All Saints, observed
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sometime in the last 10 years or so, the African-American Church has taken to answering the greeting, “How are you?” with the word “blessed.” I will see someone on the street and say, “Good morning. How are you?” And if he is a member of that group, he will likely respond not by saying, “fine,” or “all right,” but he will smile and say, “I am blessed.”
I am intrigued by that answer. I am not going to take it on. It is not my culture. My mother taught me to say “fine.” “Fine” is still fine with me. But I find the answer a clever confession. It is a nice twist on polite conversation. Someone issues a formalized greeting and you respond with a barely concealed challenge to the world order and insistence that what defines you is not your feelings, your immediate situation, nor the constructs of polite discourse, but the grace of God in Christ Jesus in which and, by which, you are blessed.
I am not sure these people fully understand what they’re saying. But who ever does? We say the ancient and profoundly true words of the creed every week. Do we know what we are saying? In part, we do, but in part we do not. That is the character of all confession. Because we aren’t scientists with blind faith in the scientific method who think, naively, we’ve got proof of something, a real fact, that all reasonable men will accept. We are Christians. We live by faith. We trust in God’s Word and Promise and we submit to it.
That is what is to be blessed. It is to be as the beatitudes describe: poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, persecuted, and reviled. To be blessed is to be crucified. It is to be dying and dead. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.
All the beatitudes are really the same, even as all the commandments are really the same. The commandments don’t ask us to divide our love to but love God perfectly by loving neighbor perfectly. The beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount don’t describe nine different types of blessed people. Rather they describe faith in nine different ways.
Let us consider just one: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” What does this mean? Lutheran ears are prone to mishear this. This is not a hunger or desire for forgiveness. Listen closely. This is not a hunger or desire for forgiveness or imputed righteousness. This is hunger for moral perfection, for freedom from sin and the fallen flesh. It is not a desire for mercy from the Law but it is the desire to keep the Law, to be free of accusation, not by pardon, but by innocence.
And that, most certainly, does not feel blessed. It feels horrible. It feels like, and is a kind of, slavery. Because those who hunger for moral perfection are ashamed of their lusts and desires. They live in fear of God’s wrath and exposure. They chafe against the Law, against their own bodies. They desire, hunger, and thirst after righteousness, but they do not obtain it. This gives them a high degree of self-loathing, sleepless nights, insecurity, and fear. Is that a blessed state?
Consider our cultures’ response to the besetting temptation of homosexuality. Doesn’t our society look upon those who fight against this, who loathe themselves, as the most pitiful of men? Isn’t the common wisdom that they should embrace it, stop fighting and accept it, come to peace with it, and so forth? Are we going to say to the man who hates himself and his lusts, who fights, awake and asleep, against his lusts and addictions, who finds no peace on earth, that he is blessed in that sorrow and shame?
Christ does. He says they are blessed. Blessed are those who hurt, who hate themselves, who are ashamed, who desire moral perfection and cannot obtain it – because they will be satisfied.
They will be satisfied. Their day will come. In the meantime, they are forgiven. They are accepted by Christ, reconciled to the Father, praised by the angels, loved by the Spirit, full-fledged members of the family of God. They belong. They are declared righteous and their guilt, their actions and thoughts, their failures, are not held against them.
But they are not yet satisfied. The Holy Absolution removes guilt. It removes the penalty for sin. It restores fellowship with the Father and the Son in the Spirit. We should desire this, to be sure, for God gives it and wants us to have it. But the Holy Absolution does not erase the memory or consequences and it does not take away temptation. Those who receive it still hunger and thirst for righteousness. They are declared righteous. Their sins are forgiven before God in heaven. They are given strength and encouragement, ammunition against sin and temptation. And, yet, sin and temptation remain until they are delivered from these bodies of death. Thus was Christ on the cross still tempted, still surrounded by evil, and to all appearances cursed, but He was blessed. So it is to be the Church Militant, the Church at war, the Church on earth.
It does seems as though you who must fight, who hate yourselves, who struggle and are ashamed of who and what you are, of who and what you want, are cursed. It is a painful and hard life. But the Lord does not say you are cursed. He says you who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed and you shall be satisfied.
You struggle. You hunger. You hurt. You have come for forgiveness, for assistance, for mercy, and you are blessed. You shall be satisfied. It matters not what the struggle. Some are free from the temptation of pride or gossip or homosexuality only to fight against gluttony or cowardice. Each saint takes up the cross the Lord has given and nothing has befallen you that is not common to man. In the end, it is all the same: rebellion against God and unbelief. It matters not. For you are the saints of God, His holy ones, His people. Your fight is a blessed and good fight. For what you fight in your flesh has cosmic consequences. You do not fight for yourself alone. You for God and His Kingdom and His saints. You are His own stewards. Your body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit, a sacred battle and burial ground. You fight for the Lord. You are His soldier. You do not fight simply against flesh and blood. You fight against the devil and all his wicked host. Indeed, you are blessed and honored. The Lord is with you. He is not ashamed of you. He does not give up. He loves you.
Come then and receive food for soldiers, sustenance for the blessed, the foretaste of heaven. Come and receive the risen Body and Blood of Jesus. You shall be satisfied. You shall find some reprieve, some rest here. Come, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, all the saints of God, and be washed in the Blood of the Lamb. This isn’t a metaphor. We aren’t washed in the Blood of the Lamb by thinking about Jesus. We are washed by having the Blood of the Lamb poured down our throats to cover the doorposts of our souls that we would be spared and the angel of death would pass over us. It is real Blood and a real washing.
Listen: the distant triumph song is playing. You are not alone. The saints in heaven behold you and sing and pray for you. Hear the distant Hosanna, the Blessed is He, the Holy, Holy, Holy of the Holy Seraphim, and join your voice to theirs. Sing with heaven. Sing with the saints. And your heart will be brave, your arms will be strong again, for what you must face in your good and blessed and significant struggle against the forces of darkness will not overcome you for it has not overcome Him. The Light has shined in the darkness and though the darkness hated Him it did not overcome Him. His Name is upon you. His Body and His Blood are for you. Fresh from the grave, your victorious Captain, beckons those who are hunger, weary. He beckons you.
He calls all things to be by His Word. He said “Let there be light” and there is light. He says, “You are blessed,” and so you are.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.