Life and Death: Our Call to be Saints
Today is All Saints Sunday, the Sunday following November 1st All Saints Day, the day of the church year we pay special attention to the memories of those saints who have left this world and those who have recently become saints through the waters of baptism. At the beginning of service this morning we read the names of all the members of St. Matthew who died in the past year. And we also read the names of all the new members who were baptized in the past year. We did this because today is a day to remember all saints, and as Lutherans we profess that all the baptized are saints of God. Not just the holiest, most obvious saints who dedicate their lives to the service of others. But the rest of us too. You may think you’re too much of a sinner to be a saint, but Martin Luther actually taught that’s precisely the Bible’s point: we are all simultaneously saint and sinner. Being a saint is about being declared by God to be pure and holy and righteous. And because of Christ that is exactly what we are.
It's interesting to see how the three readings this morning describe three different ways of understanding saints. In the first reading from Revelation, we read about John of Patmos’ vision of those who were at God’s throne following the “great ordeal.” These were the martyrs who died under persecution in the early church. They are saints, honored by the church as we remember those who died for the faith.
And in the Gospel reading from Matthew we read what we might call the virtues of a saint. Jesus is preaching the Sermon on the Mount, and he begins with the words “Blessed are the poor in spirit...” And he continues naming those who are blessed: those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted and reviled. This may bring to mind images of a saint as one who is pure and peaceful, who followed Jesus in living a life of selfless love. Perhaps those like Saint Francis or Mother Theresa.
And then there’s the second reading we heard from John’s first letter. It says that we are all God’s children. And that what we children of God are becoming has not yet been revealed, but that when we reach our fulfillment we will be like Christ, pure just as he is pure. Reading this alongside other passages about the priesthood of all believers, Luther understood the message to be clear that we are in fact all saints, just as much as we are all sinners.
And so we have three understandings of what it means to be a saint. The pure and righteous description in the Beatitudes. The martyrs of Revelation. And the more broad understanding of all the baptized, as saints found in First John. And they’re all right. There’s not one correct interpretation of who a saint is, there’s many. And that’s good news for us this day as we remember those who have died, celebrate those recently baptized, and hear God’s promise that we ourselves are beloved saints of God.
Historically the church has set this day aside to remember those who have gone before us. To mourn and celebrate those we have loved and lost. Our friends and church family, grandparents, mothers and fathers, siblings and spouses, even children or grandchildren. Death touches us all and hurts us all. And eventually it will claim us all. And so today is also a good day to reflect on our own mortality. To be grateful for life, reflect on the mystery of death, and accept its inevitability.
Modern culture, however, seems to ignore death or push it to the side as much as possible. Of course we know every one of us is going to die. But our culture tries to sanitize death, minimize old age, and exemplify youth and physical beauty as society’s ideals. Humanity’s reverence for wisdom and old age has been replaced by a longing for eternal youth and physical attractiveness. I suspect our culture’s aversion to death is a result of secular atheism at the one end and religious fundamentalism at the other—both worldviews certain of what happens after death, and neither seeking to explore the mystery or discover the spiritual wisdom behind death and mortality.
A powerful spiritual practice is to contemplate your own death. Imagining what it will be like, considering how accepting you will be of death when your time comes. Learning to embrace your own mortality and trusting the process of whatever might be on the other side.
There’s an incredible mystery to life and death, and those who have delved deep into spiritual practice and explored the mysteries of life and consciousness tell us death is not something we need to be afraid of. Whether it’s promises in Scripture, the writings of visionaries and mystics, or modern reports of near-death experiences, we learn about a divine presence so loving and trustworthy that we are assured life doesn’t end at physical death—but continues on in another form.
In addition to contemplating the mystery of death, today is also about celebrating the waters of life we have in Christ Jesus. The eternal life that our loved ones who have died continue to have. And the life that we all have as baptized children of God. Our baptism gives us new birth and today is a special time to remember the newly baptized and to remind ourselves of our calling to live our lives drenched in the waters of new life.
In Baptized We Live, Lutheran pastor and author Daniel Erlander explains that: “Coming in water, God washed us and grafted us into Christ. Our identity for all the days of our life is set! We are children of God, priests of the King, disciples of Christ, a servant people, a holy nation, the communion of saints, the followers of the Way, proclaimers of the wonderful deeds of God. Jesus’ story becomes our story. Baptized into his death, we are to live as the Body of Christ in the world today.”
Baptism marks us as God’s own. And so we celebrate this special day. We celebrate our lives as saints, made holy in the waters of baptism. And we celebrate the promise of eternal life we have in Christ. We remember departed saints called home to God. And we remember the recently baptized saints this past year. We contemplate the meaning of life and death and reflect on our own mortality. And we contemplate the sacrament of Holy Baptism and the gift of God making saints of us. Today we are inspired and emboldened to live out our saintliness in the world. To manifest the Kingdom with our lives, to let our light shine before others, and to reflect God’s love to a world in need. May you be blessed this day and always with the assurance that your loved ones are in God’s loving arms; and that you are a beloved and baptized child of God. May you be blessed with the Holy Spirit’s presence in your life, inspiring you to be the saint you were born to be. Amen.
Pastor Brian, November 5th, 2023