What to do with saints

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9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying:
“Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”
13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”
14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore,
“they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.16 ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat.17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”Rev. 7:9-17
Some people just go gaga over celebrities. I grew up without any sisters and my brothers weren’t much into big names. Some rock bands were considered a big deal, that’s true. My one brother once took me to a Kinks concert. If you ask me, I was too young for it, but he made sure to let me what an important and famous group they were. Real admiration for celebrities I first encountered when I was an older teenager. The young woman across and street and I would attend worship services together. She had posters of movie stars. She spoke about them as if they were friends. She followed their personal lives. It was more than a hobby for her. You had a sense that something of her own identity was wrapped up in their stories. It’s no wonder we talk about big stars as idols. They can easily become something like gods for many people.
It’s all Saints Day and we in the church have people to celebrate, too – our own celebrities, if you will – those noble people of God who have gone before us, blazing the path of following Christ, shining like stars in the pages of Sacred Scripture and all subsequent history. But we, too, need to be careful to receive the saints rightly, not as idols, but as models, not as intercessors but as inspirations.
There are two extremes we want to avoid. One is to ignore the stories of the Christians who have gone before us. In America, where we’re not particularly keen on history, this is easy to do. The problem, then, is that our Christianity boils down to you and me and the Bible and we lose all the wisdom, all the warnings, all the beauty of the works of God in and through His people between the close of Revelation and our own birth. A recent study has found that a surprising number of American Evangelicals are falling into old heresies that the saints of old denounced and defeated long ago. This is surprising because Evangelicals typically want to be conservative, orthodox believers. Nevertheless, about a quarter say that Jesus is less divine than the Father and 16% call Jesus a purely created being. Half of them think the Holy Spirit is a force and not a divine person of the Trinity. Over half say that their own effort contributes to their salvation. These are the old heresies of subordinationism, Arianism, Pneumatomachianism and Pelagianism, but the names don’t matter as much as the fact that many Christians don’t really understand what the Bible is teaching about God and salvation. One commentary lays blames an unwillingness to learn from those who have gone before us and a presumption that we can figure the Bible out all on our own. A neglect of the legacy of the believers before us leave us vulnerable to repeating mistakes of the past.
Tossing out the heritage of all the intervening centuries, we impoverish ourselves. What if the only hymns you could sing would be ones written by you yourself? Wouldn’t you feel like there are very few good Christian songs. Even if this generation were to limit itself to songs written by Christians in our lifetimes, we’d be missing out on Amazing Grace and Abide With Me and A Mighty Fortress. The vast majority of Christmas hymns would go silent, unsung. Easter would come and go without I know that My Redeemer Lives. We have saints to thank for Christian traditions in music and literature, for holidays and liturgies and more – all things we couldn’t come up with on our own, and thanks be to God, we don’t have to. The heritage of the saints is like a grand attic where our ancestors have stored away all kinds of good things. We can go up there and explore. What we find may surprise us, may delight us, may even make us ask ourselves challenging questions now and then. And we find some things which we take down and we say, “Let’s use that again. Let’s sing a Te Deum or pray Luther’s Morning Prayer or hold a Tenebrae Service on Good Friday.”
So, one extreme is to ignore the saints and to forget what they have to teach us and give us, the other extreme is to idolize them. In this same neighbor’s home, when I was growing up, I first found a card for a saint. I don’t remember if it was St. Theresa or some other. On the front was a nice drawing of the saint. On the back were the promises, made by the saint, that if you prayed to her, she would help you and you should tell others about her to give her the credit. Well, that’s what I remember of it, at least. Some nations have patron saints: Patrick supposedly takes care of Ireland; England has St. Georg; St. Andrew for Scotland; St. David, Monk and evangelist for Wales; Mary rules as the Patroness and Queen of Brazil. We go into some churches and we’ll find statues of saints and candles lit before them. There may be pictures, called icons, and we’ll see Christians approach them and kiss them. Maybe we can remember Luther’s own experience. Caught in a thunderstorm, he called out to Saint Anne to save him and made a vow that he would become a monk. Funny thing, if Luther hadn’t made that vow to the saint, he wouldn’t have spent so much time studying the Bible, he would have never discovered that God commands us to call on Him alone and trust in Him alone, he would have never argued against the dominating place that saints had been given in the hearts and minds of the people. When Luther was a professor at Wittenberg, Prince Frederick the Wise of Saxony kept his own huge collection of relics from the saints there – bits of bone and strands of hair, remnants of clothing and other items associated with them. St. Bartholomew was a particular favorite of the prince and his collection boasted five bones from his hand, one from his jaw, a couple of the saint’s teeth, six skull fragments and the entirety of his facial skin. On all Saints Day when the whole collection would be opened to the public and everyone who came would be given an indulgence –release from the penalties of sins for their devotion to the saints. That was why Luther pounded his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church the day before. It was a big holiday for indulgences granted by the merits of the saints and Luther had come to realize that this was twisting and undermining the true Christian faith. If anything, this extreme is even more dangerous than the first. It’s better not to recognize saints at all than to have them crowding out the place of Jesus as your Lord, your Savior, your helper and your friend.
