Sermon for the Feast of All Saints (Observed), November 3, 2019 (1 John 3:1-3)

“Hymn of Adoration to the Lamb” (1497-1498) from “The Revelation of St. John” by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Houghton Library, Harvard. Wikimedia Commons.

This sermon was originally preached at Emmaus Lutheran Church, Dorsey, Illinois.


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints.  It is a special celebration for us; we remember the life and faith of those who have gone before us and are now with Christ.  That is who the saints are; they are those who have departed this life in the faith. They are witnesses to us of the Christian life.

But what is the Christian life if we are to look at those saints who have gone on before us? What does it look like when it is modeled for us by those who have died in the faith that we know are all too human?  Those who we know were sinners in their lives, who fell far short of the glory of God? And what about the life modeled by those saints who are still living? They are sinners, all too human, too. We are all sinners.  We all know just how bad we can be, and those we remember as saints could be just as bad.

In the Old Testament Church (yes, it exists), we see many saints whose actions didn’t seem congruent with the sanctified life.  Adam and Eve, our first parents, disobeyed God and visited all the pain and suffering of sin upon creation. We’re still feeling it.  Noah, who followed God’s directions and saved his family from the great flood that God used to wipe the human slate clean, got drunk and made a fool of himself.  His descendant, Abraham, lied about his marriage and nearly put his wife in compromising situations with the Pharaoh of Egypt and with Abimelech, the king of the Philistines at Gerar.  His son Isaac did the same thing. His son, Jacob— who gives his name to the nation of Israel— steals his birthright from his brother Esau. Further down the line, David, Israel’s greatest king, has a man killed so that he can seduce that man’s wife.  And the list of Old Testament saints goes on, but sinners all of them.

And just look at the lives of the Apostles.  Saint Peter was a man with a bad temper who cut off a slave’s ear and constantly second-guessed Jesus.  Saints James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were hot-tempered, nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder” by Jesus himself because they wanted him to rain down fire on the heretics living in Samaria.  Saint Matthew had been a tax collector. Saint Paul, of course, oversaw the murder of Stephen and was a persecutor of the church. Though their lives were changed by their time with Jesus, their records weren’t spotless.  These saints who Jesus called to be his disciples were sinners, too.

And the saints of the later church were sinners, too.  Saint Augustine of Hippo, the great church father and writer, told us all about his past sins in his Confessions, in excruciating detail.  Saint Cyril of Alexandria, while a defender of orthodox theology regarding the nature of Christ, was also infamous for his tendencies to use violence and invective to get his way.  Jolly old Saint Nicholas may have punched a guy during the proceedings of the Council of Nicaea (though we’re not sure). Saint Olaf of Norway was a violent warrior-king, as was Saint Louis of France.  And our very own Martin Luther was often harsh in his words and wrote some rather unkind treatises toward the end of his life.

While an apocryphal story, as it goes, St. Nicholas of Myra was apparently fed up with Arius’ nonsense at the Council of Nicea and gave him a slap to the face. Image: Public Domain via http://www.aleteia.pl.

I know myself, too— and thanks to the Old Adam who lives in my bones, I know how “unsaintly” I can be and am.  I know I’ve personally broken every one of the Ten Commandments in one way or another, and I’m sure you have, too.  The worst part is, on account of our sinful nature, you and I cannot stop doing this. And yet you and I and all the folks I’ve named are Christians.  Saints. And all are imperfect and in many respects, far from Christlike. So on this Feast of All Saints, what is this Christian life supposed to look like when we sinful Christians carry it out so imperfectly?  How do we see Christ in the life of those who so often fall short of the glory of God? What makes a saint a saint?

Last week, after church, we were trying to determine which plaques in the entryway correspond to the windows here in the sanctuary.  Some of the associations are pretty obvious, but some less so. The Law and Gospel window is pretty easy to name, but what about the eternal life window?  And which one is the Christian Life window? Well, we think we figured out which one that is (and even if we’re wrong, I think I can make a compelling argument for it!).  If you look around behind yourself to the back right of the sanctuary, you’ll see a window with a big bird in a nest feeding its young.  

The Pelican Window at Emmaus Lutheran Church, Dorsey, Illinois. Photo by Rev. David Kern.
(We have since determined that this is the Passion Window, but I still think it is a good image of the Christian life and I’m sticking to it!)

