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 also themselves.

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 versions 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 were, as 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] 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:

·        fasting;

·        self-flagellation;

·        wearing shirts of rough animal hair;

·        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 belong.

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] I 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 France.

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 to 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 articles:

·        a tooth from St. Jerome;

·        four strands of hair from Our Lady;

·        a piece of straw from the manger in Bethlehem;

·        a morsel of bread from the Last Supper.

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] Just 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 evolved:

·        saints, who were super-Christians;

·        those in religious orders, who were special Christians;

·        and last, everyone else—those who were just ordinary Christians.

Reflecting 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 resurrection.” [v] 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 others.

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 Mexico. Lying 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.

 

[ii]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_the_Great.html.

 

[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.