Today we observe the Feast of All Saints. I say “observe” because today isn’t actually All Saints’ Day. That was November 1, Friday this past week. And actually, the same thing can be said about the Festival of the Reformation that we observed last Sunday. We celebrated the Reformation this past Sunday, October 27, even though Reformation Day was actually October 31 last week.
The two go together – Reformation Day and All Saints. October 31 is All Hallow’s Eve, that is, the evening on which the celebration of the Feast of All Saints begins. And together they have taken on a unique status in the modern Lutheran church in that we always celebrate them on a Sunday, even though Sunday is rarely the day they actually occur.
Now “cheating” sounds very negative, so in the church we call this practice of celebrating a day when it is not actually that day, “observing.” We don’t do this with any other days of the church year. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are always December 24 and 25. The Epiphany of Our Lord is January 6, and is always celebrated that day no matter what day of the week it is. Easter always falls on a Sunday and the days of Holy Week always lead up to it. The Ascension of our Lord is always forty days after Easter, and is always celebrated that day.
However, with Reformation Day and All Saints’ Day we cheat – excuse me – we “observe them” almost every year. Now this practice says two things about us. The first is positive. It says that we value these days. We find it important to celebrate the Reformation in which the Gospel became clear again through its call of Scripture alone, grace alone and faith alone. It says that we value All Saints’ Day. We find this day when we remember the saints who have died in the Lord to be important and meaningful.
Yet, the Church’s practice of “observing” them also admits that we don’t find them to be meaningful enough to show up for a church service if they are celebrated on any day other than a Sunday morning. At least the vast majority of us don’t. Now be honest, how many of you would have shown up for an All Saints’ Day service this past Friday night? And my goodness, celebrating Reformation Day would have meant church two nights in a row. And of course, that would have conflicted with the cultural high holy day of Halloween. Fear, love and trust in God above all things…. It’s not hard to identify occasions when putting God second doesn’t require a second thought.
So today we are observing All Saints’ Day, and the very act of observing it points to the sinfulness of those in the Church – it illustrates the spiritual weakness that is so often present among us. Saint means “holy one.” In the struggle against sin we are not holy. Neither were those in the Church who have died. We are people who do not fear, love and trust in God above all things. They were not either.
But this morning, our Lord Jesus Christ has good news for us – he gives us Gospel. He begins the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus says “blessed,” and when he does so he means “saved.” He says the poor in spirit are saved.
When he refers to the poor in spirit, he’s not talking about the attitude people have or display. Instead, he’s talking about the condition you are in. He’s talking about the condition that those who have died as Christians were in. He’s referring to fallen people who continually find themselves fearing, loving and trusting in things other than God. That is what it means to be spiritually poor – to be spiritually powerless.
And then our Lord says why the spiritually poor are blessed – are saved. It is because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In the previous chapter when Jesus began his ministry, Matthew tells us, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” Jesus declared that the kingdom of heaven – the saving reign of God – had arrived in his person. Just before our text, Matthew provides this summary statement of Jesus’ ministry: “And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.”
In the incarnation, the Son of God entered into our world in order to defeat sin, death and the devil. Jesus speaks the words of our text as he was in the midst of carrying out this ministry. Already, he knew the task he had before him. He knew the goal and purpose for which he had come – the way that the final victory would be won. Just before entering Jerusalem he said: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”
Jesus Christ offered himself as the ransom for your sins. He received God’s wrath and judgment against sin in your place – a judgment that placed him in a sealed tomb. But God’s saving reign conquered death as he raised Jesus from the dead on the third day.
Because Jesus Christ is the risen Lord he gives his saving reign to all who believe and are baptized. It is something you already have now. Our Lord expresses the first Beatitude in the present tense when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And then he also states the last Beatitude in the present tense: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Forgiveness and salvation are yours now in Christ. You are blessed. You are saved. It is true for you. And it was true for the Christians who have gone before us. They received God’s saving reign through the water of Holy Baptism. They were sustained in faith through God’s Word, and through the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar.
It was true before they died. And it is still true now. In the last verse of our text Jesus says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Jesus says this reward is great in heaven. In a similar way he says in the next chapter, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
When Jesus speaks of reward and treasure being “in heaven,” he means that it is secure and safe with God. And if that can be said about the reward and treasure of the Christian, how much must it be said about those who have died possessing the reign of God? They are secure and safe with God. Christ won forgiveness for them by his death and resurrection. He made them saints as he washed away their sins through Holy Baptism. He preserved them in faith through his Spirit. Though their bodies have been buried, the reign of God is theirs and they are with the Lord.
They no longer face the persecution our Lord mentions in our text. They no longer mourn. They no longer hunger and thirst for righteousness. They no longer struggle against sin. And for this we give thanks.
Yet our Lord’s words in the Beatitudes do not leave things there. Better though they may be for the saints who have died in Christ, even that experience is not yet God’s full blessing. It is not yet the complete fulfillment of what it means to receive God’s saving reign.
We see this in the third Beatitude when Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The Son of God did not enter into this world in the incarnation in order to take us out of this creation. He did not become flesh and live a bodily existence in order to free us from our bodies.
Instead, through his resurrection Jesus Christ has begun the renewal and restoration of our bodies and of creation itself. The risen Lord has ascended and is now exalted at God’s right hand. But he has promised that he will return in glory on the Last Day. On that day he will raise from the dead the bodies of all the saints who have died. He will transform the bodies of the Christians who are alive. And he will renew his creation so that it is once again very good. It is as those living in bodies that can never die again that we will inherit the earth.
We pray for the coming of this day. We pray, “Come Lord Jesus!” But while we wait, our Lord continues to come to us. In the liturgy of the Sacrament of the Altar we sing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” It is the risen Lord who comes to us in the Sacrament in his true body and blood.
In the miracle of the Sacrament he gives us his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. Yet he does more than just that. In the Sacrament we are joined together with all Christians as the Body of Christ. St. Paul wrote, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
Through the body and blood of Jesus we are united with all the saints who have died in Christ. We are united as the Body of Christ – all of us together enjoying the blessing of God’s reign. And in the body and blood of the risen Lord we find the future that awaits all the saints when Christ returns on the Last Day.