It is the day that gave Halloween its name, but only by relationship in time; Halloween being the night (or evening) before. Medieval Roman Catholic superstition (not the religion, but the common superstition of the common folk) held it to be the holiest day of the year, and so the night before was the time when the powers of darkness were at their greatest, having had all year to gather themselves together before being vanquished by All Saints Day sunrise. That is why the night before was filled with goblins, ghouls, and witches.
We 'modern' men don't hold to such notions, and we don't want to frighten our children, so we have lost the really spooky elements of this superstition, except in our blood-and-gore slasher/horror-fest movies. In their time, the frightening bits of superstition were used for training the young about evil, about the dangers of the night, and about not trusting strangers, and things like that. We do that with videos, television commercials and school assemblies in which we try to frighten our children in a more constructive (or so they say) sort of way.
But our focus this month is not on the holiday of October, but the holy day of November. The day our modern calendars call All Saints day was once All Hallows, or All Hallows Day (or Hallowmas). The words mean the same thing, it is just an antique usage. It is the day on which we Lutherans celebrate those who have gone before us in the faith. Roman traditions divide it into two days, and they have a different understanding of what a "saint" is, so their celebration is different.
Lutherans celebrate All Saints Day as a time to remember those who have gone before us in the faith, confessing the faith of the Church, and to give thanks for the abundant blessings of God in giving them faith and preserving them faithful to the end. You might have experienced it in the past with a reading of the names of those who have departed this life in the past year. That practice is diminishing in America, at least, as the sense of Church is fading as well.
In America, everything tends to be about the individual. "I have my rights", and "I want things my way". This rugged individualism stands in stark contrast to the sense of being one in Christ that the Church is spoken of being in the Scriptures. Although that individualism is under assault today by our political over-class, it is still firmly rooted in the psyche of the American mind. It is the source, in part, of the movement away from liturgical services in many congregations, and it is an element in the deterioration of attendance at worship and the loss of denominational commitment among the laity - and clergy as well.
The odd thing about it is that this individualism has its roots in the Christian Gospel. It is in the death and resurrection of Christ, and the very personal salvation proclaimed in His name that the individual found his or her first significance. Before the Gospel, the individual was not that significant, unless that specific individual was rich, powerful, or a celebrity of some sort. Individuals were merely members of a class or category. They mattered to themselves, usually, but they were generally viewed as instances of something larger that mattered. Soldiers were cannon-fodder, for example. The individual soldier was simply a body put there to kill or die. Peasants were a dime a dozen and of little value. Crowds could be useful tools, but individuals were inconsequential - often even in their own minds.
Then came the Son of God. He became one of us. He lived for us that life without sin. He died in our place, taking the penalty of our sins on Himself. He rose, proclaiming the completion of our redemption, and showing us what our resurrection would be like. And then He caused to be proclaimed, and by His Holy Spirit created faith in, the good news that I, the individual person, am the focus of the grace of God, that I am loved by Him, and that even the very hairs on my head are all numbered. God spoke my name through the lips of His servant in my baptism, and He counted me of such value as to be named His child and an heir of everlasting life. Suddenly, the individual - not the class or caste but the individual - mattered!
Modern education arose because each person needed to be able to read the Word of God for themselves. Individual rights became more important, in part due to the new position of value granted by the Gospel. These changes did not happen over night. It took centuries to shape the minds of men in society, particularly since the member-of-the-mass mentality was natural to mankind. Human depravity, not to be outdone, took the individualism to an extreme, which caused many of the negative effects we observe in the church - and in our culture - today. And, now, we see the rise of the old approach to humanity, of being just a large group of individually insignificant examples of a class, rising again as the dominance of Christian thinking diminishes in our culture. The Gospel gave the individual value, even among those who rejected the Gospel but lived in society whose basic philosophy was shaped by it predominance. Now, as the Gospel is explicitly rejected by our culture and its leaders, and is being abandoned wholesale even by most of those who claim to be "Christians" in our society, we see its gracious influence on the minds of men in our society fading away as well.
All of that was simply to observe that the American (and 'Western') experience of church and religion tends to be less about the Church as a family or a body and more about being a place for personal preferences to be satisfied. When that happens, we tend to see less celebration of the corporate blessings and more emphasis on serving the individual 'felt needs'. Worship gives way to entertainment. We hear more about accommodating and less about disciplining. We accommodate people's desire to have short services, to sing fewer verses of the old hymns, to have newer, snappier music, to make the service "worth their time" and fit into their hectic schedules, rather than inviting and inculcating the discipline of the flesh that sitting for a little longer requires, that enduring the shape of worship as it comes demands, rather than making the experience of worship conform to your preferences. And we lose observances of things like All Saints Day, because it isn't really about us, but about the Church.
