“Saints are Made out of Grace,” All Saints’ Day at Bethlehem, November 1st, 2009
All Saints Day November 1st 2009, Bethlehem Lutheran Church
Isaiah 25: 6-9a Psalm 24 Revelations 21: 1-6a John 11:32-44
Saints are Made out of Grace
Yesterday was not only Halloween but also Reformation Day. Martin Luther chose October 31st in that year of 1517 to nail his Ninety Five Theses or 95 Points against the church door at Wittenberg. At that time a professor usually marshaled 100 points challenging opponents to a debate. They never went right to a hundred. Luther stopped at 95. With them he wanted to drive corruption and evil out of the church and out of the hearts of believers. His first point or thesis read, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” he meant that our whole life should become one repentance.”
Luther’s call for repentance was heard and the great reform of the church began. Because of the protest of the Reformation against a church unwilling to reform, we are called Protestants. And we at Bethlehem are part of that tradition and a great tradition it is. Because of Luther’s teaching, you and I are called to be saints. We don’t wait for a pope to go through a rig-a-ma-role to canonize us. Out of our baptisms, we all come as new selves equal to popes, cardinals, bishops, and priests. Thus Luther declared us to be the priesthood of all believers – as St. Peter said, “[We] are a royal priesthood, a peculiar people, a holy nation, called to declare the praises of him, who called us out of the darkness into God’s marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Now saints are often depicted as two dimensional characters, as goody-two shoes, nice guys, milk toast kinds of people, like angels playing harps in heaven. But saints are made out of flesh and blood. They are complicated and nuanced people.
Thus Luther said, no, we are sinners and saints at one and the same time. Like a recovering alcoholic, we are recovering sinners; and like they do in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, when they begin by saying, “I’m an alcoholic;” we begin by saying, “I am a sinner.” But we are the sober saints, who are “justified through faith for Christ’s sake by grace.” That is article four of the Augsburg Confession.
So that we are saints is no merit or deserving of our own. “For it is by grace that we have been saved through faith, and this is not of our own doing, it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). That we are saved is a pure gift of God, we cannot earn it by doing righteous works. I could set myself afire, immolate myself as some monks have done for a certain cause, but that would not make me a saint. It is by grace that we are saints.
God lifts us sinners up and carrying us in the power of his almighty love, works all kinds of miracles through us. We can do what is humanly impossible to accomplish, because we let God work through us. In the words of Isaiah, “Yea, may all our works be thy doing, O Lord” (26:12b).
Luther himself is a good example. He said it is not by our works that we are saved. But Luther’s Works stand on library shelves over 100 huge volumes strong and we ask, “How could one man have written so much?” Meanwhile he was also a professor, pastor, preacher, translator, hymn-writer, musician, and leader of the Reformation, in addition to being a writer. As a professor he taught classes at Wittenberg University. Philipp Melanchthon was Luther’s close associate, who wrote the Augsburg Confession. Luther and Melanchthon sometimes had from 200 to 600 students in their classes. Luther also preached regularly in the Wittenberg city church. Not only that, but Luther never left his monastery, while all the other monks did. He remained in the Black Cloister, married the run-away nun, Katie von Bora, and gave shelter to refugees and students, who waited for him to come down the stairs and recorded everything he said. That is where his famous Table Talks come from. He translated the Greek New Testament into German in 1522 and the illiterate peasants learned how to read from it. Then in 1534, with a group of other scholars, he translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into German. Not only the Protestant, but even the Catholic Bibles have based their translations on his.
Tyndale, the great master of languages, studied under Luther, and began translating the Bible into English. Henry the VIII had him assassinated for it. Only the priesthood was supposed to read the Bible (even though they didn’t) and they said to allow common people to read it was “casting pearls before the swine.” That was their attitude. Luther refused to hide important issues from the common people by keeping them all in Latin, in a language they could not understand. Tyndale was inspired by Luther to translate the Bible into English and therefore Henry VIII’s assassins killed him and Coverdale had to finish his work.
Luther also wrote many hymns. Over ninety, I believe. My brother Philip and I translated nine of them in our book, Luther’s Spirituality. He was also quite a musician, who played the lute, (a stringed instrument like a guitar), and he had a fine singing voice. But back to the point: How could Luther have written all those works, been a pastor, professor, translator, and been the leader of the reform and renewal movement of the church in his day? The answer is: God worked through him.
