Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
So, can you answer the heavenly elder’s question to St. John in our reading from Revelation 7? Just who are these?
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” (Revelation 7:13-14, ESV)
I’ll give you a hint: Just what festival are we observing today? These uncountable white-clad folks have a lot going for them. John didn’t dare to answer, but given the benefit of Scripture’s revelation to us, we can venture an answer with great confidence. The text mentions a couple of great things.
First, these individuals have come out of the great tribulation. That in itself—to be rescued from danger, trouble, and persecution—is a wonderful thing. But the text continues: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Robes whitened by blood. An extraordinary miracle, is it not? But it’s no ordinary blood, is it?
It is the blood spilled by the fist of the high priest’s guard. The blood splattered in Pontius Pilate’s fortress by the lashes of the whip. The blood oozing onto the thorns pressed into his scalp. The droplets that fell into the dust of Jerusalem’s streets on the agonizing walk to Golgotha, and blood which ran freely from the nails and gushed forth from the wound of the spear.
It is the blood shed for them and for you for the forgiveness of sins. The very same blood which we will share this day with one another, with all the departed saints, and with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
To come out of tribulation and to be given righteousness by Christ’s redemption are marvelous blessings. But these saints, those who have gone before us in faith, have more to offer us. We ought also to remember that they are holy examples for us. And, more importantly, we ought to remember that they are comforted now, living eternally in the presence of God, praising Him constantly.
Most of you are aware that as Lutherans, we do not call upon the saints for help or to intercede with God on our behalf. Yet, oddly enough, the Reformation got its start when a young law student, traveling near Erfurt, Germany, got caught in a violent thunderstorm and called upon a saint. A bolt of lightning struck nearby, and in mortal fear, he pleaded, “Help me, St. Anne, I will become a monk.” Delivered from this evil by the Lord’s hand and not St. Anne, this young man became a monk, and the rest is history.
What started off as a theological error by Martin Luther set him on the path toward the greatest rediscovery of biblical truth since Jesus’ own ministry. Now, based on the study of Luther and others, we believe that there is not Biblical evidence to support the invocation of the saints.
Even so, there are positive aspects to remembering the saints. We ought to honor the saints who have gone before us. We can seek to be inspired by their example.
The Augsburg Confession has an entire section about this topic, section XXI. Let me read some of it to you:
Concerning the cult of the saints our people teach that the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith. Moreover, it is taught that each person, according to his or her calling, should take the saints’ good works as an example.
For instance, His Imperial Majesty, in a salutary and righteous fashion, may follow the example of David in waging war against the Turk. For both hold a royal office that demands defense and protection of their subjects. However, it cannot be demonstrated from Scripture that a person should call upon the saints or seek help from them.
The Confession then quotes 1st Timothy as to why this is so: “For there is only one single reconciler and mediator set up between God and humanity, Jesus Christ.” (1 Timothy 2:5) Continuing: He is the only savior, the only high priest, the mercy seat, and intercessor before God. He alone has promised to hear our prayers. According to Scripture, in all our needs and concerns it is the highest worship to seek and call upon this same Jesus Christ with our whole heart.
It concludes with a citation from the first epistle of St. John: “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” (1 John 2:1)
So, just like most of the Ten Commandments, the Lutheran teaching on the saints has both a negative aspect on what we should not do, and a positive aspect of what we should. We don’t have Biblical support to justify calling on them or praying to or through them. On the other hand, we can respect the saints and learn from them to live out our Christian faith on earth.
From this, by God’s grace, each of us in our own lifetimes can seek to let the Holy Spirit guide us into becoming not just saints in creed, but saints in deed as well. We study the saints so that we can become more saintly. Not just famous saints, but other Christians in our lives, too. We seek to follow the saints as they followed Christ, so that we might be more Christ-like.
We are called to be a distinctive people in the world—God’s people, those of His chosen Israel like the tribes we heard listed in the first reading. By following the saints who followed Christ, we won’t end up looking like the rest of the world.
Recall what St. Peter wrote, words which ought to remind us daily of our being adopted by God in our baptisms:
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
Each generation of the Church has to ask itself, “How are we doing in doing God’s work? Are we participating, in Word and Sacrament, in raising up saints on earth?”
It often seems as if we aren’t. There was a substantial, multi-year research project called National Study of Youth and Religion that was completed a few years ago. One conclusion of the Study is that the mainstream church in America is dying not because of its failure, but because of its success. The Report reveals that most teenagers are not in rebellion or hostile to religion, nor to their congregations. Most do not think church people are hypocrites or insincere.
Many are not only content but eager to go to church. But in too many places, they see little to care about. What they are hearing from pulpits and from parents, can make them indifferent to the Church.