Part of the truth of the Christian faith is that it isn't about 'them', or us. 'Rugged individuals' demand that it be about them - and so we see churches full of people standing up with their arms over their heads, waving like grass in a breeze, singing about how it is all about God and them personally. But the Gospel tells us that it isn't about us - we already have ours in Jesus Christ. His life was all about us. His death was all about us. His resurrection was all about us. Our lives are about Him, and about others around us. Our worship is about Him, and the Word of God, and the wonderful gifts He gives us in His Word and worship. It is about the Gospel, and the Lord's Supper, and Baptism, and absolution. It is about God's goodness to us and His marvelous will for us and for our salvation.
When we look at it that way, we can see the need to celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us in the faith, and the truth that God has so richly blessed them with faith and, now, with the fulness of the promises of the Gospel. All they await now is the resurrection of the body. We pause once a year, or we should, and take note of God's rich grace in giving them both the faith and the final victory in Christ - and we also pause to thank God for the blessing that these dearly departed were in our lives and in the Church Militant while they were still among us. Doing so confesses to us and to the world that we don't believe that they are really 'dead and gone'. We confess that they have run their course and have been granted their full share in Christ's victory, and that we shall join them, and see them and be with them again in glory.
We also confess the oneness of the body of Christ, both here in time and there in eternity. We tend to see it as two different things, but it is really just one thing, the Church. It is, as we sing in the hymn, "For All The Saints", "We feebly struggle, They in glory shine, Yet all are one in Thee, For all are Thine". Just as childhood and old age are two separate and very different parts of the normal life of a person, the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant are two separate and very different parts of the life of the same Church. And, they are not as far separate as we might imagine. We cannot see the Church Militant, but there is no word indicating that they cannot see us. We do join together in worship, as we say in the liturgy, "with angels, and archangels, and with all the company of heaven . . .". We join them, and they us, as we 'laud and magnify' the glorious name of our God, that is, as we praise God and make His name known by means of our worship, and in the liturgy, specifically singing The Sanctus.
All Saints Day forces our attention from our navels to one another, and to the reality of the nature of the Church as revealed in Scripture. We need that re-direction of our attention because the Church as we observe it is not always the Church as it is revealed to be in Scripture. We do not see the unity of the Church. It is that blindness to spiritual realities that empowers the false ecumenical movement that seeks a visible form of unity which hides the true divisions in the outward, visible church. They seek to make the church look like one big happy family while it remains horribly divided doctrinally. "We all confess the same thing", is the cry, but it is clear that we do not - and that we do not believe the same thing either. Some boldly deny the Word of God in His Law, endorsing things forbidden and condemned by God, others deny the Gospel, even denying the divinity of Jesus, about which Scriptures speak so clearly, but they all want to parade under the banner of "Christian" and want to profess that we are all united in that thing called "the church" or "Christianity." Some even want to claim that Judaism and Islam share something with us and worship the same God and have their share in the same hope of salvation, if, perhaps, on different terms for their religion. This is not comparing apples to oranges and declaring that all are fruit, it is comparing apples to roast beef and granite and declaring that all vegetables and good to eat, even for a vegetarian.
Christian unity is first and foremost our unity in confession of the truths which God has revealed to us. If we cannot agree who Christ is, what He wants from us, and what He has done for us, and what He gives to us, then we do not have the same religion. The only thing we can honestly claim to share is the idea of practicing something called "religion". That is not what the Church is about.
The Church is the body of Christ. The membership of the Church is comprised of all those who have placed their trust in God for all that He has promised us in connection with Jesus Christ. The Old Testament believers grounded their hope in what God promised that He would do in Christ. New Testament believers ground their hope in what God has done in Jesus Christ. The whole Church is grounded in what God has promised in connection with Christ - forgiveness of sins, life eternal, and salvation as His free gift received by grace through faith by all that believe. It is the total number of those chosen by God, filled with His Spirit and with faith, from among those redeemed by the atoning work of Jesus Christ.
It is that Church that we celebrate on All Hallows Day. We celebrate that Christ has redeemed all men and all women, even though many will reject that redemption in unbelief. We celebrate that God has chosen - elected - men and women from every nation on earth to believe and be saved. Without His choosing and the efficacious working of the Holy Spirit, we have no power in ourselves to believe, but He has called us by the Gospel, enlightened us with His gifts, and sanctified us. We celebrate that He has gathered the elect into His family on earth in the Church, and has kept us in the faith by means of the preaching of His Word and the bestowing of His gifts in and through the Sacraments. We celebrate those who have gone before us in the faith, fought the good fight before us, transmitted the blessings of the Church to us by their faithful participation in the Church and in the work which Christ performs among men through His Church. And we celebrate the specific individuals that we have known in the Church, who, having faithfully endured in the battle, have been awarded the crown of life and full participation in the victory of Christ. We confess it all, because we cannot see that full participation with our eyes - - yet.
It is a heady and significant celebration, but it does not focus on us. It focuses on God, and on His work, and upon those who have gone before us. So, naturally, it does not appeal to the flesh of those 'rugged individuals' we have been culturally trained to be. The celebration does not stir the imagination of our flesh, so it requires a certain disciplining of that flesh. And once a year we set a day aside to do that celebration - and we call it "All Saints Day".
Yours in the Lord,
These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due.
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