All Saints, observed
November 2, 2014 A+D
1 John 3:1-24, Matthew 5:1-12
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our word saint comes to us from the Latin word sanctus. It means “a holy person.” It shows up in the New Testament at least nineteen times where it means exactly that: “a holy person.” The word holy means “set aside by God for God.” That is why we call the Bible the holy Bible. We mean that the Bible is God’s Word. It belongs to Him and is not like other books. In the same way we talk about Holy Baptism. Baptism belongs to God. It is not water like other water, but combined with God’s word and included in God’s command it is holy water. It doesn’t have magical properties but it does make holy people, saints. God sets people aside from the rest of humanity for Himself in holy Baptism. Holy Baptism makes holy people, saints.
In the history of the Church there has been some confusion about the term “saint”. Some people have mistakenly thought that the word “holy” meant “without sin” rather than “set apart for God.” And thus they got the mistaken idea that saints were people without sin. It probably compounded the problem or informed the mistake that the saints in heaven have been confirmed in bliss and are without sin.
But that certainly wasn’t the case for those saints while they were on earth. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. The saints in heaven are without sin not because they never sinned but because they have been forgiven and God has now completed the good work that He began in them. They are freed from their sins.
You are the saints on earth, set aside for God through Holy Baptism. You are forgiven and your guilt has been removed. But the good work that God has begun in you is not yet complete. You are not yet without sin. In fact, if you say that you have no sin, you deceive yourself and the truth is not in you. You not only commit sins daily, hourly, minute-by-minute and second-by-second, but you also suffer both the consequences and the memory of sin. Your sins are forgiven. They are not held against you in heaven. You have been justified by grace as a gift through the redemption that is Christ Jesus and set apart for God by God in the waters of Holy Baptism. You are a saint, a holy person, who belongs to God, but you are still a work in progress. Thus does St. John write: “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared (1 John 3:2, ESV).”
So it is also that St. Paul addresses the Christians in Corinth as saints. He calls them holy people but in the same letter he rebukes them for their sins. The saints of God are not without sin but are forgiven their sins by grace.
I am harping on this because you are the holy people of God who have been bought with a price and who belong to God – the same as the saints in heaven – but you are not yet without sin and that dual nature, belonging to God, being holy, and at the same time being a sinner, brings some confusion to both the church and the world. We should not sin and when we do we should repent. Sin is dangerous. We should not think that our sins don’t matter or aren’t that significant. At the same time, we should tell those who complain about the Church being full of hypocrites to go howl at the moon. The Church is not, technically, full of hypocrites, but we do look like hypocrites in a sense, because every saint of God on this side of glory is a sinner. Nonetheless, we are not people who say one thing and do another, but we are those who confess what we’ve done and ask for forgiveness. We do not claim to be without sin. We claim rather that they belong to God and they live by His mercy.
Just because sins are forgiven does not mean that they are not dangerous or that they do not matter. St. John writes:
Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother (1 Jn 3:8–10, ESV.)
If we make a practice of sinning, if we do not love our brothers, we mock the price Christ paid for our sins and we hate those whom God loves. If we do that we are of the devil. If, however, God’s Word abides in us and we in God’s Word, then we will not keep sinning in that way because we have been born of God. He who is of God practices righteousness, not sinning.
Indeed, it often seems that you keep on sinning, but you don’t. What you keep on doing is quitting to sin. You continually quit sinning. You repent and turn back toward God. You confess and mourn for your sins and ask for forgiveness. You don’t abide in your sins. You keep quitting. Not only is sinning worse for us than smoking, it is also much harder to stop – and, in fact, we never really do stop until we are delivered from this body of death. Nonetheless, that is what you do. You keep on quitting, repenting, and at the same time you practice righteousness.
To practice righteousness is to be devoted to the means of righteousness. You are constantly quitting your sin and repenting because you abide in the means of righteousness which God has instituted and given to and for you. Those means include Holy Baptism, the Holy Absolution, and the Holy Communion, but they also include prayer, the study and contemplation of God’s Holy Word, and Holy Marriage. In other words, all the things that define and make a Christian – the things in which God bestows His grace and in which He means for you to live. God has instituted these means for you. In them He delivers the forgiveness of sins and declares you righteous for Christ’s sake. He has given you these things that you might abide in and practice righteousness.
Our abiding in these things is imperfect and faltering, of course, because our flesh is weak and we daily sin much, but whenever our conscience condemns us we should know that God is greater than our conscience (1 John 3:20). We have confidence before God because Christ, knowing everything and having all authority in heaven and on earth, has laid down His life for us. He has claimed us in the waters of Holy Baptism to be His even though He has always known how sick and weak, how stubborn and selfish, how bad at quitting sin, we are. He has done so with perfect foreknowledge and love and He has the authority to keep His promises and act on His Word. He has the authority to make disciples, that is to make saints, out of sinners by Holy Baptism and His Word. So if the world doesn’t like it, or thinks that we are hypocrites or terrible sinners, it can jump in a lake. This is what God has promised and what God has done. Jesus Christ has not died in vain. The Father has accepted the atoning sacrifice, the ransom has been pain, there is no more.
And if we ourselves struggle to believe it, if we doubt, we should simply repent and throw ourselves again upon God’s mercy in Christ and pick up again practicing righteousness. We look to the objective things of God, to what He has said and done and promised. Because all other things – even our sins and our doubts and our weaknesses – will pass away but His Word endures forever. So when we doubt that we are the saints of God we ask, “Am I baptized or not? Did Jesus die for my sins or not? Did He pay my ransom and claim me as His own or not?” and there is comfort that God Himself gives.
For you are the saints of God – no less than the heroes of the faith and your loved ones who have departed with the sign of faith. You have been claimed by God, declared righteous and holy for Jesus’ sake, and you are being sanctified, and even now, here, in this place, by His grace, you are practicing righteousness.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account, (when they say you are a hypocrite or a sinner or no real Christian.) Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt 5:11-12, ESV).
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.