Sermon for All Saints’ Day
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
November 1, 2009
One of the wonderful attributes of the Christian faith is the fact that our focus is always on what lies ahead. We are a people who live with the sure and certain hope that there is more to life than just what we live here on earth. We have been promised an inheritance, and a future that is more glorious, more incredible than we could ever imagine or comprehend. We live today knowing that everything good in this life will be eclipsed by something more remarkable in the life to come, and all of our challenges, hurts, disappointments, and trials are for our building up and growth.
This morning we celebrate one of the high feasts of our Church Year. We commemorate and celebrate the saints who have gone before us, and as our opening hymn states are now at rest from their labors here on earth. We celebrate this day each year in order that we never forget to make sure we look backward at those who have preceded us along this faith journey. This date has been on our Kalendar for 1,300 years when Pope Gregory III consecrated a chapel in the Basilica of St. Peter on November 1, in the first part of the eighth century. Gregory IV extended a church-wide commemoration of All Saints the following century.
The Gospel lesson appointed for All Saints’ Day is always the traditional hearing of the Sermon on the Mount. When we look at this particular piece of our Lord’s teaching, we certainly see the connection between those attributes that Jesus mentions and the lives of those godly men and women who now dwell upon the eternal shore.
There are two portions of the sermon that I wish to expand upon this morning.
The first point has to do with the setting of the stage for these three chapters in Matthew’s Gospel. It says in our text that when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on the mountain. One of the attributes of Matthew’s Gospel is its intentional linking back to the Hebrew Scriptures. One of the terms that Matthew uses almost exclusively is Son of Man in reference to Jesus, and those hearing it would immediately draw a link back to the Book of Daniel and other Old Testament references.
The physical location of this teaching within Matthew’s Gospel has the potential of conjuring up some of those same historical links. One of the terms many use in reference to Jesus is the new Moses, and of course the Law, the 10 Commandments were given to Moses by God upon Mount Sinai. Moses ascended a mountain as God commanded, and received the tablets of stone. Jesus now ascends a mountain, not to receive a new teaching, but to give one. The Law came down from a mountain by a human messenger, and this remarkable teaching from Jesus himself is going to come down from a mountain as well.
Blessed Saint Augustine speaks of the mountain in these terms, “If it is asked what the ‘mountain’ means, it may well be understood as meaning the greater precepts of righteousness; for there were lesser ones which were given to the Jews. Yet it is one God who, through His holy prophets and servants, according to a thoroughly arranged distribution of times, gave the lesser precepts to a people who as yet required to be bound by fear, and who, through His Son, gave the greater ones to a people whom it had now become suitable to set free by love. …With respect, therefore to that righteousness which is the greater, it is said through the prophet, ‘Thy righteousness is like the mountains of God:’ and this may well mean that the one Master alone fit to teach matters of so great importance teaches on a mountain. ”
The second attribute of the setting has to do with Jesus’ posture. We hear that Jesus sat down, and his disciples came to him. Seated would have been the natural position to teach and instruct, and this is noted in number of places regarding Jesus’ posture while instructing his disciples or the crowds. One of the features of an ordination, or confirmation, or any other service where the bishop is the celebrant is the addition of a bishop’s chair or cathedra, and many parts of the service take place with the bishop seated, rather than standing. This is a symbol of authority, and certainly Jesus’ posture portrays that authority. Again, St. Augustine expresses it this way, “Then He teaches sitting, as behooves the dignity of the instructor’s office; and His disciples come to Him, in order that they might be nearer in body for hearing his words, as they also approached in spirit to fulfill His precepts.”
As I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, we as Christians live our lives in the present always mindful of what lies ahead. In the Sermon on the Mount there are eight statements that make-up the first portion that we commonly recognize as the beatitudes. The term beatitude comes from the Latin term beatus which means ‘blessed’ or ‘happy.’ If you don’t look at these eight statements closely, you might pass over the verb tenses. If you look with me at the text from your bulletin insert, pay attention to the verb tenses, and this leads me to my other point. The first and the last beatitude end not in a future expectation, but rather convey a present reality. Jesus does not say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs will be the kingdom of heaven.” He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs IS the kingdom of heaven.” Those who are poor in spirit, don’t wait for something to happen in the future, but are free to experience the riches and rewards of the kingdom here and now.
Augustine helps to define the poor in spirit when he writes, “And ‘the poor in spirit’ are rightly understood here, as meaning the humble and God-fearing, i.e. those who hath not the spirit which puffeth up. Nor ought blessedness to begin at any other point whatever, if indeed it is to attain unto the highest wisdom; ‘but the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom;’ for, on the other hand also, ‘pride’ is entitled ‘the beginning of all sin.’ Let the proud, therefore, seek after and love the kingdoms of the earth; but ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’”
The eighth beatitude is a bit harder for us to hear. Our Lord says that kingdom of heaven is for those who will be persecuted for righteousness sake. Where do we ever come up with the idea that becoming a Christian means the end of persecution, the end of tragedy, the end of suffering, the end of any of the ills which confront each of us all the time? It certainly doesn’t come from Scripture. I can’t stand the “prosperity gospel” preachers out there who say if we just pray hard enough, just believe more, just think more happy thoughts, then all our troubles will disappear. Their Bibles must not contain the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount leaves us with the reality that life is going to present us with all of the challenges we can ever imagine. It confronts our comfort zone and says that we are going to we are in fact going to go through the “valley of the shadow of death.” But like the Psalmist says, “we will have no fear.” The beatitudes leave us with the hope that the kingdom of God is not just some future place, but is here now. Bishop N.T. Wright said that the, “Kingdom of God is not a place where God reigns, but it is the fact that God reigns.” I hope you see the huge difference.
So the first and last beatitude bring us full circle to the kingdom of heaven. Those who are poor in spirit are the people who recognize their utter dependence upon God – for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Those very same people accept the fact that that very poverty of spirit is going to lead to persecution for righteousness sake. However, in the back of their minds are the words of St. Paul when he tells the Roman church and us as well, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, not powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35-39).
May we continue to walk in the blessed fellowship of the saints who have gone before us. May we see in their lives their love for our Lord and Saviour. May we be the ones who are blessed both in this life, and in the life to come. May the light which shineth in each and every one of us all point others toward our heavenly Father, and His Son Jesus Christ our Lord who is the source of that one, true light, which is the light of the whole world.