I initially wrote and preached this sermon three years ago. I consider this one of my favorite sermons.
"The Holy Things for the Holy Ones" All Saints' Day (observed) Psalm 34:8-10; Revelation 22:4 November 5, 2005
Psalm 34:8-10: Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good; Blessed is the man who trusts in Him! Oh, fear the Lord, you His saints! There is no want to those who fear Him. The young lions lack and suffer hunger; But those who seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing. [NKJV]
Revelation 22:4: They shall see His face, and His Name shall be on their foreheads. [NKJV]
IN NOMINE JESU
Today we observe a minor festival on the liturgical calendar. It is one of two such minor festivals that most Lutheran congregations transfer to the nearest Sunday, the other being the Festival of the Reformation, celebrated last Sunday. Not only is October 31 celebrated as Reformation Day, it is also known as All Hallows' Eve, the eve, the vigil, of All Saints' Day. The minor festival the Church has transferred to today is the Feast of All Saints, listed as occurring on November 1. The tradition in the Church centuries ago was that she would remember a particular saint on the anniversary date of his death. However, the Church had named so many people to be saints that it was practically impossible to remember all of them with the reverence such an occasion requires. Around the year 610, Pope Boniface IV declared one day to be set aside to honor the saints. In the early eighth century, Pope Gregory III fixed the date as November 1 to honor the saints. The next day, November 2, has been designated All Souls' Day, or the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, on which the Church gives thanks for all who had died in the faith over the previous year, a practice which has its origin in the Middle Ages. Today we give thanks to God for the faith He gave to those who died in the faith before us, not just over the past year, not just those in our congregations and families, but those of all times and in all places. We thank God not only for the lives of faith exhibited by the saints—the apostles, evangelists, and martyrs—whose feast days dot the liturgical calendar, but also by those who were near and dear to us here on earth and are now with the Lord at His heavenly banquet, at the unending Feast.
We call these people sainted. Why do we call them sainted? They are sainted, for they have died in the Christian faith. A saint is someone regarded as having been holy. To be holy is to be set aside, set apart, by God for His purposes. Such holiness is not limited to angels or apostles, evangelists, and martyrs, or those who have died. God's holiness is found in all who believe in Christ and are baptized; for this we are called sinner-saints, who are still in this vale of tears. His holiness is also found in elements we call ordinary but He calls Holy: Word, water, wafer, and wine. What we deem ordinary God deems extraordinary: Holy Scripture, Holy Absolution, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion. These holy things are given to us through the Office of the Holy Ministry, through men God has called to serve in His stead and by His command, men we would consider ordinary at best and God has set aside for His purposes, to serve His people, to give us the holy things, "the holy things for the holy ones."
The phrase—"the holy things for the holy ones"—comes from the ancient liturgy of the Church and is still in use in the Eastern Orthodox churches. The Early Church had very strict standards for admission to the Lord's Supper, standards we and all of Christendom would do well to employ today, so that many would not eat and drink judgment upon themselves for partaking of the Sacrament unworthily. The Early Church laid out very specific guidelines for admission to the Holy Communion, for receiving the holy things. A document believed to be written by the Apostles around the year 100, the Didache, which means "teaching," states thus: "But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the Name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, 'Give not that which is holy to the dogs'" (Chapter 9:The Eucharist). One of the ancient Fathers, Justin Martyr, wrote of a liturgy used around the year 150, of which he writes in part, "No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ." About 100 years later, around the year 250, another of the Fathers, Origen, wrote of the liturgy used in the holy city of Alexandria, Egypt, where the phrase, "The holy things for the holy ones," appeared in the communion liturgy, the elements having been consecrated and soon to be distributed. In the fourth century St. John Chrysostom's liturgy included this phrase. The priest, after speaking a prayer in a low voice, would call the faithful to receive the body and blood of the Lord, saying, "Let us be attentive. The holy gifts for the holy people of God." The congregation, kneeling, would respond, saying, "One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen."
