Sermon for the Festival of All Saints
Dr. R. Guy Erwin—November 4, 2009
- Isaiah 26:1–4, 8–9. 12–13, 19–21; Psalm 34:1–10, 22; Revelation 21:9–11, 22–27, 22:1–5; Matthew 5:1–12
Grace and peace to you from God our Creator and our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
To be perfectly honest with you, I can think of almost no text that I would sooner avoid preaching on than the Beatitudes. For one thing, the Sermon on the Mount is about the best-known part of the Gospels: what is there new to say about it? Second, unless you have something new to say, you run the risk of just going down the same paths we all have heard before. I once saw a seminary intern deflate like a balloon when, while shaking hands with the congregation after one of his first sermons (which happened to be on this lesson), the wife of his pastoral supervisor—when it was her turn in line—simply commented, “More platitudes on the Beatitudes.” Ever since then I’ve been a little afraid of this text. But here we are: in its wisdom the lectionary makes us grapple even with texts we would not choose. In this case the challenge is an ancient one—the use of the Beatitudes as the Gospel for All Saints’ Day is almost as old as the celebration of All Saints itself, reaching far back into the Middle Ages.
It was old even when Martin Luther preached on this text, as he did a number of times, in the Church Postils, his House Postils and on several other occasions as well. In keeping with the theme of this day I would like to share with you some of Luther’s reflections both on the observance of this day and on the meaning of the Beatitudes. It won’t surprise you to know that Luther believed his contemporaries did not understand either this feast day or this lesson correctly, and he was happy to supply an alternate interpretation.
First to All Saints’ Day: Luther begins his 1522 sermon for this day by declaring that if it was up to him, this feast would no longer be celebrated—not because there was anything wrong with it in itself, but because only very few people, in his opinion, knew how to observe it rightly. The great majority, he says, insist on seeing this as being about the saints of the past, those who have already entered into rest, and especially those heroes of the faith worthy of special honor. Such people decorate altars, say special prayers, and generally show their loyalty toward the saints most important to them.
This is wrong, Luther insists: our focus on this day should not be on the dead but instead on the living. We live in the midst of the saints: our neighbors and friends, our families and fellow citizens. This day, Luther insists, is not about the glorification of the dead saints (who in any event are past caring), but about the encouragement of the living ones, people for whom the message of grace is meant; people whose lives we affect and who affect us in turn. The Beatitudes, for their part, are not a set of standards to use to identify those who have led godly lives and are thus worthy of being remembered as saints, but instead are a message from Jesus to teach and encourage us, and all the saints who live with and among us.
Not that the saints of the past aren’t worthy of honor. Luther admits that they give us a picture of what it means to live grace-filled lives, showing deep love for others and engaging in self-sacrificing service. And we should honor their example. The problem with this honoring, in Luther’s view, is that it never just stops with that—humans inevitably fall back into one of two positions: either they use the saints as a yardstick to measure their own lives and judge their own worthiness before God; or they expect some reward for their loyalty to their own special saints shown in their prayers and offerings at these saints’ shrines and altars. Both of these approaches are wrong, Luther says—obviously the saints don’t have an intercessory power the living can use; and to hold up the traditional saints as measures of one’s own worth is to fall into a spiral of disappointment at one’s own failure to be able to achieve their level of virtue.
The right way to think about the saints, according to Luther, is to simply give God thanks for having given us extraordinary men and women who show us what it means to respond to God’s grace by loving our neighbor. This is all the saints really ever did, Luther claims—even though some have great miracles and wonders associated with them, their real importance lies in the directness and strength of their loving response to God and neighbor.
The point is paralleled by the way Luther looks at the Beatitudes: instead of the eight points of blessedness they contain being benchmarks we can somehow use to either to distinguish saints from other people or (worse!) to judge our own progress toward holiness, Luther wants us to see them first as a kind of warning that being a follower of Jesus is not for the weak or the timid; and second, as a way for us to learn from them to put our trust in God alone.
This means not seeing the Beatitudes and the qualities they describe as steps on a gradual path of self-improvement, leading toward salvation and eternal reward, but instead as a call to self-examination and self-criticism. On this point Luther is adamant: we must not make the Beatitudes into a new set of commandments we need to live up to, but see them instead as ways that living in confident faith may be rewarded by God with a more thoughtful and faithful pattern of life.
This is a subtle but important distinction Luther is making: in the Beatitudes, Jesus is not promising salvation to those who can manage to live up to these standards, but rather God promises salvation to us through Christ, and then Jesus offers us the Beatitudes as examples of the goodness into which living in trust in that promise of salvation can lead us. In other words, the “blessedness” of those described here is a result of their faith in the larger promise of God’s grace and then living accordingly.
Take, for example, Jesus’ blessing for those who are poor in spirit: this poverty of spirit, Luther insists, is not something we should strive to accomplish for Jesus’ sake, but something we will be drawn gently toward, as we understand better and better what Jesus has done for us already. To go out and try to make ourselves poor in an external way misses the point (and here Luther has some choice words for St. Francis and the Franciscan ideal of voluntary poverty, which he sees as a kind of affectation) because this is about poverty of spirit. But what does that mean? Being poor in spirit is (like modesty) not something one can strive to achieve, but rather simply what happens when you see things in their right relationships, understand your dependence on God, and start living for others. Then, Luther says, you will not hang on material things as important, or be proud or pretentious about all you possess or all you know, but understand instead that your true riches are not material but spiritual ones.
Luther lays out each of the Beatitudes in essentially the same way: all of these qualities are the fruits of faith, not the preconditions for eternal reward. The meek understand that it is not their part to seek revenge or judgment, but to try to be satisfied and calm within a stressful and violent world. Those who mourn don’t choose mourning as a way of life, but are comforted by knowing that every believer’s life contains grief, and that it is God’s desire to wipe away their tears. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will somehow be satisfied—but those who promote righteousness should prepare experience in this life the scorn and hate of those for whom the cross is still a scandal.
The merciful, for their part, will be those whose faith has allowed them to really understand the petition in the Lord’s prayer that we are forgiven as we are able to forgive; the pure in heart will be those who really know how they stand with a God who loves them, and thus can face life and the world with untroubled spirits.
Peacemakers will not just be peaceful in their own hearts but will actually help make peace happen, for they know that Christ has brought true peace into the world. And finally, those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, well, Jesus himself tells them what will happen to his followers: they will know struggle and disadvantage and disapproval and maybe even violence to their persons for the sake of carrying the message of Jesus to a world of hardened hearts and resistance to looking beyond oneself. But Jesus promises that this too will pass, and that those who bear this Gospel into the world will someday know the blessedness of which he speaks.
Luther sees the Beatitudes as Jesus’ way of encouraging and empowering his disciples in the challenge that faces them—to accompany him in teaching and preaching and healing, and to follow him to the cross. But this is not just a message for the saints of old, but also a message for us now, saints (and sinners) believing but still in need of encouragement; faithful yet challenged by our limitations and the world’s apparent indifference.
The cost of this discipleship is high, but the mercy and love God shows for us in Christ is greater yet. May we all receive the grace to know this for ourselves. Amen.