We saints of God are sinners, but when we let God fashion us anew through faith, then a heavenly power, a power from on high, makes us accomplish what is humanly impossible to do.
We can see how Jesus accomplishes a whole train of miracles each one greater than his previous one. The Gospel of John calls them signs. They are the signs that point to God’s saving work on earth. Jesus heals the blind, the deaf, gives voice to the mute, makes the lame to walk, heals the sick, cleanses a leper, raises up Jairus’ daughter from the dead, stops a funeral procession and wakes up the son for a widowed mother. In our lesson here, Jesus raises up Lazarus from the dead after four days, when his soul no longer hovered over his body, but had already gone beyond, up into heaven.
On the earthly side, Mary believed that her brother would be raised on the last day, but Jesus was going to raise him in the here and now. “If you believe, you will see the glory of God!”
Mary said, “Lord, he has been in that tomb for four days and it is filled with the stench of death and decay.”
In a deep disturbance of weeping and anger, Jesus called Lazarus out of his tomb and like in a Halloween horror film, Lazarus comes out shrouded and covered in white strips of cloth, in which they wrapped the dead in those days. He must have looked like a zombie stepping out of the tomb’s entrance, but he was alive and Jesus said, “Unbind him and let him walk!”
We are staring something in the face that is quite humanly impossible. But all things are possible for God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and created this whole world. And all things are possible for the saints, the sinners, who come to God for forgiveness, and through whom God brings life, love, abundant life, fulfillment, and salvation to the people of the earth.
We marvel at this story and rightly so. But if you have worked in a hospital, you hear “Code 99” or “Code Blue,” or some such other alert, and then you see doctors and nurses all rush to someone who just died, give them electric shocks, beat on their chest, and using many other methods, revive the person once again. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Such a person later on in life, of course, dies again, but Jesus is giving us a sign that God will raise us all up on the last day, when the trumpet sounds, and God prepares the great heavenly marriage feast for us, for all the saints, who from their labors rest.
That’s when we want to be in that number, when the new Jerusalem descends from heaven like a bride all adorned in her wedding gown, and God comes down to be with his people. Ah, sickness, suffering, pain, disease, and death will be no more; neither will droughts, famines, and epidemics; nor storms, earthquakes, floods, Tsunamis, and global warming. All these things will be past and not be able to cause harm any more. Death will be behind us and we will be with God, who will wipe every tear from our eyes. Immanuel! God will be with us and will be our God.
That exchange from the end of Psalm 24 is about the children of Israel approaching the gates of Jerusalem with the Arc of the Covenant and shouting to the gate-keepers to open them. Like those people of Israel carrying the Arc into the gates of the Holy city of Jerusalem, all the saints of this church who are carrying Bethlehem into the marvelous promises of our salvation, will stand before the gates of heaven and shout:
“Open up the gates! Open up you everlasting doors, so Christ, the King of Glory can come in.”
And on the jeweled walls of the holy city of the New Jerusalem, the saints who are the gate-keepers will ask, ask the saints who are carrying Bethlehem into the promised future: “Who is the King of Glory?”
And we will answer, “It’s the Lord, Jesus Christ, the Lord strong and mighty, mighty in the battle, for he vanquished our sin, death, and the devil.”
And again the gate-keepers will ask, “Who is the King of Glory?”
And we will answer, “The Lord of Hosts. Jesus Christ is the King of Glory!”
And the gates of heaven will open and we will enter into the New Jerusalem. We will receive our seats around the welcome table, receiving there God’s wonderful gift of salvation, prepared for all the saints who from their labors rest. Amen.
Communion Blessing: The saints are made of flesh and blood;
They’re sinners who live out of God’s love!
A children’s song for Children’s Time:
Why Should I be Sad and Blue
Why should I be sad and blue
when I know what God can do?
I’ll simply call on Jesus’ name,
so gladness fills my soul again.
For saints are made of flesh and blood;
They’re sinners who need love!
 A more sophisticated theological anthropology from Old Testament characters like Abraham, Moses, and David recognizes the complex and often contradictory nature of human beings, who have strengths and weaknesses, flaws and moments of greatness, who are often caught in a fierce tangle of tensions between good and evil. This anthropology does not divide a person into body, soul, and mind, but considers the whole person from different aspects of the self, such as body, soul, mind, conscience, and heart. Each one is the whole person merely considered from another aspect. The heart is defined as the center of the responsible self.
 This captures the sense of this Isaiah passage and makes it into a prayer.