This took place in the Liturgy of the Faithful, upon the conclusion of the Liturgy of the Catechumens, which we would today call the Service of the Word. The Liturgy of the Catechumens concluded with a prayer for those who had not yet made their public vows and become baptized. In the Early Church, children were baptized, but an adult who sought to join the Church became baptized after an intense period of catechesis during Lent, culminating with his confession of faith, reciting the Creed and the Lord's Prayer and his becoming baptized at the Easter Vigil. When an adult became baptized, he would also be what we today call confirmed. In the liturgy, after this Prayer for the Catechumens, the deacons would banish them and all the unbaptized from the assembly and lock the doors behind them, lest any of them profane the holy things by partaking of them to their judgment, having not been properly instructed. This practice has its roots in the Book of Leviticus, where "the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'Speak to Aaron and his sons, that they separate themselves from the holy things of the children of Israel, and that they do not profane My Name by what they dedicate to Me: I am the Lord. Say to them: "Whoever of all your descendants throughout your generations, who goes near the holy things which the children of Israel dedicate to the Lord, while he has uncleanness upon him, that person shall be cut off from My presence: I am the Lord…No outsider shall eat the holy offering; one who dwells with the priest, or a hired servant, shall not eat the holy thing…They shall not profane the holy offerings of the children of Israel, which they offer to the Lord, or allow them to bear the guilt of trespass when they eat their holy offerings; for I the Lord sanctify them"'" (Lev. 22:1-3, 10, 15-16 NKJV). God has here set aside the holy things, the body and blood of the Lord, for the holy ones, those who are baptized and confirmed in the faith confessed at this altar and who are members in good standing, that is, those who also lead holy lives.
"The holy things for the holy ones." Yet who among us is holy? The Lord has commanded us to be holy, for He has spoken, "For I am the Lord your God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy" (Lev. 11:44a NKJV). The blessed Apostle St. Peter also writes: "But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, 'Be holy, for I am holy'" (1 Pet. 1:15-16 NKJV). The Lord has called us to holiness. He has commanded us to be holy, to be set apart to live godly lives to His glory, just as He commanded those who died in the faith before us. We must each be honest and ask ourselves, Am I holy? Have I set myself apart from the sinful world, so that I would live the life God wants me to live? Have I lived a life free of sin? Have I faithfully kept the Ten Commandments? Such questions like these we would do well to ask ourselves as we prepare to receive the holy things from the Lord's Table, such as what Martin Luther puts forth in his "Christian Questions with Their Answers" in his Small Catechism. We answered these questions already this morning, when we prayed, "O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess to Thee all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended Thee and justly deserved Thy temporal and eternal punishment." We have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment. This is not the way of holiness. By and of ourselves, we are not holy people. We do not fear, love, and trust in God above all things. We have other gods than the one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We misuse His Name, taking it in vain. We despise preaching and God's Word and do not gladly hear and learn it. We dishonor our parents. While most of us have not physically murdered someone, we are guilty of murder in the Lord's eyes by hurting or harming our neighbor in his body, by not helping and supporting him in every physical need, and by our hatred of him. We are guilty of adultery, whether we have engaged in pre- or extra-marital sexual intercourse or even lusted in our hearts. We do not help our neighbor improve and protect his possessions and income, and we even look to get some of what he has for ourselves. We tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, and hurt his reputation; we love to shoot from the lip and wound him, even if he is a fellow Christian, even if he is a member of Shepherd of the Hills! The devil does his best work in the Church, attacking her children, you and me, just as he did to the saints of yore, as he sought to keep them from receiving the holy things with grateful hearts.
You see, the devil does not concern himself with the atheists, devil worshipers, or those who worship false gods. He has them already, though we still pray that the Holy Spirit would bring them to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Anyone who does not worship the one true God—the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—does in fact worship Satan. He is not worried about them. He focuses his efforts on the faithful, just as he worked on those who died in the faith before us, all the way back to the Garden of Eden, when he seduced Eve into eating the forbidden fruit, thereby bringing sin into the world. He wants to get as many of the faithful away from God as possible, to get them—to get us—to despise the holy things of God and, therefore, God Himself. He lusts to bring us from being holy to being heathen. The devil desires that we lack and suffer hunger, as the Psalmist might say, like the young lions, for, as St. Peter writes, our "adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Pet. 5:8b NKJV).
The old evil foe now means deadly woe, as we sang last week. But St. Peter exhorts us to "Resist [the devil], steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world" (1 Pet. 5:9 NKJV). What we suffer for the sake of Christ and for the sake of the Gospel and for the sake of the Church are the same things that the saints suffered, the same things our loved ones who died in the faith suffered. As we sang just before the sermon, "O blest communion, fellowship divine, We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine. Alleluia! Alleluia!" (TLH 463:4). The devil sought to work his woe on them, but, by the grace of God, they endured; they remained faithful unto their blessed end. The evil one continually attempts to do the same to us, but, by the grace of God, we too shall endure until the Lord calls us to our heavenly home, where we will receive the holy things into eternity at the marriage Feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which has no end.
