Luke 6:20-23 | All Saints Day | Pastor Ryan Cortright
In my experience, Lutherans feel a bit like a vegetarian at a barbeque when the topic of the saints comes up. Today we are celebrating All Saints Day, but were not really sure what to do with it. We don’t pray to the saints. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about saints. The only thing Lutherans seem to do with saints is name churches after them: St. John’s, St. Lukes, St. Matthew’s, Mark’s, St. Paul’s, St. Peter’s… some of you have belonged to churches with names like these. There is a reason that we are bit cautious when it comes to the saints. We think of the saints as a Roman Catholic thing and, it’s true, our Roman Catholic friends have something else in mind when they talk about the saints. I learned this when I lived in Mexico, which is predominately Roman Catholic. The saints are a big deal in that culture. There was a saint ready to help with any problem. If you lost your keys, you prayed to St. Anthony. If you drove a taxi, you had a figurine of St. Christopher on your dashboard to help you stay safe on the road.
When Lutherans talk about the saints, though, we have something else in mind. We don’t just mean those people who the Roman Catholic Church has recognized as saints. The Bible calls all believers saints. The word “saint” means holy. I realize we don’t usually talk this way. When someone says, “He’s such a saint,” they probably just mean that person is a really, really nice guy. Here at church, though, we understand that no one becomes a saint because they are so good. We are sinners. Only God can make a sinner holy. Only God can make us saints. All Christians are saints because Jesus has made us holy. He forgives the sins of all who repent and believe in him. This means that if you repent and believe in him, you are a saint.
This is our definition of a saint: a sinner made holy through faith in Jesus. So, if it’s true that Jeffrey Dahmer became a Christian while in prison for murder, he is saint. I communicate with a man named Jason who, right now, is serving time in prison and when he is released will be on the registry the rest of his life. Yet, I can tell you that he is a saint. That doesn’t mean he is innocent of his crime or that he will not have to live the rest of his life bearing the consequences of his sin. It means that he has repented and he has faith that God forgives him for the sake of Jesus. Of course, the Bible’s teaching of forgiveness for all who repent and trust in Jesus makes some people cringe or say, “A God who can forgive people like that is not a God I can believe in.” Anyone who says that doesn’t realize that you and I are no less guilty before God than the convicted killer or sex offender. To be angry is to be guilty of murder. To lust in your heart or look at images on a screen makes you an adulterer. Only by God’s grace in Jesus are we saints.
And on All Saints Day we remember especially those saints, those believers, who have died and are now with the Lord. Sometimes we call them the Saints Triumphant. They have won the victory. They have finished their race. We’re still fighting. We’re still running. As we fight against the enemies of God that want us to take our eyes off of Jesus….as we run our race with all of its hurdles, we not only have the strength that God alone provides, we have the example of God’s saints. These saints triumphant should be our heroes.
We saw some heroes here at Redeemer this past Monday evening as trick-or-treaters stopped by to get some candy. I saw a waist-high Captain America. A four-year-old Batman picked out some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups from the basket. Why do kids dress up like super-heroes on Halloween? Why does it seem that people never get tired of watching super-hero movies or reading super hero comic books? People need heroes. We need someone to look up to. Of course, super heroes have super powers. They can fly, pick up cars, and shoot things with their hands or eyes. Do you know what I didn’t see any kids dressed up as on Halloween? As one of God’s saints. No, the saints don’t look like super heroes. Many were poor. Most were not popular. Some were even put to death.
The saints are our heroes, not because of how they looked to the world, but because of how they looked to God. What do I mean? This is what we heard Jesus say in Luke chapter 6: Blessed are you who are poor…Blessed are you who hunger now…Blessed are you who weep now…Blessed are you whenever people hate you, and whenever they exclude and insult you and reject your name as evil.
The saints of God look like a pretty miserable bunch: poor, hungry, eyes red from crying, hated, made fun of, excluded and insulted. Yet what did Jesus see? He said they are blessed. The word blessed means that God looked down on them with his favor. Picture God smiling on his people. Why? Because, although they looked poor, they were rich in the treasures of God that will never fade or spoil; treasures stored up in heaven. Their stomachs may have been empty, but their hearts were full of God’s love and peace. They eyes may have been red from weeping but they will laugh with joy when they leave this world with all its troubles, and enter their eternal rest. The people of this world may have looked down on them because they actually believed all that Bible stuff and lived their lives according to it, but they could rejoice because, in Jesus, they had the enduring blessing of life eternal.
How do you recognize a saint? Jesus says that it’s not because they look poor or hungry or sad. No, you will recognize them by their joy; joy that is theirs although they may otherwise be poor or hungry or sad. He told his saints, “Rejoice …and leap for joy because of this: Your rewards is great in heaven!” Even in the middle of very hard things and sadness, God’s saints have joy because their joy is tied to Jesus.
Perhaps there is no time that this is more evident than when Christians gather at the death of one of God’s saints. I know the word “funeral” is going out of style these days. People would rather not think about death. They would rather say we’re gathered to celebrate life. The life that Christians celebrate when one of God’s saints dies is not just the life that just ended. We don’t gather just to talk about how kind and helpful and funny a person was during their life. We rejoice because they have finished their race and won the victory in Jesus. Earth was not worthy to hold on to this saint of God, so God took him to his side in heaven. God brought her home. A Christian funeral is a day of mixed emotion. On the one hand we are sad because we will miss having that person by our side. On the other hand, it is day marked by incredible joy and the hope that just as Jesus was raised from the dead to eternal life, his saints will be raised to live with him forever.
There is a good chance that, for some of you, I will be the pastor who stands up here when your friends and family gather for your funeral. It’s not a bad idea to plan ahead with some hymns and Bible readings picked out…that’s always helpful to the pastor and meaningful to the family. But the best way for all of us to prepare for the day when we become one of the saints triumphant is to live as a saint today. I’m not just talking to those who are statistically closer to the end of life. If there is something that all of us ought to take with us on this All Saints Day, it is that we can live every day as someone who knows we have an enduring blessing in Jesus and, therefore, joy that the world cannot take.
My guess is that you all have people who have gone before you that you would call a hero of faith; someone who demonstrated what it means to love Jesus. You may not have called them a superhero. You probably called them mom or dad or grandpa or grandma. We thank God today for these saints, now at rest. But ask yourself this question: who has God put in your life to be for them a hero of faith?... to demonstrate to them what it means to have peace and joy in Jesus no matter what the circumstances? If you’re saying to yourself, “But that’s not me, pastor. If anything, the people closest to me know that I’m not a saint. They know how much I fail.” Just remember that what marks a true saint is not a perfect life, but repentance and trust in Jesus. You are a saint. Now live like one. That doesn’t mean that people will dress up like you for Halloween, but even better than imitating you for a day would be to imitate your faith; a faith that rejoices that Jesus has called you, yes you, a saint. He made you holy in baptism and redeemed you to be his own and because of him, you have an enduring blessing. Amen.