Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Pastor Alan Watt
As a young child, I remember
seeing in the front yards of some homes a
certain kind of small statue. Partially enclosed in something that looked like an
alcove, a young woman would be standing in a flowing, blue robe—with a white
cloth covering her head and draped around her shoulders. Her arms were gently
stretched outwards, while her eyes peacefully gazed down at the ground. In those
early years, I occasionally also noticed something else, something that was
related to her—displayed not on front lawns, but instead hanging from the
inside mirrors of cars. At the time, I thought they were strings of black
pearls. Only later did I learn that such statues were images of the Virgin Mary
and that “the black-pearl necklaces” were, in fact, rosaries—prayer beads,
as some people call them. As a “little” Lutheran, I imagined that these
objects had something very exotic about them. They were my introduction to the
world of saints and how people called on themto intercede for loved ones and
Now I was already familiar with Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and
John—the four Evangelists. And my home church was named after another one from
the New Testament—St. Paul. But their images I was used to seeing in picture-book
of the Bible. So they didn’t seem as strange, as different, as otherworldly as
a three-dimensional Mary adorning the front yard of someone’s home.
Over the years, I’ve learned more about the world of
saints—including the Virgin Mary. And since it’s All Saints Sunday and since
last week we commemorated the 500th anniversary of the beginning of
the Reformation, it’s a good time to look at that world and how we—as
Lutherans—understand it, and the positive difference it can make in our lives.
In the early church, the first persons regarded as saints
mentioned a few moments ago, the Four Evangelists and the other disciples as
well—minus the one who betrayed Jesus.
Besides them and Mary were others in the New Testament. In fact,
believers in general—as we read in the beginning of most of Paul’s letters.
For instance: “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to
the saints who are in Ephesus…Grace
to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” In this
sense, anyone who confessed Jesus as Lord and Savior and sought to live the new
life was a saint.
However, for the next several centuries, sainthood became
focused especially on those who were persecuted for their faith—to the point of
death. These martyrs included people like St. Perpetua, a young noblewoman with a
husband and young child. Her father, a nonbeliever, begged her to renounce her
faith and make a sacrifice to the emperor. But she calmly refused, preferring to
die as a follower of Christ. She and several other new Christians—including her
servant—were then marched into the arena where they were attacked by wild
animals and killed by gladiators. [i]
don’t know about you, but such acts of faith—no matter how many years or
centuries ago—amaze me. They remind me of the cost of discipleship. And I feel
inspired by them.
When Christianity became the religion of the empire and believers were
no longer persecuted, a new category of saints emerged—those who lived solitary
lives in the wildernessor founded and lived in the very first monasteries. They
were not stoned to death or fed to the lions or die at the point of a sword. But
they did subject their bodies and minds to any number of hardships:
wearing shirts of rough animal
depriving themselves of sleep.
A model example was St. Anthony of Egypt. When still a young man, he left
the city and moved to the desert, devoting the rest of his life to the practice
of meditation. [ii]
While certainly not the life for me, I feel inspired enough to live with a few
less material possessions—stuff—and try putting priorities more where they
In a later period, still another category of saints made itself
known. They were those who did not renounce the lives they had been living, but
would have were it not for the responsibilities they had toward others.
One of them, a knight—that is, a professional soldier—“never
married, and [eventually] gave much of his wealth [away]....” Another, a
woman, did marry, raise a large family, and, after becoming a widow, fulfilled
her wish to become a nun. [iii]
feel inspired by such people—those who were called to live out their worldly
vocations, bearing those responsibilities given them.
As a particular group of Christians, most of us don’t necessarily
have a special place in our lives for these kinds of saints, do we? I
do—partly—because I love church history. That’s why I know the saints were
also important to Martin Luther. A number of you may know that earlier in his
life he regularly asked the saints to pray for him. One example you might
especially be aware of is the event that finally pushed him to join a religious
order. It was that stormy night, when returning to law school and, almost struck
by lightning, he cried out: “By St. Anne, I’ll become a monk!” Also, his
very name came from a holy man of God—Saint Martin, a one-time bishop in
However, as a
reformer, Luther had problems with the saints or, rather, one of the practices associated with them. It had to do with some of the
pilgrimages that people made. When possible, many would travel great distances
see the relics of one or more saints. These relics had either been part of a
saint’s body—usually one or more bones—or a personal belonging or some
other object that he or she had touched.
