching experience for athletes and their true fans.
On the night of the crushing loss, it was interesting to watch Cardinals’ fans seek comfort as they posted on Facebook. Some were just in denial – they sought comfort in empty statements about how “it had been a great season.” Of course that was simply an attempt to ignore the elephant in the room – the fact that their team had come so close to achieving something great and lasting … and then had failed.
What was more interesting were those fans who sought comfort by looking to the future. They wrote as if next year and in the years to come the Cardinals are a sure thing to be right back in the World Series and of course then they will win it.
Now certainly the Cardinals are an incredibly well run organization and they have some great young pitching. But it just doesn’t work that way. There are no guarantees. Players get hurt – and there is nothing more fragile than a stud pitcher. Weird things happen – the name Rick Ankiel comes to mind. It’s really hard to get to the World Series, and then it’s really hard to win it.
It sure seems like the remarkable run in 2011 has skewed the perspective of many Cardinals fans. In incredible and improbable ways they played themselves into the playoffs and then to a World Championship as time after time they came down to the last hitter or the last strike of the last hitter. But that’s not the way things normally work. And how big does that 2011 championship look now? For if the improbable had not occurred, the Cardinals would have lost five of their last six World Series instead of “just” four out of six. Success in the World Series has not proven to be any sort of sure thing for the Cardinals in the years since 1982.
In the face of a devastating loss like losing a World Series, there is no certain comfort in looking to the future. And of course, the same can be said about many areas in life where we experience loss. But in our Gospel lesson for the Feast of All Saints we are reminded that things are completely different when it comes to Jesus Christ. The reality is that there is mourning in the Christian life. But the certainty is that there is comfort for those who have died in Christ, and that this comfort will reach its ultimate fulfillment on the Last Day.
Our Gospel lesson today contains the Beatitudes – the first words of Jesus’ teaching that occur in the Gospel of Matthew as our Lord begins the Sermon on the Mount. When we think about the Beatitudes, it is necessary to recognize right from the start that they have a very intentional structure. The first beatitude says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Note that the verb here is a present tense – “is.” It describes something that is already now true. In the same way of the last of the beatitudes states, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Like the first beatitude, the last one is also a present tense. It too describes something that is already now true.
When we look at all of the beatitudes that occur between the first and last one, we find something very different. The verbs in all of these are future tense. They are statements about what God will eventually do: they will be comforted; they will inherit the earth; they will be satisfied; they will receive mercy; they will see God; they will be called sons of God.” The present statements bracket the future statements, and in doing so the Beatitudes speak in terms of the now and the not yet of the Christian life.
Our Lord begins by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Who are the poor in spirit? You are. This is not a description of an attitude. Instead, it describes the spiritual condition of each one of us. We are spiritually helpless. We are dependent. We have no resources of our own. We are conceived and born as fallen people trapped in sin. And yet, Jesus speaks a precious word of Gospel! He says blessed are the helpless. Blessed are you – which is the same thing as saying that you are saved.
You are blessed – you are saved - because of the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is saying that the saving reign of God that was present in our Lord’s ministry is yours! You have received the reign of God and it has freed you from sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through Holy Baptism God claimed you as his own. He washed away your sins. This was not something that you chose to do. Instead in his mercy God came to you the helpless one and saved you.
This is good news. And it is good news that we need in the present because we are still living in a world that is oppressed by sin and suffering. It is world where as Jesus says, we “are persecuted for righteousness' sake.” It is a world where we face hardships because we believe in the saving work of Jesus Christ – a world where increasingly we face opposition if we want to live in ways that are God pleasing.
We live as people who mourn because we see the continuing presence of sin in our life and world. We see how we act in selfish ways that harm our spouse. We know that we react in anger and strike back at others. We know that we are jealous and covet. We are the meek, the lowly who are oppressed by sin and so we hunger and thirst for righteousness. We want God to bring the consummation of his reign. We don’t want to keep struggling against sin. We don’t want to see the evil around us in the world as our brothers and sisters in Christ in places like Nigeria, Egypt, Syria and Pakistan are killed. We don’t want to live in a world where millions of babies continue to be murdered in the womb through abortion.
