The following sermon was preached by Dr John Stephenson in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel at the divine service celebrating All Saints’ Day, 1 November 2017.
Revelation 7:9-17; St Matthew 5:1-12
An aunt of mine shocked her siblings by going into hysterics in the moment her mother died, and they thought one of her brothers-in-law did the right thing when he promptly slapped her on the face. Now, while the Beatitudes are not a slap on the face, they certainly poured buckets of ice-cold water on what was threatening to become an outbreak of mass hysteria.
Before Jesus went up on the mountain to take His seat and deliver a carefully crafted discourse, He took a close look at the multitudes who followed Him. What attracted them to Him was not so much the content of His preaching and teaching as rather the endless torrent of healing miracles that gushed forth wherever He went. You can’t blame the inhabitants of several provinces around Galilee for being drawn to our Lord on this account like iron filings to a powerful magnet. With medical science still in its infancy, most painkillers not yet invented, and physicians of mind and body not provided by the authorities from the taxes they collected, it was too good to be true that a mighty healer suddenly rose without trace and instantly put to rights those afflicted in body and mind. Small wonder those multitudes mistook Jesus for a real life Harry Potter before his time. But the Father didn’t send His Son to be a celebrity entertainer.
So our Lord goes up the mountain, and when He opens His lips it’s clear that He’s forged His message in depth and detail; we’re here on the outskirts of the eternal dialogue between Father and Son, we’re treading the holy ground of the imparting of divine knowledge to Jesus’ human mind. So Christ teaches His hearers in order to elevate them from the unstable condition of giddy fans to the praiseworthy state of sober, well instructed disciples. As the Sermon continues, members of what had been somewhat of a fan club trickle up the mountain, and Matthew records multitudes raptly listening to our Lord for hours on end during which He places a moratorium on healings to focus on teaching such as had never been heard on earth before.
Hence the Beatitudes and the whole subsequent sermon are a sieve that separates fans in search of a handout from disciples who will actually follow Christ whithersoever He may lead. Or the Beatitudes are a sieve that refines disciples from what they are by fallen nature into what they are in the process of becoming by grace.
On top of this, beyond the multitude at the bottom of the mountain and the multitude that climbs up the mountain to listen to our Lord, John pictures an even greater and ethnically more diverse multitude gathered in worship before the very throne of God. These are the great cloud of witnesses the Church sets before our contemplation today, those who made it through the hardships and pitfalls of discipleship here below in such a way that for them, as we assemble together right now in this morning’s Eucharist, faith has blossomed into sight.
Whenever Jesus preaches and enacts the kingdom of God, we can use the technical term eschatology to describe what He is teaching and putting into effect. With His incarnation and especially with the onset of His public ministry, the great age of prophetic expectation has dawned and the kingdom has drawn up like a great incoming ocean liner from the high seas to the dockside. His miracles, His mighty deeds are signs of the age to come that has arrived but that is still far from materialising in all its unquestionable fullness. Here in the Church Jesus has inaugurated eschatology; when He attributes actual possession of the kingdom to the poor in spirit and to those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, teachers and students may maintain that realised eschatology has entered into space and time.
But as our Lord teaches on the mountain He is fully aware that mighty deeds imparting temporary healing of body and soul are only part of His work on earth. He can do no other than look the apostolic band in the eye and pronounce them blessed when they will be persecuted and reviled for His sake, because, after all, they are the future ambassadors of the Jesus who will permit the hatred of men to instigate His sacrifice of Himself to the Father for the sins of the world.
So our Lord readies all His people to be refined through the sieve of discipleship, and He deliberately expresses promises in the future tense. Those who lament the injustices of earth, those who mourn, will be comforted; the meek will inherit the earth and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled; and the pure in heart will see God. This is the kind of eschatology that has yet to be delivered to the struggling, suffering Church on earth, the eschatology for which we hope.
For much of this past year, heading up to yesterday, we’ve been focussing on a segment of Christendom bound to just a small part of space and time, although we would maintain that its doctrinal and practical bottom line is meant for the whole Church. But today we focus on all faithful disciples from Abel right up to those who have fallen asleep in grace even within the last few hours. It’s all too easy to take the narrow dimensions of earthly existence as adding up to the whole of reality, all too easy to forget the holy guardian angel assigned to each disciple, all too easy to forget the whole company of heaven, including the departed saints, truly present with us on the other side of the altar at the Holy Eucharist, all too easy, in sad fact, to forget God the Blessed Trinity and to live as though He did not exist.
So the big existential question at this Holy Communion is whether we believe the Beatitudes Jesus pronounces, whether we consciously take on board that He has actually bestowed a share in the kingdom of God to those who trust in Him, whether we really believe that He, the God-man permanently resident in human flesh, blood, and soul will deliver on the promises He makes. Do we really believe the word He speaks through a minister’s voice-box, making bread His body and wine His blood and thus bringing Himself and all His benefits straight into our midst? Jesus surely comes, along with the saints and angels who will attend Him at His final coming on the last day; may He find faith on these few square feet of the earth. Amen.
3 thoughts on “All Saints’ Day 2017 (Sermon)”
Thank you Dr. Stephenson for bringing some mid-week wisdom and encouragement. Like attending a much needed chapel service. God’s blessings.
We are provided here a marvelous glimpse beyond the veil that for a short time still separates us from the triumphant church.
As I began reading the cliffhanger that begins the final paragraph, and saw that the text was ending shortly, I thought that surely some material must be missing. How can this thought now be wrapped up in only a few sentences? But suddenly it was clear – the sermon may have been over, but the Divine Service was not. The risen Lord was yet to appear in His hidden reality, and the saints on those “few square feet of earth” who were hearing this sermon live were shortly to meet Him. The questions posed were nowhere more relevant than THEN and THERE for each believing heart to ponder, and, by stepping forward, positively to affirm. What a yearning for this blessed Communion such preaching engenders!
Let us believe…as little children…and rejoice in His mercies ever new, every day.