Here’s a quote from that study:
Overall, the challenge posed to the church by the teenagers is as much theological as methodological. The story of God’s courtship with us through Jesus Christ, of God’s suffering love through salvation history and especially through Christ’s death and resurrection, and of God’s continued involvement in the world through the Holy Spirit—has been muted in many congregations. It has been replaced by a complacency that convinces youth and parents alike that not much is a stake. The problem does not seem to be that churches are teaching young people badly, but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe…
Namely, that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people focused primarily on “folks like us.” This, of course, begs the question of whether we are really the church at all.
The saints who went before us and are now in that multitude before the throne of God did not believe this. Trusting that God saved them for eternity by grace through faith, they also knew that in this life, God requires much of them. He asks them to live up to the Name they bear: They are “Christians.” They are meant be “little Christs” in this world. They are to show this world what it is to take up the cross and follow Jesus.
What does it look like, then? A Christian life is a virtuous life. It is a life framed by courage, integrity, justice, self control, faith, hope, and love.
But how do you become virtuous? We become virtuous by doing the things a virtuous person does. One becomes courageous by doing the things a brave person would do, even if our hearts are beating wildly with fear. The challenge for us is that it’s very difficult for young people or for anyone to do what a virtuous person would do if we never actually see any virtuous people. How can we become courageous if we don’t see courage shown? How can we have self control if we have no role models around us?
Now, I’m not a fan of the theatrical pseudo-wrestling that is sometimes on TV, but I can borrow a concept from it. Look at it this way: The Church, over the generations and over the centuries, is called to be a sort of tag-team of saintly living. St. Paul did not hesitate to encourage his congregations to follow his holy example. He wrote to the Thessalonians:
7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8we did not eat any one’s bread without paying, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not burden any of you. 9It was not because we have not that right, but to give you in our conduct an example to imitate. (2 Thessalonians 7-9, RSV)
But Paul has courage to invite people to imitate him only because he is trying with all his might to imitate Jesus. And this is something all Christians are called to do. Peter wrote:
21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 22He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. 23When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21-23, RSV)
A father leading a son, a mother teaching a daughter, one generation of the Church taking the hand of the next, one saint taking the hand of the next and teaching not only God’s forgiving grace to us in Christ, but also God’s love for all, lived out in love for our neighbor. That is what All Saints Sunday invites us to celebrate. This Sunday invites us join that multitude no one could count and to live out a most wonderful adventure: Seeking to become holy, following the example of the saints as they followed the example of our Lord Jesus Christ,
Let’s also consider another attribute of the saints, for this day is also one to remember those dear to us who have died in the faith. We may rest easy with hearts that God comforts, because those who have gone on to glory before us are comforted, too. They are in heaven, clad in white robes, and God himself wipes away every tear from their eye.
The Lord Himself has sent His angels to bring them to Him. He has reached out and touched them and healed and restored them. His comfort will endure from age to age. Ten thousands of years, or however long He grants this world, shall pass—and yet those white-clad saints will still be glad!
We all have known those we would consider exemplary Christians in our lives. But imagine having known some of the highly-acclaimed saints of the Church—the giants of the faith whose names are familiar. Consider what you might ask them if you could talk to a saint as he or she drew near to death. If this dying saint had enough strength left to speak, how do you think that one would answer if we asked, “Do you regret that you walked this path? You suffered much along the way. You have chosen the good and you have forsaken the bad. You paid a price for following Jesus. You had to bear a cross for your discipleship. You have lived your life for God and for others. You spent the years God has given you. Do you regret it now?”
If Nathan Hale, about to be hanged by the British for treason, could boldly state, “I regret only that I have but one life to give for my country,” then the dying saint who was led and strengthened by God would very likely regret nothing, except that he or she did not follow Jesus with even more earnestness.
And that would be the saintly answer on this side of heaven. While still in his hard world, lying on the deathbed, the saint is able to know just some of the comfort of God.
But what of just a few minutes later? That saint is embraced in the arms of Father Abraham, like the poor man Lazarus. He or she is greeted with a cheer by the angels and archangels, seraphim and cherubim. Hugged and clapped on the back by the prophets and apostles, and by saints who walked the same good path. See that child of God held again in the arms of a saintly mother or father who carried his own cross, fought the good fight in their own generation and now rests in Christ.
But above all, see that saint now rescued from tribulation and comforted by Jesus himself, whose blood has given him or her the pure white robe.
That saint regrets nothing now…except, perhaps, for us! For we are all too lukewarm in our discipleship. Some of us have hardly even begun our good fight toward holiness of life. We have missed chances to witness to Jesus, missed chances to draw others to Christ, and we have deprived ourselves of that peace which “passes all understanding.”
Remember, then, the saints. Admire them for their holy lives. Be grateful for the comforts they received during their earthly life and even more comforts of heaven. Let us seek to follow their examples all our days, always remembering and trusting that it is for Christ’s sake alone that God will wipe away our tears. In that moment, we will be joyous in heaven with our Lord. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be His, now and forever. Amen.
 (Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (Oxford, 2010) pp. 11-2)