This is where we are at. But on this day when we observe the Feast of All Saints, our attention is drawn to another group of Christians. Our thoughts turn to the saints, like Shelby Tippy, who have died in the Lord. They have departed to be with Christ. They too received the saving reign of Christ through Holy Baptism. They were sustained in the faith through God’s Word and through the body and blood of Christ received in the Sacrament of the Altar.
Yet now for them, there is no more struggle against sin. No longer do they mourn, because they are at peace in Christ. And for this we give thanks. St. Paul said that he had the desire “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
We take comfort in the knowledge that they are at rest in the Lord and that nothing can separate them from Christ.
For them the struggle is over. Yet our Lord’s words in the Beatitudes also lead us to recognize that for them the final goal has not yet been attained. Shelby Tippy is with Christ. Following the manner in which our Lord spoke we often express this by saying that her soul is with Jesus. By this we mean that her personal existence has not ceased. Instead she is with the Lord.
Yet after Shelby died the funeral was held here at Good Shepherd, and then the funeral procession made its way over to Carbondale. There her body was buried in a cemetery. Her body remains there to this day. And while it is good that she is with Christ and no longer struggles with sin, it is not very good that her body is buried in the ground. That is not what God intended when he formed Adam out of the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life.
And so as we return to our text we find that we can be comforted by what is going to happen in the future – something that will be a great blessing to those who are with the Lord now and also to us who are still living in this world where we mourn.
In our text, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We mourn now because of sin. But Jesus makes a promise about the future: we will be comforted. The time of mourning and suffering will come to an end. And it will not just end because we will die and depart to be with Christ. It will come to an end because Jesus Christ will return in glory on the Last Day and put all things right.
Jesus goes on to say in the next beatitude, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Jesus says that the meek – the lowly – will inherit the earth. And guess what? Jesus really means it! God created us as bodily creatures to live in the good creation that he had made. His promise for the future is that he will make things very good once again and that this earth is the place where we will live.
Of course, a few things have to happen first before that takes place. And so we hear in the next beatitude, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” We look at the sin in our own lives and the sin that surrounds us in the world, and we want God to do something about it. We want God’s reign to arrive at is consummation. Our prayer is “Come Lord Jesus!” An our Lord assures us that this will happen.
We will be satisfied because Jesus Christ will return in glory. The apostle Paul said that, “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” He will do this for us. And he will also free and transform his creation. Paul told the Romans that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
Now sports fans have no guarantee about the future. One of the reasons that loss in a championship game or series is so painful is because it was so hard to get there in the first place – and you don’t know when or if the opportunity will occur there again. But that is not the way it is for us as Christians. We can be comforted by looking to the future, because the future has already begun. The future – our future – began on Easter when Jesus Christ rose from the dead. In him, the resurrection of the Last Day has already started. And because it has started, we know that it will happen for us too. No we don’t know the timing. But this is not like being a Chicago Cubs fan. There is no uncertainty about the fact that it will happen.
And in order to remind of this – in order to sustain us in this faith – Jesus Christ comes to us every Lord’s day. In the Sacrament of the Altar the risen Lord comes into our midst in a bodily way. He is present in his body and blood as he gives us the forgiveness of sins. His reign is present, sustaining us as the people of God. And by giving us his true body and blood to eat and to drink he guarantees that our bodies too will be raised, for as our Lord said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, comes to us in this miraculous fashion. And in doing so he unites us with those who are already with him now. We join together around the Lord with the angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven. We join together with Shelby Tippy and with all the saints who have gone before us. In that experienced we know that our Lord’s words are true now: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And we have confidence for the future because as Jesus says in our text this morning: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”