All Saints’ Day: The Two Things You Can’t Get at Target (Revelation 7:9-17)

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In the name of Jesus, Amen. Today we are observing All Saints’ Day, a day when we remember and give thanks to God for all of His saints, especially those saints who have been called to their heavenly rest this past year. Today we especially remember and give thanks to God for (names of this year’s faithful departed):

We thank God for His mercy to these saints throughout their lifetime, and we thank God that they now rest from their earthly labors.  These souls are now with Christ in Paradise (Luke 23:43), even as we, together with them, await the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.

And as we heard in Revelation 7, they are saints, and so are you. It is proper to speak of St. (names of faithful departed), especially on a day like today. In Revelation 7, St. John sees a vision of heaven. One of the elders asks him if he knows what he’s looking at: Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come? A verse later the elder answers his own question by saying, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

God’s saints are those who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb. It goes without saying that those who need to be washed are the dirty. You are dirty, having been conceived and born into the filth of sin. But God has given you a bath, having cleansed you through the washing of water with the Word, so that He might present you, His Bride, to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, that you might be holy and without blemish (Ephesians 5:27—28). In Holy Baptism, God has cleansed you through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). At the font, God has made you His saint.

The Lord Jesus does for you what can be found nowhere else in the world, and His saints do something no one else in the world does: they gather around Word and Sacrament. The Augsburg Confession defines the Church as the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered (AC VII).  The Church cannot exist without Her saints, and Her saints will die apart from the Church.  The saints and the Church are inseparable. We live in the Church Militant. The faithful departed live in the Church Triumphant.

The saints are gathered around Word and Sacrament, receiving what nobody else receives. And the Church offers the world something that can’t be found anywhere else.  Now I’m a big fan of Target stores—you can get practically anything there! Food, clothing, shoes, toys, electronics, groceries, you name it… There’s almost nothing you can’t find at Target these days. It’s a convenient, one-stop shopping center. But for all the things you can find at Target, there are at least two things you can’t find there, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. These two things set the Church apart from every other place in the world, they make Her holy. These two things are the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins.

The communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins are inseparable. As we’ve already seen, you only become a saint by having your sins forgiven. That’s one of the reasons we come to church each week: not just because we want to go somewhere on a Sunday morning or to learn something new, but because here, God has promised to be present to serve you. Divine Service. Full, pure, 100 proof grace, week after week, in Word and Sacrament. Or, as Luther says, In this Christian Church [God] daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers (Small Catechism, Creed:III).

We come to church week after week to have our sins forgiven. But this isn’t the only reason we gather together in the Lord’s house. As we confess in the creed, we also believe in the communion of saints. This blest communion, fellowship divine takes place most profoundly in the Divine Service, especially at the Lord’s Table.

It’s not for no reason that we sometimes call the Sacrament of the Altar Holy Communion. For at the altar, the Lord Jesus gathers together all of His saints, both the living and the faithful departed, that together we might partake in the heavenly wedding feast.  When we gather around the Lord’s Table, we do so with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, which now includes Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Peter, James, and John; (names of this year’s faithful departed). Here, heaven and earth meet, the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant, and commune with both our Lord and all of His saints.

This is depicted visually in the altar here at Zion, which if you think about it, looks like half of an altar, the wall preventing us from seeing the other half, representing the feast that’s taking place in heaven.  Whenever we celebrate the Lamb’s wedding feast, we do so with all the saints.  The only difference is location: we’re celebrating it on earth, they’re celebrating it in heaven. In the Church, we participate in the communion of saints and the forgiveness of sins. These are the two things you can’t find at Target.

This communion of saints, even with the faithful departed, is possible because death does not have the final word, despite appearances to the contrary.  As St. John says, Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared. What we and our loved ones will be has not yet appeared, but be certain of this: Nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus, not even death (Rom 8:38–39).  The saints of Christ are all living, even if they’ve died.  As Jesus told Martha, I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.

We can’t see this, but it’s true, because God’s Word is more certain than even death.  There’s more to the Church than what we can see.  What we will be has not yet appeared.  Our loved ones who have died in Christ may be gone from our eyes, but they’re not gone from God’s.  The Church as we see it is not the Church as it really is.  It’s made up of all Christ’s saints, past and present. The saints of Christ are one in every place, whether in heaven or on earth.

The Church on earth isn’t always a pretty sight. Every day it seems Christianity is becoming more and more of a distant memory in our country. Churches struggle to keep going, and sometimes we fight over the best way forward. In this life, the Church is hidden under suffering and weakness.  And that’s not all that bad, because it’s in suffering and weakness that God makes His love known to us most clearly, as we see in Isaiah 52 and 53, which describe Jesus in this way:

“His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind–  so shall he sprinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.

Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”

The Church on earth isn’t always a pretty sight, but then again, neither was Jesus. From the moment of His birth in Bethlehem, His life was filled with ridicule, suffering, and rejection. Though He came only to help, He was treated as a criminal, dying in the most brutal and shameful of ways: being publically executed without any clothes on, suffering the agony that was deemed fit only for the vilest of criminals. Though our country’s moral compass often points in the wrong direction, not even we would subject our criminals to such cruel and unusual punishment as crucifixion.

In this life, the glory of the Church is hidden under suffering, weakness, and death, just as it was with our Lord. But just as our Lord was raised and glorified, so it is with His Church.  You are raised up with Him even now, as St. Paul writes in Ephesians, chapter 2: Even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (v. 5—6). Notice the tense of all of these verbs: God made you alive, saved you, raised you up and seated you with Christ. Forgiveness, life, and salvation are yours even now in Christ Jesus. We don’t see this yet, for we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). But the Day is coming when all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of the Lord (Isaiah 52:10).

We can’t see the saints in heaven, but this doesn’t make their blessed state any less of a reality.  God is God of the living, and this is why we don’t mourn as those who have no hope.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; blessed are David, Isaiah, and Elijah; blessed are John, Paul, and Barnabas; blessed are (names of this year’s faithful departed).  Blessed are you, O saints of Zion, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Soli Deo Gloria

+ Rev. Eric Andersen
Revelation 7:9—17
All Saints’ Day, 2013
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