Like almost any religious practice, collecting relics and venerating
them could be abused. The prince who protected Luther from religious authorities
was a big fan of them. Over the years, he had bought and traded countless
a tooth from St. Jerome;
four strands of hair from Our Lady;
a piece of straw from the manger in
a morsel of bread from the Last
After arriving at their destination, the faithful would pay a fee to see
such things. In return, they received indulgences they could use to keep loved
ones or themselves from spending thousands of years in purgatory. [iv]
think about those who couldn’t afford the money for such a fee. Imagine how they
must have felt. Back then life was particularly brutal and short. So where one
ended up in eternity was what truly counted. But people often wondered whether
they had ever done enough. At that time, to many of them Jesus seemed a remote
figure. They needed those who had been “real” people to intercede, to pray to
God on their behalf.
Another problem Luther had with this world of saints was
similar to the
differences between laypersons, on the one hand, and on the other, priests,
monks, and nuns. It seemed that over time three classes of believers had
saints, who were super-Christians;
those in religious orders, who were
and last, everyone else—those who
were just ordinary Christians.
deeply about such things, Luther developed a different view of saints, known
famously in Latin as simulustusetpeccator—translated
as “both just and sinful. ”Or in yet other words, that every Christian is
both a saint and a sinner, that is,
until we pass “through the grave and gate of death [into] our joyful
Only then do we become saints in eternal light.
Does all of this mean that Lutherans don’t believe in saints as understood in the Roman Catholic
Church? That we don’t recognize
them? Not exactly. Our denomination does, in fact, have a place for them—a very
important place. But it has nothing to do with asking the saints to pray for us,
to intercede for us. We believe that Christ, who is ever merciful, receives our
prayers directly. That was a rediscovery during the Reformation—that Jesus
Christ is human as well as divine. Not a remote judge, but instead all-merciful
and ever-loving. That’s something and I sometimes
take for granted, yet never should.
What place, then, do we have for the saints in our lives? In one
document, written by Luther’s “right-hand man,” Philipp Melanchthon, we
read that we should honor them—and
do that in three ways:
First, “by thanking God for [them
as] examples of [God’s] mercy;”
2nd, “by using [them]
as examples for strengthening our [own] faith;”
and, third, “by imitating [not
only their faith, but also their] other virtues.” [vi]
Like the Beatitudes in today’s gospel. Being humble and merciful.
Practicing the art of peacemaking.
Among these examples, we also recognize those who could be called
modern-day saints. For instance, someone famous, like Martin Luther King, Jr.
And some who are relatively unknown, like Elizabeth Fedde. She was a Lutheran
deaconess, who as a young woman in the late 1800s,left her homeland of Norway to
come to America, founding not one or two but a total of three hospitals. I
don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty impressive! And her example
can inspire us to take on and stick with projects that help meet the needs of
In my office, on a credenza, I have a number of religious
objects—among them two personal gifts. One, from my wife, is an image of
Mary. Specifically, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patroness saint of
next to it is a rosary, made by and given to me by a Franciscan brother I once
met. And, at home, on top of the dresser in the bedroom, sits a photograph of my
parents on their wedding day—along with their brothers and sisters, all of whom
served as groomsmen and bridesmaids.
Now, as far as that rosary goes—I do not use it to invoke the name of
Mary so that she will pray for me. But her image and the rosary next to it
remind me of my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in faith.
And as for that photograph at home, all those in it—save one—now
belong to the Church Triumphant. I don’t invoke their names, either. I don’t
try using them as intermediaries between God and me. But when I keep seeking to
live the life God has called me to, that’s one way I honor them as the
imperfect saints that they once were—in this life—and now as the saints they
are in heaven.
I hope that this message is something you will mull over in your minds for some of the rest of today. And I wish for each and every one of you a blessed All Saints’ Sunday.
[i]http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/martyrs/perpetua.html. She died in Carthage, North Africa, which was her home city.
[iii] Bernard Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West(London; Arnold Press, 1986): 81.
[iv] Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York and Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950): 71. Also see Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West: 126-31.
[v] Petition in “Burial of the Dead,” in Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House; and Philadelphia: Board of Publication, Lutheran Church in America, 1978): 209.
[vi]Philipp Melanchthon, Apology of the Augsburg Confession in The Book of Concord, trans. and ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959):229-30, as paraphrased in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint. For a twenty-first century reflection on saints by a member of the Lutheran Deaconess Conference (LC-MS), see Rhoda Schuler, “On the Veneration of Saints and Martyrs, Ancient and Modern,” in Word & World, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Fall 2008): 373-80.