Blessed In Christ
Saint Matthew 5:1-12
The Feast of All Saints goes back a long, long way in the history of the Christian Church. Initially, believers who died because of their faith in Christ were remembered every year on the day in which they were martyred. Some of those first Christian martyrs are still commemorated on the day of their death, like the first martyr Saint Stephen, whose day is the day after Christmas, or Saint Barnabas who is remembered on the 11th of June. As Christians became increasingly persecuted in the days of the early Church, and the number of those who were put to death dramatically rose, it became necessary to institute a common feast day in order to ensure that all martyrs, known and unknown, were properly honoured. The date of this day varied from region to region within Christendom until the ninth century, when Pope Gregory IV set November 1 as the unified date of the feast’s observation.
Now, there’s no command in Holy Scripture to observe a Feast of All Saints, or to commemorate the death of any believer on any date. The early Christians, however, were compelled by their faith to remember the martyrs—just as, I suppose, we Canadians are compelled on November 11 to remember all those who have died in the military, in service to our country. We remember because it’s important to do so; it’s the right thing to do. To preserve our nation and its liberties and freedom, to act against injustice and tyranny, is indeed a noble thing—a thing worthy of praise. In the higher reality that extends past this mortal frame, that exists in the light of eternity which is the reality of God’s kingdom of grace, it is a worthy thing to remember and give thanks for all those who have died for the sake of Christ, who are referred to, in the great Christian hymn of praise, the Te Deum, as “the noble army of martyrs.” The sword they carried in battle was the truth of Christ’s Word. And with it, they died in defense of the freedom and liberty of the Gospel, their witness a testimony to all believers of just how important and of great worth is the salvation and everlasting life that we have in Jesus, our Saviour. Every Christian martyr confessed what Saint Paul wrote, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
In time, it came to be felt within the Church that everyone who remains steadfast in the faith and dies believing in Christ, should be included among the saints remembered and given thanks to God for on the Feast of All Saints. The martyrs still hold a special place before God, as witnessed in the 6th chapter of the Revelation, in which Saint John is given to see under the heavenly altar “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” But as our Lord Jesus tells us, also in the Book of Revelation, He will give to all who remain faithful unto death “the crown of life.”
Remaining faithful to the end, dear friends, is no easy thing. While earthly powers and authorities may not seek to take your life here in modern day Canada, as was the case with the holy martyrs, the persecutions that you dear people face in your lives of faith are real, and they are no inconsequential matter. Every moment of every day, “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion,” seeking to devour you. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John, the devil is a murderer from the beginning, and he seeks to take your life—your eternal life. And he’s not alone in this. He has an army of evil angels working to bring you doom, all because you believe and trust in Jesus. The world in which you live is not a safe place for believers and the faith they hold.
Those whom we remember before God this morning, we remember with thanks to God for their Christian witness and testimony. But in this remembrance, we don’t sugar-coat their lives. Their heavenly robes are white only because they have, as we heard in the First Reading, “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Like you and me, they were sinners, loved by God and redeemed by His Son. We, therefore, do not praise them, but rather we give our praise solely to Him who gave His life for them, and for you, so that you might not be condemned because of your sin, but have life that has no end.
The Feast of All Saints is observed by us not only so that we may give thanks to God for our loved ones who have died in the faith, but also so that we may be reminded that they are still with us—still a part of our lives. And by this I’m not referring to the sentimental or emotional connection that we may have with them, but the reality of their inclusion with us in the Body of Christ, the Church. There is only one holy Christian Church. We may speak of it in terms of the Church Triumphant or the Church Militant, but it still remains one in Christ. And those of the Church Triumphant in heaven above join with us of the Church Militant here on earth every Sunday, for they are always with Jesus, who abides among us now in His Word and Sacraments. Listen for the words I chant in the Preface before the Holy Communion: “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Your glorious name, evermore praising you and saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth.’” When you sing the Sanctus—your praise of holy, holy, holy to God—your dear ones who have died and gone to be with Jesus are here with Him, singing praises to the Lord with you. And one day, by the grace of God, you will be in the heavenly chorus with them, and your life will be one of continual worship and praise, free from all sin and every evil desire, as it is with those who are with Jesus now.