In our text from Revelation, we heard in part the blessed Apostle and Evangelist St. John's description of his vision of heaven. He writes, "They shall see His face, and His Name shall be on their foreheads" (Rev. 22:4 NKJV). The saints before us in heaven now see the Lord in all His glory as they behold His face. On their foreheads is the Name of the One who bears the wounds of the nails and spear, Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the wounds He bore while He hung on the cross. We too bear His Name as we also bear the sign of the cross, both upon our foreheads and upon our hearts to mark us as those redeemed by Christ the crucified. The holy Name of Jesus and the sign of the holy cross have been upon our foreheads since the day of our Baptism, the Baptism the saints also received, becoming baptized in and into the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Whether you became baptized at this font or at another Trinitarian congregation, whether you became baptized as an adult or as an infant, you received the holy things of God because it is God who makes you holy, for He Himself is holy. In Holy Baptism God has given you holy things: forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation. He has done so through the application of holy water, water combined with the holy Word of God. He has clothed you, having robed you in the holiness of Christ. He has clothed you with His wedding clothes, so that you may come to the Feast.
Our gracious God continues to give us His holy things in our daily living our Baptism, as "we receive absolution, that is forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven" (Confession I). Confession and absolution is the daily living of our Baptism, which "indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever" (Baptism IV). We lived our Baptism, and received the holy things, this morning as I, a called and ordained servant of the Word, in the stead and by the command of Christ, forgave you all your sins in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the same Name into which we became baptized, the same Name into which our spiritual ancestors became baptized and by which their sins were also forgiven. God made them holy, just as He makes us holy. He makes us holy, setting us aside to be His holy people, marking us at our Baptism, as "All newborn soldiers of the Crucified Bear on their brows the seal of Him who died" (LW 311:3). He makes us holy, forgiving our sins for His Son's sake. To paraphrase St. John, we shall see His face, for His Name is on our foreheads.
One day we shall see our Lord's face, but until then we get to behold Him as He comes to us through hidden means: Word, water, wafer, and wine. In a few moments we will behold Him as He comes to us in His body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. We get to taste and see that the Lord is good. We who have confessed the faith confessed at this altar and who, by the Holy Spirit, lead godly lives will soon receive the holy things given in this holy meal, namely, the forgiveness of sins. And, as Luther teaches us, where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also eternal life and salvation. These are the holy things. We are the holy ones, made holy by the blood of the Lamb, who is holy, without blemish or defect. "Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God," as we sang this morning. Blessed are we who trust in Him, and there is no want to us who fear Him. When we are given the holy things of God, there is no need for us to want, for we are given the greatest gifts: the holy things for the holy ones.
In Scandinavian church architecture, there is a common trait among many of the chancels. The communion rail forms a semicircle around the altar, each end going into the wall. On this side of the wall are the holy ones on earth, the sinner-saints, at the Lord's Table to receive the holy things in Holy Communion, to receive a foretaste of the Feast to come. The semicircular communion rail appears to continue through the wall, symbolizing the saints in heaven, dropping the "sinner" label upon the Lord's calling them home, partaking of the unchanging Feast in heaven, dining at the heavenly banquet table, and forever singing the Lamb's praises, where we too will sing, "This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!" While partake of the foretaste, they dine at the Feast. Therefore with angels, archangels and with all the company of heaven, including those who have gone before us in the faith, we laud and magnify God's glorious Name, ever more praising Him and saying, "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of the heavenly hosts of armies. Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!" As our Lord comes down to us in this holy meal, He brings all of heaven with Him down to earth, including the saints and angels in heaven. We, the saints on earth, are connected with the saints in heaven by this common confession. When we come to the Feast, we are literally eating and drinking with them. We partake with the Patriarchs and the Prophets, the Apostles and the Evangelists, the Church Fathers and the Martyrs, our immigrant ancestors and our fathers in the faith, the mother who died in a car crash years ago and the husband who died recently from a lengthy illness. When we eat and drink at this altar, we really are partaking with these saints who went before us and are now with the Lord in heaven; they are communing with us, on the other side of the wall, as it were. Our tears of sorrow here on earth will become tears of joy in heaven, where we will be reunited with our loves ones now there, for there we shall be, for by grace our names are written in the Lamb's Book of Life, and we shall see His face. Blessed are we who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for we shall be filled, for we who seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing. We shall not lack the holy things. As we get ready to receive the Holy Supper, let us keep in mind the words of the ancient liturgy: "Let us be attentive. The holy things of God for the holy people of God. One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen."
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
SOLI DEO GLORIA
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