Sermon: All Saints’ Day, 2018 Berett Steffen
On this auspicious Sunday after the most “Holy Feast” of the Reformation, it seems proper to talk about Martin Luther just a little bit more. Pastor talked last week about the beginning of Luther’s ministry and the direction and future of the Reformation, but now I’d like to talk about the end of the Reformer’s life.
Luther was not a very healthy man. Medieval Europe will do that to you, it’s like smoking. Later in his life he suffered nearly constant pain; his ailments including: heart trouble, a deep, hacking cough, kidney stones, fevers, and stomachaches. Not only that, but he was beset by depression, anxiety, and extreme stress for most of his life.
In February of 1546, at the ripe old age of 63, he was finally confined to his bed. For a while he seemed to get better, but then, on the night of the 17th, his pain reached a climax. A large crowd gathered around his bedside, trying to comfort him—to no avail. Ignoring everyone, he frantically repeated, over and over, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…”—good old John 3:16. At this point it was almost 3am on the 18th. Justus Jonas, one of his fellow reformers, knew the end was near, so he broke through the crowd and shouted, “Martin! Do you want to die standing firm on Christ and the doctrine you have taught?” To which Luther responded with a loud, “Ja!” Not long after this his heart burst and the Reformer died. An honorable moment, an honorable man, and a source of pride in the history of the Lutheran Church.
Remembrance of the faithful departed has been a practice of the Christian Church (as well as a date on the Church calendar) since at least the 4th century. The celebration has taken different forms and customs over the years, but our own Lutheran Confessions give us 3 tried-and-true ways to honor the saints. Let’s start at the last one and work our way to the first. Number 3 is life imitation. Many of the church fathers, like the apostles, Polycarp, Athanasius, Ambrose, and Bernard, were known for their humility, perseverance in the face of trial and temptation, and uprightness. These are things worth imitating. However, I think that even the most hardened alcoholic might struggle in a drinking contest with a medieval German, so you can see why this particular honor might not always applicable. Don’t forget…saints are always sinners, too.
The second way to honor the saints is by the strengthening of our faith. When we look at episodes in the Scriptures like David’s adultery or Peter’s denial, we see that in the end, grace and forgiveness trump even the worst of sins. As Lutherans we also look with pride at Martin Luther’s last “Ja!” holding fast to pure doctrine and really sticking it to the papists.
Imitation of life and faith; this is all well-and-good. But the first way to honor the saints is also the most important. This is to give thanks to God. To give thanks to the only one who is able to make saints.
Now back to our favorite reformer. The episode of Martin Luther’s last word is grand and stirring, and maybe it warms your heart. But this was not all he had to say; Luther had a much more powerful word still to give. Around the time of his death, a small, crumpled up scrap of paper was found in his pocket. On it were scrawled a few small notes, thoughts about the Scriptures and the Church, and then, two humble sentences, in Latin and German: “Hoc est verum. Wir sind alle Pettler.” This is true. We are all beggars.
Let’s rewind 1500 years. In today’s Gospel reading we have the first instance of Jesus preaching to the masses in the book of Matthew. Ascending the mountain, he sits down with his disciples surrounding him. Here we have God on a mountaintop—we’ve seen this before. When Moses ascended mount Horeb into the very presence of God himself, he received the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets. This is a huge tip-off; God is on his mountain, and something very important is about to happen.
And indeed something important does happen. Jesus begins to preach. Not just any preaching, but “beatitudes,” or “blessings.” He opens his mouth and says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” And here we see for the first time in the Gospel, the tendency of our Lord to speak words that are hard to understand at best. We can comprehend poverty, we see it all around us, and we can maybe grasp the concept of “spirit,” but “poor in spirit?” What is that? And this phrase isn’t an unimportant matter, because Jesus is clear that if you want to inherit the kingdom of heaven, you’d better know what it means to be poor in spirit or else you’re out of luck!
So Jesus keeps on preaching, and unfortunately we don’t fare to well with the other beatitudes either. Meekness is hard to come by, especially when someone wrongs you and you’d like to give them a piece of your mind, or maybe take them to court and sue them. The same goes for mercy and peacemaking. And what about persecution for righeousness’ sake? We live in a country where Christian churches are around every corner; sure, we get a nasty word here and there, a bakery or flower shop taken to court for supposedly being “hateful” toward homosexuals, but for the most part, no real persecution for most Christians. And being pure in heart? Well, we all know what the Bible says about our sinful hearts.
Now, you may ask yourself, what kind of blessings are these? I don’t fit the description; I haven’t met the terms and conditions. How are these blessings? They seem more like curses, like God is dangling his promises just out of my reach.
This is because we have a biological problem with blessings. Our first parents in the Garden of Eden enjoyed every blessing of God, but it was not enough. There was only one tree they couldn’t have, but the temptation to eat of it was overwhelming. Adam and Eve wanted more; they wanted to enrich their spiritual lives; to be more like God, knowing good and evil, to climb the long and most holy ladder to godliness. They sought spiritual riches through their own efforts, and so do we. Our sinful selves want more spirit, more wealth. We are bound to sin and so we are bound to desire spiritual greatness.
We are sinners, and ironically, sinners are always very rich in spirit, and so we come to the unfortunate conclusion that because we lack spiritual poverty, the kingdom of heaven is not yours, and it’s not mine either.
It’s Christ’s. None of us fit the description, but Jesus does. Jesus shows meekness by subjecting himself to unjust persecution, humiliation, and torture. Jesus endures temptation in the wilderness from the devil himself, hungering and thirsting not for earthly food and water but for the righteousness of God. Jesus shows mercy on those who need his help. Jesus has a perfectly pure heart. And Jesus is the peacemaker who reconciles heaven and earth. It’s only when we realize that we are none of these things and Jesus is all of these things that we really do receive the kingdom of heaven—from the hand of the King himself. When we look at Jesus, his words and his life, we recognize that all the spiritual riches and good works we’d like to take credit for are worthless garbage and, as the Apostle Paul says, “filthy rags.” We have nothing to give in return for our salvation. “Hoc est verum. Wir sind alle Pettler.” This is true. We are all beggars. Nothing to give, only open hands to receive; we are the poor in spirit.
And here we have what it means to be a saint. A saint is one who has died to sin and is raised with Christ, and so receives a glorious heavenly inheritance. Not by means of works or merits or spiritual prowess, but by simple faith. And so today, on this All Saints’ Day, we remember not only Martin Luther and the great church fathers, but also our parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, role models and friends, who continue to lead godly and honorable lives, or who have passed on and are now with the Lord. We imitate them, the memory of their faith strengthens our faith, and most importantly, we give thanks for all the innumerable millions of saints like you and me, who had nothing to give, and everything to gain.