Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 29:25 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Something’s gone terribly wrong/everyone, all the world is mad” (Thrice, “All the World is Mad, Beggars). Everything is infested and infected with multiplying sin, like a house overrun with rats or roaches, or a body with a fatal disease. Every hidden thought contaminated with prideful judgment or faithless despair. Every smiling word polluted with hidden motives or secret scorn. Every good action spoiled with selfishness or a desire for praise. Anger, bitterness, gossip, arrogance, sexual abuse, emotional abuse. And that’s just in the Church! “It has not yet been revealed what we will be” (1 John 3:2). It’s a good thing, too.
But that’s not where the difficulty is in 1 John 3. The difficulty to our reason and our senses is in the first part of the sentence: “Beloved, we are God’s children now” (3:2). I wonder if the reason why the Church began to define “saints” as only of the faithful departed—those who have died—is because the faithful who have not yet departed simply don’t look the part. If we have white robes, they must be stained and ripped. If we have the palm branches of victory, they must be a bit ragged. And that gap—no, canyon—between what we appear to be and what we will be has caused people to reject the Holy One who calls His people to be holy. It has caused people to blaspheme the Name of our God. Worse, it might cause us to doubt the Word of God that we are His children now; that we have been bought back from the devil’s lordship, set free from the tyranny of sin and death, and separated from the unbelieving world; that we, who are so far from what we should be, might not really be what He says we are.
Some see the gap between what we are and what we will be and try to take matters into their own hands. Maybe it’s the “sainthood” of always making to say and do the right things according to the arbitrary standards of moral and political gatekeepers. Maybe it’s pharmaceutical companies who sell the good life in tablets and pills. Maybe it’s politicians who try to implement saintly standards of health, and wealth, and an American dream. Maybe it’s educators who try to instill the holy virtues of tolerance, self-esteem, and good feelings. Maybe it’s theologians or pastors who feed the spiritual-but-not-religious with the Pablum of positive thinking, with “faith” that makes one feel enlightened but actually believes nothing, with a “holiness” devoid of either content or conviction. But: “We can’t medicate man to perfection again/we can’t legislate peace in our hearts/we can’t educate sin from our souls/it’s been there from the start” (Thrice, “All the World is Mad”). All attempts at such secular sainthood are doomed to failure because they try to make the sinner into a saint with reference either to himself or to other people.
Even our Christian ideas of sainthood are tainted if we think holiness of life or miracles granted make someone a saint in the most basic sense. Saints do live holy lives, and God does grant extraordinary requests to His holy ones; but neither of those things makes a saint. When St. John writes, “Everyone who has this hope in Him sanctifies himself, just as that One is holy” (1 John 3:3), he defines sainthood with reference only to God. God alone is holy in Himself, but whatever belongs to Him is holy also. Beloved, we are God’s children now, we are saints now, we are holy and pure now, because He has made us His own by the holy and pure blood of Jesus on the cross. God alone is holy in Himself, but we belong to Him and so we are holy also.
He has planted in us this utterly super-rational hope that when Christ is revealed before all creation, we will be like Him, because we will see Him as He is (3:2). But we know the truth about Christ and ourselves only by faith. Everything we see in the world and in ourselves says that Christ does not reign, that He is not Lord, that He is not our Lord. And yet, John says, “See: how great a love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and we are!” (3:1).
See. Look. But don’t look at yourself. Don’t look at current standards of this world’s “holiness.” Don’t look at medications. Don’t look at the government. Don’t look at schools. Don’t look at pastors and theologians. Look at Christ! Look at the Son of the eternal God, who is holy in Himself. Look at Him in real flesh, with real blood running through His veins. Look at that flesh torn and that blood shed. Look at Him, no longer in the grave, but alive forever and interceding for you (Hebrews 7:25). Those are things that we do not see with physical eyesight, but with the eyesight of faith. And only Christ opens eyes of faith; only Christ washes each and every one of His poor, sightless creatures and makes the scales fall from their eyes into the baptismal water.
And so it is that we now see what great love the Father has given to us, first that we, unholy ones, should be called the children of the holy God—and not only are we called His children, but we actually, really are: children of the heavenly Father, His beloved ones who cannot die anymore, because we are “sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36). It is to children of heaven, sons of the resurrection, that God brings heaven here and now. When Christ speaks His Word over that very ordinary bread and wine, what we do not see is far greater than what we do see. We do not see heaven being opened and Christ descending with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven to surround us here on earth: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.” We do not see it, but it is happening here and it is happening tonight.
The communion of saints in the holy things is not just a nice metaphor in an old creed; it is a hidden, yet very real, fact every time the Lord feeds you His Supper. Remember, to be holy is to belong to the Holy God. And if the Holy God is here to feed you His own Body and Blood, then all those who belong to Him are here as well. All those who have died believing in the faithful arms of Christ are here. They must be because wherever Christ is, there is His Body, all of it—including the souls of all who have died in Christ. But they are not dead now; just unseen by us. They wait with us for the revealing of our one Lord, who joins us to each other in one faith by one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. With them we confess that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21). Come to think of it, maybe the Church had a point when it spoke only of the dead as saints. According to St. Paul: “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4).
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when He is revealed, we will be like Him, because we will see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). Whatever sin you see in yourself or in the world, know that Christ has already conquered on the cross; this mad world is not the true and final reality any more. The Son became a Man to make you holy, to join you with Himself and His Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit. It is in that “union with God, the Three in One,” that we celebrate the Feast of All Saints! Around that altar is the closest we will ever come in this life to being reunited with all the saints and martyrs who have gone ahead of us. Yes, “Blest communion;” yes, “fellowship divine;” but it is only a foretaste. It is the modest feast of saints who are on their way to the full marriage feast of the Lamb; robed in white, washed in the purifying blood of the Lamb, holding the palm branches of victory, coming out of the great tribulation with the cry of all God’s holy ones: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:10).
Blessed are you, with hearts purified by the pure blood of Christ: “Therefore [you] are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter [you] with his presence. [You] shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike [you], nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be [your] shepherd, and he will guide [you] to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from [your] eyes” (Revelation 7:15-17). Blessed are you, God’s holy ones, His saints!
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, 11/1/22