Last week we heard how martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg on the eve of All Saints’ Day in the year 1517. Since we date the beginning of the reformation from Martin Luther’s action on that day, the anniversary of the Reformation and All Saints’ Day always come back to back. All Saints’ Day is always on November 1. Therefore, the anniversary of the Reformation is always on October 31. We have good solid historic and traditional reasons for celebrating these two days back-to-back. In order to accommodate both days, we generally celebrate the anniversary of the Reformation on the last Sunday in October, and we celebrate All Saints’ Day on the first Sunday in November.
History and tradition are not the only reason we Lutherans celebrate these two days on consecutive Sundays. There is also the profound effect that the Reformation had on the meaning of All Saints’ Day. That is because the church in which Martin Luther grew up had badly corrupted the true, Biblical meaning of the word saint. When the Reformation restored the teachings of the Bible, it also restored the true meaning of the word saint. Naturally, if the meaning of the word saint changes so does the meaning of All Saints’ Day.
The early church began recognizing the death of the martyrs who died for the faith by setting aside a day of remembrance for them. This was a good thing. The only thing is that there were quickly more martyrs than there are days in the year. The other thing is that the early church recognized that not all the martyrs were recorded … that there were martyrs who were known only to God. A day recognizing all saints would give the church an opportunity to praise God for the blessings that He worked in the lives of even the unknown martyrs.
When the bishop of Rome, Boniface IV, consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to Christian usage as a church on May 13, he set aside that day as the Feast of All Saints. Later, Gregory III changed the date to November 1 when he dedicated a chapel in St. Peter’s basilica. In the year 835, Gregory IV ordered the Feast of All Saints to be universally observed on Nov. 1.
Down through the years, the church strayed from the teachings of Holy Scripture. The Feast of All Saints evolved into a day not only to remember and thank God for the saints, but also to venerate and pray to the saints in heaven for various helps. The original intent of All Saints’ Day faded away.
Today, the official position of the Roman Catholic Church teaches a relationship with God is a lot like a relationship with a bank. It is as if Jesus enabled you to have an account in God’s Bank of Grace when He died on the cross. At your baptism, Jesus opened an account in your name and made a deposit in it. Every time you sin, you must pay for your sin from that account. Every time you perform an act of penance, you receive an additional deposit in that account. So, if you have a particularly bad day, you lose grace with God … your account decreases. If you perform some act of penance such as attending mass, donating to a worthy charity, saying the Our Father or Hail Mary, venerating a relic, and so forth, then your account of grace will increase. So, as you live your life, your account in God’s Bank of Grace is constantly changing.
Now here’s the deal. When you die, you need to have so much grace in your account. If you have enough, then you go straight to heaven. If you don’t have enough, then you must do penance by suffering in purgatory until you do have enough. Most people who believe this expect to spend some time in purgatory when they die.
From time-to-time, the Roman Catholic Church will declare that someone went straight to heaven when they died. That means that that someone had more than enough grace in his or her account. The Roman Catholic Church will declare that someone to be a saint. After the saint gains admission into heaven, they no longer need the grace that remains in God’s Bank of Grace. The saints donate this extra grace to the Treasury of Merits. The Roman Catholic church then administers the Treasury of Merits and distributes this grace to its members as it sees fit.
Obviously, a saint couldn’t sin very much and they had to perform extraordinary acts of penance. A saint is sort of like a super Christian. Our culture has taken this definition and uses the word saint to mean an amazingly wonderful person.
On the other hand, the Bible uses the word saint in a different way. When we search the Scriptures concerning the saints, we come across passages like the first reading for today. In the vision that God gave to John, he met an elder who asked him a question. One of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” (Revelation 7:13) Perhaps John was too awestruck to give an answer so he replied, “Sir, you know.” And [the elder] said to [him], “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:14) These words bring together images from all over the Bible. It uses these Biblical images to describe the saints.
One of the keys to understanding the Bible is context. It is especially important the we use the context of Scripture interpreting Scripture when we are in Revelation. What does it mean that the saints wear robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb?
The Bible often uses the image of clothing to represent the gifts that God gives us so that we can appear in his presence with joy and not with fear. Listen to Isaiah as he praised God for the clothing of salvation. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10)
The Bible is rich in this imagery of filthy garments representing our own sins and the condemnation we deserve because of those sins. It is also rich in the imagery of new, luxurious, clean garments representing the righteousness that we must have to stand before God without fear. The imagery teaches that we are totally helpless to remove our filthy garments of sin, but that God, in His mercy and grace, removes our garments of sins, cleanses us, and then dresses us in His garments of righteousness.
One of the strange things about the garments of righteousness is the way in which they receive their righteousness. It is through the blood of Jesus Christ. It is as the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostle Peter to say; you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Peter 1:18–19)
The writer to the Hebrews also speaks of the healing power of blood; For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, 14how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:13–14)
The blood that all these passages refers to is the blood that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ gave up when He allowed mere men to torture Him with beatings, whips, thorns, and crucifixion. He gave up His blood to death, even death on a cross, in order to purify the garments of righteousness that make us acceptable in the presence of God. In fact, they make us much more than acceptable. They mark us as dear children of God our heavenly father.
The suffering and death of Jesus Christ show that He is the fulfillment of the prophecies that point to the coming of Messiah … especially the prophecies of all the sacrifices of the Old Testament. By the power of the Holy Spirit John the Baptist recognized this, pointed at Jesus, and declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29) thus Jesus will forevermore be known as the Lamb of God.
Thus, the description of the saints in heaven from Revelation brings the images of the robes of righteousness and the blood of the lamb together to give us a description of the saints who will remain in God’s kingdom forever. The filthy old rags of their sins have been removed, and they have been given new clothes … clothes that have been cleansed by the suffering and death of Jesus Christ who is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
Now, if you are beginning to think that the Biblical definition of saint and the Biblical definition of Christian are the same, then you are right. A saint is someone whom God has declared holy for the sake of the perfect life and the innocent suffering and death of Jesus Christ. The saint receives this declaration of holiness by the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith.
This past year, two saints from this congregation said good bye to life in this world: Wesley and Milton. I did not have the privilege of knowing Wesley, but I did get to know Milton for all too short a time. Milton confessed the filthy rags of his sins regularly. He had received the Gospel of Jesus Christ along with the water of Holy Baptism. He regularly heard the Gospel as it was read and preached. He took the Gospel into his mouth as he ate the body and drank the blood of his savior. Those of you who knew Wesley can say the same for him. Both of these fellow Christians received robes made white in the blood of the Lamb. Now, our Lord Jesus Christ has called them out of this veil of tears to Himself in heaven. There they wait for the coming of the Last Day with all the saints.
We can give thanks for the work that God did in them and through them while they were here. We can also give thanks for the work of the saints who still live with us here in time. We, the baptized saints of God, continue to confess our sins. We continue to hear and taste the Gospel for the forgiveness of sins as it comes to us in Word and Sacrament. We continue to watch for the day when Jesus Christ our Lord calls us out of this veil of sorrows to Himself in heaven … OR … should we still be here on the Last day … we will join in the resurrection of that Day.
On that Last Day, God will raise all the dead and transform the decaying dust of our flesh into a new, immortal body. God will destroy this present, sinful earth and replace it with a new heaven and earth. There, all who believe in Jesus Christ shall join the great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9–10) There, we shall live with the Lamb and enjoy His presence forever. Amen
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