However, as Jesus points out in today’s Holy Gospel, this blessed reality is already yours now—oh, not in the fullness that it will one day be, but, by faith, you are indeed one among those of whom our Lord speaks. You are among those who are blessed.
In previous years, we’ve considered what this means—what it means to be blessed. Let’s briefly look at that again. The word in Greek that Jesus uses is “makarioi.” This is translated as “blessed,” but, specifically, blessed as in the sense of one who is the happy recipient of divine favour and grace. In all the “blessed are” statements spoken by our Lord, the focus is on your life in this world, but it is in that transcendent, higher reality of which we spoke earlier. One who is not a believer, who views things only from the perspective of this sinful world in which we live, would hear the word of Jesus and think, “What’s so good about being poor in spirit, or meek, or mourning?”
From the standpoint of this world, Jesus has it all backwards. The world says that it’s better to be rich in spirit—whatever that means—and to celebrate the life of a person instead of mourning their death. The world says that meek is weak and it’s better to be strong and dominant. I suppose the unbelieving world would say that being a peacemaker is a good and noble thing, but that’s only because peace is understood differently by the world. When the prophet Jeremiah warns against the false prophets of his day, he says that they tell the people what they want to hear. They say, “‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace.” To have real peace is to be at peace with God through the forgiveness of sins in Jesus. Christ, therefore, is the real peacemaker; He’s the “Prince of Peace.” And Jesus is the exemplar, the truest example of one who is poor in spirit, who mourns, who is meek, and all the rest, for all of the characteristics and qualities of those who are blessed are understood in the light of holiness. Jesus is, as Scripture says, the “Holy One of Israel,” in whom there is no sin at all.
For you to be the happy recipient of God’s divine favour and grace, you must be the same as Jesus. It’s not enough to be a little meek or somewhat pure in heart, with good intentions. You must be perfectly holy and righteous in all things just like Jesus. And if you are, you will receive what it means to be blessed by God. You will receive the salvation of your soul and have life without end. Truly happy—truly blessed—is the heart that receives such good gifts.
When you consider what Jesus says with His “blessed are” statements and how one must be holy and righteous like Him, you must not entertain any thoughts of trying to be this way on your own. Jesus is not giving you a pep talk here in our Gospel text to encourage you to try harder. He’s saying that the only way to be like Him—to be blessed by God—is through faith, the faith that you have been given by the Holy Spirit through the Word of Christ, the faith of your baptismal life, the faith that joins you to and unites you with Jesus, so that apart from yourself and in spite of yourself and your sinfulness, you are completely holy and righteous in Christ. He gives His sinlessness to you and you are blessed—with forgiveness, life, and salvation.
The saints, which means the holy ones of God, are remembered by us today because of their witness and testimony. They stand before the throne of God in heavenly splendor because “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” They were no different than you—even the holy martyrs—even the Apostles and Prophets. They all sinned before God and were sinful through and through. But they believed the Lord; they trusted in His promises; they remained steadfast in His Word. And even this—the faith they had—was not their own doing. It, too, was a gift to them from God, given and received through God’s grace in Christ.
It is because of God’s gracious doing that you believe and share in the salvation of all the saints. God wipes away all your sins—He removes them, like the Psalmist says, “as far as the east is from the west”—completely—so that you are only righteous and only holy in His sight. Earlier I urged you to listen to the words of the Preface about the “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” Listen also and take to heart the words that follow, that our Lord Jesus says to you: “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me. Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” Jesus gives you His true Body and Blood to eat and drink for the forgiveness of your sins. This is the blessedness of the righteous, dear friends—to be forgiven by the grace of God, through faith in Christ, God’s Son who died for you to make you holy and give you peace. In Him who is our righteousness and in whom we are blessed, even Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.