So what do we do with saints? Here we are, only one week after the Reformation and we’re already going back to celebrating All Saints Day. I guess some people might wonder whether the Reformation made any difference for us after all. Are we just going back to superstition and error? Actually, I think the juxtaposition of Reformation Sunday and All Saints Day is probably a healthy reminder for us that Reformation did not mean rejection of everything that Christians had done before. Actually, we want to celebrate the Christians of the past and learn from them – but we need to receive them rightly. So, what are saints are for? Let’s just look at our first lesson, the one from Revelation, and see the answers we find there.
First John sees people from every nation under heaven standing in the presence of God and praising him. That wonderfully diverse and international crowd gives illustration of the grace of God which calls all people to faith in Christ. The saints show that God is not exclusive in His salvation, but He reaches out to you and me, other people like us and other people not like us at all. Whatever their backgrounds, whatever their origin, whatever their sins, the saints found salvation in Christ and so they have become a living demonstration of the universal grace of God for all people.
And there they stand, dressed in white robes of Christ’s righteousness, palm branches of victory in hand, and standing before God, upright, accepted and beloved. All this is the work of God for them in Christ. Here are the effects of Christ’s salvation which bear out for them and for us. Jesus has atoned for sins. Jesus has conquered sin, death and the devil. Jesus presents us spotless before the Father. And so the saints demonstrate not just the universality of grace but the power of God’s grace to accomplish what He promised. And so they sing God’s praises, shouting: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:10). The saints show us what the saved then do – we glorify God for His goodness and mercy in our lives.
At this point, I feel I should point where the Bible locates the saints: they are in the presence of God, praising Him. Sometimes we call it the nearer presences of God, because we too live in God’s presence, only not quite so visibly and perceptibly. But the saints are not visiting their departed loved ones on earth. As recently as a couple weeks ago, my local paper had a story about a park bench which had been dedicated to a public servant who had died suddenly. The family commented how fitting the gift of the bench was, because he liked to walk that path with his dog. Then they went on to say that when they sat on the bench they would feel his presence and the children in the family would be close to their dad that way. The Bible never depicts departed Christians as hovering around old haunts and connecting with surviving loved ones. Rather, it says that we will see them again on the Last Day, when Christ returns, when the dead are raised and we are ushered into glory together with them. If we want to be close to our departed loved ones, I recommend that we draw close to Jesus. They are with Him. Come to Holy Communion often, where we join with angels, archangels and the whole company of heaven to praise Him.
One of the elders in the vision ask John: “Who are these? And where do they come from?” John replies, “Sir, you know.” Saints are for knowing, not ignoring, but getting to know them. The first way to honor what God has done in the lives of the believers who have gone before us is to get to know their stories, read their words, learn to pray their prayers with them, consider their poems, sing their hymns, meditate on their art. As Christians we have a large family of the faith. There are names you may know like Friedrich Schmid, the founder of this St. Thomas Church, and St. Patrick; but there are also others to get to know like Chrysostom, the world famous 5th century preacher, and Cyril and Methodius, missionaries to the Slavs, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose warm spiritual writings were endorsed by the Lutheran Reformers themselves.
Now these all praise God, standing before Him and serving Him day and night, as our Scripture text tells us today, but they have left behind wonderful and true relics, the historic remains of lives lived by faith in the grace of God in Christ Jesus. And we are truly blessed by what we can learn of them and from them. The elder in our reading describes their blessed state: God shelters them, provides for them. They know no hunger, thirst, scorching heat. Christ leads them; He shepherds them to springs of living water. God comforts them and wipes every tear from their eyes.
And here you are no different. Just like the believers of time past, God made you to love you. He created you to save you, to fill you with His Holy Spirit and to make you a glorious creature. You too are to illustrate the power of His grace and the pervasive power of His love. As St. Paul writes in Ephesians chapter 1, we have been redeemed “for the praise of His glory.” His gracious work in our lives – saving us, loving us, protecting us, blessing us, and leading us – all these works of His for us make us witnesses to the goodness of God. It’s cause for praise. As the saints praise God and extol His salvation we join in. And, God grant, through us may others too join the chorus of all the saints.

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