When the Reverend Wilhelm Löhe sent his first colony of Lutherans from Germany to settle in this country, having prepared them to establish the church and community of Frankenmuth (Michigan), he was hopeful that those faithful Lutherans would be able to evangelize the Native Americans: “You are my ‘epistle’ to the heathen,” he told them. “For by your Christian way of life, and by your piety, the heathen will come to recognize how pleasant it is to have fellowship with Jesus.”
Pastor Löhe correctly understood that the Gospel is proclaimed — not only from the pulpit to the people of God already assembled around it — but also in the lives of His people out in the world. For hearing and receiving the Gospel of Christ Jesus in the Liturgy, His dear people then also live that same Holy Gospel to the glory of His Holy Name in the midst of their neighbors on earth.
Throughout the history of the Church on earth, that is the most fundamental and important way in which Missions and Evangelism happen. And so it was that a good number of American Indians were baptized as a direct result of the Frankenmuth colony. But even apart from any such outward and observable “success,” the fact is that the Gospel of Christ Jesus is lived and confessed in the lives of His people. And so do their bodies and lives continue to be His “epistle” to the world.
Thus are those 19th-century Lutherans of Frankenmuth part of the great cloud of witnesses with which we are surrounded, along with Dr. Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, and all the Lutheran Reformers of the 16th-century, and the faithful Christians of all times and places, including those we remember with thanksgiving at the Lord’s Altar here at Emmaus this morning, who with us are members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the Cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the Right Hand of the Throne of God.
So reads the Letter to the Hebrews, concluding its commemoration of the Old Testament Saints who lived and died by faith in the promise of Christ Jesus. They are set before us as examples, that we might find in them — and in all the faithful departed — a living demonstration of the Christian faith; that you should be encouraged in the race you still run, looking with them unto Christ Jesus.
The Feast of All Saints and the commemoration of those who have gone before us in the faith are not only appropriate and salutary observances, but they are very much in keeping with the Word of God. As the people of God, belonging to the Body and Bride of Christ our Lord — as members of His Holy Church — we do not forget our fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, who have fought the good fight and finished their race on earth; we remember and give thanks for them.
We do not worship the saints who have gone before, nor do we have any command or promise of God concerning any sort of prayer to or for the faithful departed. We put no faith or trust in them, but fear, love, and trust in the one true God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and find our hope in the one Lord, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Redeemer — just as all the saints have ever done.
But we do remember the faithful departed to the Glory of God in Christ Jesus, in accordance with the Holy Scriptures, and in the ways that our Lutheran Confessions attest and affirm. Though we do not pray to the Saints for their assistance, we look to their faithful example for encouragement in our Christian faith and life. We give thanks and praise to God for His grace and mercy toward them, and for all that He has granted to His Church on earth by way of their words and actions in this body and life. And we rejoice in the living fellowship we have with them in Christ Jesus.
In all these ways, it is a given that our focus is fixed on Christ Jesus, who alone is All in All. The saints are rightly honored when we look on them as living “stained-glass windows,” through whom the Light of Christ now shines upon us. For their steadfast faith and good works are not a product of their own reason or strength, but the presence of Christ and the work of His Holy Spirit in them.
That is precisely to the point of the Beatitudes (or Blessings) of this morning’s Holy Gospel, those beautiful Words of our Lord from His Sermon on the Mount. For they are first of all a description of Christ Jesus. He is the One who, though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that He might obtain for you the Kingdom of Heaven. He is the One who is truly gentle, meek, and mild, who by His death redeemed the entire earth. He is the Merciful One, who is Mercy itself; He is the Peacemaker, who has accomplished a true and lasting Peace between God and man. He is the only-begotten Son of God, who was reviled and persecuted for the sake of righteousness, that He might earn for you a very great reward and freely bestow all the blessings of heaven upon you.
By the same token, the Beatitudes are also a description, not only of Christ Jesus, but of those who find their life and hope in Him. He speaks in the plural throughout, thereby revealing that all of His blessings are given to His people, as well. And so, for example, in the faithful departed we see that blessed reflection of Christ Jesus Himself, because He lives His divine and holy life in them and through them. We follow and draw strength from their example, because it is His.
What is more, and most wondrous of all, as you are thus encouraged and strengthened in your faith and life in Christ, you also now find in the Beatitudes a description of the life that Christ Jesus lives in and through you. For by grace through faith in Him, you also are a living reflection of the Lord Jesus Christ for others, that He might bless your neighbors through your example. As Jesus clearly says, “Blessed are you when you suffer for My sake.” For His Life has become yours.
For the time being, of course, the blessed life that you have in Christ Jesus includes His Cross and Suffering, just as it has for those who have gone before us in the faith and confession of His Name. But you may greatly rejoice even in this, because it is a participation in the Cross of Christ Jesus. And if you suffer and die with Him, you know that you shall also rise and live with Him, as well.
As you struggle though this life under the Cross on your pilgrimage to heaven, you do well to find comfort and strength in the witness and example of the faithful departed of all times and places. Not only are their lives and good works a confession of the Christian faith, but their victory in Christ Jesus over death and the grave is a powerful witness, even as you struggle feebly on.
Not only that, but you already share in the heavenly fellowship of that great cloud of witnesses, especially as you are gathered together here at the Lord’s Altar for the Holy Communion. For here in this place, week after week, year after year, the Lord Himself, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, tabernacles with you in the Flesh. He is here to feed you with Himself, to join Himself to you and bind you to Himself — not only in some sort of abstract “spiritual” sense, but in the truly Spiritual fact of His own Body given for you and His Blood poured out for you.
Christ Jesus is here present with you and for you; and wherever Christ is, there is the greatest glory and blessing of heaven itself. Indeed, in the words of one beautiful hymn, heaven itself would be void and bare if not for the presence of Christ Jesus. But He is present here in the Sacrament of His Altar, granting you the forgiveness of all your sins, and so also His Life and Salvation in body and soul. And because all those who have departed in the faith and confession of Christ Jesus are with Him forever, you can rejoice in their presence here with you, as well, closer than ever in Him.
As Pastor Löhe expressed it so beautifully: “To me it is such a joyous thought that I am not alone, that I do not travel by myself, but that I am accompanied on my pilgrimage through the valley of the shadow by a communion of believers. Right in the midst of this life’s barren wilderness, this thought can dissolve all sorrow in forgetfulness. Yet, this communion of saints is no mere thought but an unshakable certainty. I know from the mouth of God that I am not alone. I rejoice over this from the bottom of my heart. Unfortunately, though, my joy is not unmixed with sorrow, for death takes away many whom I love. Like candles, one after another in the bright circle of my friends goes out, the empty places turn dark, and seldom does another star fill the dark void. This brings pain and longing. But I do not forget that these brethren of whom I speak are just hidden from my sight and have been placed in higher positions in the Kingdom of God. Those who live in the Lord and those who, while out of the body, abide in Him; those who are still pilgrims and those who are already home; those who walk by faith and those who walk by sight — these are not two separated flocks, but one: one before God, and one according to their own consciousness” in Christ Jesus.
It truly is meet, right, and salutary, therefore, that the Liturgy of Christ here on earth unites us with all the company of heaven, as we are also gathered around the Lamb upon His Throne. Indeed, He feeds you here at His Altar with a gracious Foretaste of that same Wedding Feast which they eat and drink in His Kingdom without end. Thus do we rightly sing with All Saints and Angels the majestic hymn that is chanted forever in heaven: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, who was and is and is to come. Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord. Blessed is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest!”
In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.