That big bird that you see is a pelican.  In medieval times, it was believed that, when food was short, mother pelicans fed their young with blood from their breasts.  It is a powerful image of a mother’s sacrificial love for her offspring. The mother pelican feeds her young with her body to keep them alive; her flesh is their food, and her blood is their drink.  Of course, we know that in reality, pelicans don’t do this, but this is what the pelican motif alludes to when we see it in the church, and you’re probably noticing an apt analogy to another One who feeds and sustains his children with his blood.  Christ feeds and washes us with his blood in order to make us his children— like pelican chicks, we rely on him for our life and our sustenance, and he feeds us in turn with himself.  It’s a beautiful image of reliance upon Christ for all we have, especially the forgiveness of sins.  

It’s this image that our epistle reading is pointing to this morning.  The Apostle John— that same John who was one of the hot-headed “Sons of Thunder”– is writing to the church in Ephesus to encourage the people there to stick to their faith in the face of those who were trying to lead them astray into various heresies and sowing discord among the congregation.  The lives of the people in the church at Ephesus were far from perfect. They needed a reminder of what the Christian life looks like, and John tells them.  

John reminds those to whom he is writing that they are children of God— that God loves them so dearly that he calls them his children now, even though they are imperfect sinners.  They are children of God, now, even though they have not seen him yet and are not like him.  But they have a promise, a promise that when he comes in glory, all who believe in him will be made to be like him, perfect, blameless, and purified.  And even now, they themselves are made pure just as their Lord is pure because they put their hope in him. The promise for them, though not realized fully, is already fulfilled when they trust Christ as their parent; when they are washed in his blood in baptism and fed on his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper.  This is their assurance–when they cleave themselves to him, like the chicks of the self-sacrificing pelican, they are made pure just as he is pure and have the assurance that they will see him as he is. This is the Christian life, living fully reliant on Christ for all they need, relying on him for strength even when they fail to live up to their title as his children.  As John writes, “each one who has this hope,” that they are children of God and will be like him when he comes, “purifies himself, just as he is pure.”  

“Pelican in her Piety” from Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, “A Complete Guide to Heraldry,” 1909. Pelicans became a popular symbol in heraldry. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

We’re in the same position as the addressees of John’s letter.  We’re sinners living in a sinful world who live imperfectly in our Christian calling, but Christ makes us his children and invites us to trust in him until he comes.  He will make good on his promise. We have not received it in full yet, but in his body and blood we receive a foretaste of the full sustenance that will be ours when we are with the saints in glory.  And when we trust in him for this fulfillment of the promise, we start leaving off those sins that beset us daily, and though we will not be perfect, we start looking more like the saints that Christ call us. This is what justification and sanctification look like.

And we can take comfort in knowing that he has revealed to us that those who are departed from this life in Christ are experiencing the fulfillment of this promise and are living wholly reliant upon him in Heaven.  In John’s Apocalypse, John is shown “a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9, NKJV). And the elder who is with him tells him who this multitude is:

“These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple. And he who sits upon the throne will dwell among them.  They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters.  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:14-17, NKJV).

Those who are with Christ living in his presence in Heaven are experiencing the joy and sustenance of the Christian life.  They live now in his care, relying on him for all their life and needs, and he is in their midst. But they still do not know fully what they will be.  They are not yet as they are supposed to be; they are souls without their bodies, and though they are in the joy of Christ’s presence, the best is yet to come.  They are not like him yet, but they will be— the promise still applies. Heaven will only last so long. When the Resurrection comes, this countless host arrayed in white will be resurrected, made whole and pure in body and soul.  Then they, and we, will be like Christ and see him as he is, perfected and wholly reliant on him in the new creation. There will be no more death, no more pain, no more crying or sorrow, and “no more curse…[because we] shall see his face, and his name shall be on [our] foreheads” (Rev. 22:3-5, NKJV).  Only then when all things are made new will we be truly pure as he is, living as his perfect children forever.

So when you find yourselves looking less than saintly, remember that Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again to make you his children and lead you in the way you should go, and that no matter what your sins are, when you hold fast to this promise of his Gospel, he will deliver you from the power of sin that rules in your life.  When you and I trust him and look to him for our source of life, like the pelican’s chicks in the window back there, we can have hope that he will purify us to live with him in blessedness forever. We are sinners in this life, but in this promise, we are saints, and so we can join with the rest of the saints on this, the Feast of All Saints, those who have gone on before us and those yet to come, rejoicing and shouting “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:10 NKJV).

Amen!

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