“Blessed Saints” (Matthew 5:1-12)
On All Saints Day we give thanks to God for all who have died trusting in Christ, those who were marked with the Holy Name of the Triune God in baptism, and who now rest from their labors. Who are you thinking of right now? The apostles? Augustine? Luther? Walther? Mother Teresa? Maybe it’s someone closer to home. Your grandmother. Your father. A sibling who preceded you in death. A child who preceded you in death.
It is appropriate to consider their faithful example and seek to emulate them. This does not mean they were without sin. It does not mean that they were perfect. Rather, they were forgiven. They were perfect in the sight of God because of the merits of Jesus that were applied to them. They did good works as the fruit of faith, not to earn their own salvation. A little later, we will name those from our congregation who have joined the Church Triumphant since last All Saints Day.
By the way, contrary to popular opinion, you don’t have to wait to die to become a saint. Nor does doing good deeds in this life make you a saint. What makes you a saint is the fact that you are holy and righteous because God has declared you so in Christ Jesus. In Christ, you are forgiven. He suffered and died on the cross for your sins. In Christ, you are holy. Therefore you are a saint … a sinner, too, in this life, yes. But still a saint. Simul justus et peccator, as Luther put it in Latin. Saint and sinner at the same time. But you lose the sinner part when you die.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus describes the blessedness of those who follow him. “Blessed are…” he says to his disciples as he begins what has come to be known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” “Blessed are…” and then he proceeds to describe those who are blessed.
What do we normally think of when we say that we have been blessed? Good health. A nice home. Peace and safety. A generally happy life. Americans like to talk about how the United States has been blessed as a country. In the Declaration of Independence, the “pursuit of happiness” is included as one of the unalienable rights with which we have been endowed by our Creator. Many people equate a blessed life with a happy life, a life free of disease, a life free of problems, a life full of pleasure.
Yet how do you feel when economic woes strike your nation? Your community? Your family? Not feeling so blessed now, are you? How does it feel when a disaster strikes your region? We still remember how Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. Now the tragic images of Hurricane Sandy are being broadcast. You may not feel very blessed when your home has been washed away by winds and waves. You don’t feel very blessed when tragedy strikes you in any shape or form. Is it even possible to say that you are blessed when everything in your life has been taken away from you?
What is the world’s definition of being blessed? The world looks at power, prestige, pride, strength, might, glory, wealth, riches as signs of being blessed. These are the things that bring happiness. I’m afraid that many in the church have bought into this idea, too. Here are the titles of some recent books by popular authors sold in Christian bookstores…
- Every Day a Friday: How to be Happier 7 Days a Week
- It’s Your Time: Activate Your Faith, Achieve Your Dreams, and Increase in God’s Favor
- Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day
- How to Succeed at Being Yourself: Finding the Confidence to Fulfill Your Destiny
- Look Great, Feel Great: 12 Keys to Enjoying a Healthy Life
- Prepare to Prosper: Moving from the Land of Lack to the Land of Plenty
In contrast to this prevailing opinion even from within the church, C.S. Lewis had this to say. ... “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”i
You see, Jesus has a different idea of what it means to be blessed. It may, in fact, involve poverty, mourning, humility, discomfort, suffering, and persecution. It's not about being happy. In fact, being blessed should be equated more with the blessings of salvation and redemption that we have in Christ. And we have those blessings right now. Notice the phrase that frames the list of these “Beatitudes” … “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The poor in spirit are blessed because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Not “will be.” “IS.” And at the end of the list we have this: those who are “persecuted for righteousness' sake” are also blessed because “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Not “will be.” “IS.” They are the ones who “possess the blessings of the reign of heaven” right now: “forgiveness, Baptism into Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit for faith and obedience, the nourishment of the Eucharist, the fellowship of the redeemed.”ii
The “poor in spirit” are those who recognize their utter poverty before God. They know that they have nothing to offer God ... nothing that merits his grace and mercy. In repentant trust, their lives are molded and shaped by their Master Jesus. Jesus mourned over the sin and evil in the world ... so do we. Jesus humbled himself and took on the form of a servant … so do we. Jesus declares us righteous through faith in his death and resurrection ... we hunger and thirst for that righteousness. Jesus was merciful ... having received his mercy for us, he empowers us to be merciful. Jesus was pure in heart ... through his Word and Spirit he purifies our hearts so that we can look to our Triune God alone for all our good in this life and the next. Jesus is the great peacemaker who made peace between us and God through his blood shed on the cross. Adopted into his family as sons of God, we now declare his peace and seek to reconcile with those with whom we are at odds.
But the truth is, the more the Church imitates Jesus, the more the Church will be opposed. Don't be surprised when you see the Church persecuted, reviled, slandered, and lied about. We will be tempted to soften our message and accommodate the culture. But this is not an option as we seek to be faithful to the Lord's Word. And Jesus says it will be bring persecution. If it happened to the prophets, it will happen to you. If it happened to Jesus, it will happen to you. In John 15, Jesus said, “A servant is not above his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:21). And St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). It's possible that if all you hear from the world about the Church is flattery and flowery complements, maybe we're doing something wrong.
Remember, though, what our Lord Jesus said. Yours IS the kingdom of heaven. You enjoy the blessings of heaven right now. There is a “now and not yet” character to being a saint in Christ. You are forgiven. You are baptized. You have the Holy Spirit. You get to eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ. But there are still some things awaiting you, some things that the saints who have gone before you are enjoying right now. Here's how the elder in St. John's vision described them: “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:16-17 ESV)
Happiness may be elusive for you. But as God's baptized, repentant, trusting child, you are blessed. Jesus' words describe the blessedness of the Church … the now and not yet nature of the Church. The saints in heaven are enjoying their blessing right now … no more tears … no more sorrow … comforted … satisfied … seeing God. The saints on earth await the final blessedness promised to them … while declaring to those around us that they, too, can share in that blessedness through faith in Christ.
You can always tell an angel, some people say. Just look at any icon. Look at any work of Church art. Angels have wings. Frankly, Scripture makes clear that isn’t always true.
You can always tell a saint, some people say. If you look at paintings, they’re the ones with a halo. And since presumably neither you nor I have seen anyone of late walking around with a halo, the question arises: No saints? And if not, what happened to them?
Looking at the Beatitudes, sainthood is to be defined not like a bravery medal on someone’s chest. Rather, it is holiness one has in Christ, and that results in a personal inner motivation to be ever more like the Redeemer, to follow the Lord’s footsteps, and to pass on to the people around us the blessings Christ so richly bestows. That’s a saint. That’s what it means to be “blessed.”iii
iiJeff Gibbs, Matthew 1-11, p. 240-41. Some of the other descriptions of the blessed condition of the saints are also taken from Gibbs' commentary.
iiiLast three paragraphs borrowed from Wilhelm Torgerson in Concordia Pulpit Resources 23:4 page 17.