Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 18:30 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Of that multitude, which no one is able to count, the multitude from every tribe, language, people, and nation; of that multitude, clothed in white robes and having palm branches in their hands, how many of their names do you know? These are all the Christians who have ever lived: all those who believed in the promise of the coming Messiah, and all those who believed the Jesus who fulfilled those promises. So we know some of their names. We know the prophets and the apostles. We know also those Christians who have gone before us and those whom we know now.
But of the vast majority of that great multitude, we don’t know their names, and they will remain unknown to us as long as we’re in this creation. But we live in a world where we are supposed to “leave our mark,” “leave a legacy,” “do something with our lives.” And that means we live in a world where it is very hard for us to rid ourselves of the idea that to be a “saint” means to be someone whom everyone recognizes as having done a bunch of good things. We say, “Oh, she’s such a saint!” Or we think of saints as those Christians who have died. We sometimes speak about someone who has died as one who has been “sainted.”
But that’s not what the Scriptures mean by saint, or holy one. In the Scriptures, saints are not those who have done lots of good things or who have died. Of course, God’s holy people do good works. And some of God’s holy ones have died. But they are not saints because they have done those good things or because they’ve died. St. Paul can write to the Christians at Corinth—a place, let’s admit it, not know for being full of a lot of particularly “holy” people—that they are called as saints, just as he wrote to the Roman churches. Throughout the Scriptures, the things that are holy are the things that belong to the Holy One, God. And the people who are holy are those who belong to the Holy One, God.
Saints are not just those who are well-known or noticed or remembered. Maybe my favorite movie of last year is called A Hidden Life. At the very end of the movie, there is a title screen with the last lines from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch. It says, “…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who have lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs” (Middlemarch, 811). If there is good in this world, it is due to actions that are “unhistoric,” actions that are not going to be written down in any books, or necessarily noticed or remembered.
It’s a little ironic, because A Hidden Life is a movie made about one of those unhistoric actions, by someone who faithfully lived a hidden life and would have otherwise rested in an unvisited grave. It is about a man named Franz Jaegerstaetter. Maybe you haven’t heard that name before. But he didn’t do anything spectacularly heroic. His action was small, limited, seemingly insignificant. All he did was refuse to sign an oath swearing allegiance to Hitler. People around him encouraged him to sign it, but personally withhold his allegiance. All he had to do in order to get out of prison and return to his wife and daughters was to sign a little piece of paper. What’s the big deal, in the long run? Who would really ever know?
It is perhaps unlikely that any of us will be in a position to sign or refuse to sign something like that. We are unlikely to have anything written about us, or movies made about us. But I don’t think Franz was thinking about how people would remember him. He wasn’t calculating what it would look like. He simply did what he had to do in the moments and the circumstances he was given.
And that’s what the saints of God do. Your holiness doesn’t consist in heroic actions of resistance or witness, even if you are called to that. You aren’t holy because you are named and known to the world, or because you will be remembered in history books or in movies. You are holy because the God of the universe loved, chose, and called you to Himself. He named you with His own holy name. He clothed you with the white robe of Christ’s blood and righteousness. The bride of Christ is covered in fine linen, which is the righteous actions of the saints, but it is fine linen that has been washed and purified in the holy blood of Christ. Jesus’ holy death and resurrection have been given to you as your own, so that when you die, you also will rise from the dead. You are holy because you belong to the Jesus who is the holy one of God.
And what does it look like to be a saint in this world? The 19th century pastor Wilhelm Loehe once wrote about the saints of the Lutheran church. He said that we do not make a distinction between a common life and an uncommon life. In other words, we don’t judge certain lives to be regular, common, every-day lives of Christians, and then elevate some Christians who have lived lives that we judge to be particularly holy. For us, when it comes to holiness, there is no distinction between pastors and people, or some Christians and others. There is only one holiness. We do not distinguish between common and uncommon lives. All Christians live common lives according to our vocations and places. But we express uncommon love within those common lives. The sort of love we express for each other is about as uncommon as it gets in this world, because it is the love of Jesus being shared with one another. This world says that you love people as long as you have feelings of love toward them. When those feelings do not exist, then your love is gone. But the uncommon love expressed in the common lives of Christians is to love those who have been given us to love, as we heard last week. We love one another day in and day out, day in and day out, day out and day in, until we die. That’s the love of Jesus for us, and that’s the uncommon love we have for one another.
Our saints are not recognized by special clothing or particular vocations, like the habit of a monk. Instead, it is seen in the habits of everyday life. Living faithfully in hidden, common lives. If we were not already holy in Jesus Christ, we might be tempted to despair in carrying out our vocations while the world just seems to get worse. We might think that what we’ve been given to do is not enough, that we have to do something more “significant,” more impressive, more holy. But George Eliot saw that whatever good there is, whatever salt and light there is in the world does not exist because we can prejudge what will change things for the better. It is instead partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill for you or me or those who come after us owes maybe more than half to the uncountable number who have lived faithfully hidden lives, whose bodies may indeed rest in unvisited graves.
Henry David Thoreau saw how people all around him were pursuing significance and success and he observed that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. It’s probably true. But a friend of mine changed that phrase when it comes to Christians. We do not lead lives of quiet desperation; we lead lives of quiet expectation. We live quiet, common, hidden lives as far as the world is concerned. But it is because we know the One who will bring all things to their conclusion. We wait for the day when the sons of God will be revealed and all creation will rejoice. We wait for the day when all the saints are revealed for who they are in Christ. Lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints rise in bright array. We wait for the day that really matters, when all the saints are gathered before the throne, having come out of the trouble of this world, whether small or large. On that day, we will stand before the throne, among that uncountable number, with myriads of angels, and praise the one to whom our salvation belongs. Then there will be no more hunger or thirst, no more tears, no more threat or danger or trouble. Only Jesus and His holy ones forever.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/30/20