In His Parable last Sunday, the Lord Jesus depicted a tax collector who confessed his sins, prayed for mercy, and went home from the Temple justified. And now, in this morning’s Holy Gospel, we hear of the tax collector, Zaccheus, who is forgiven and justified by the same Lord Jesus Christ. Thus are you catechized by the example of his repentance and faith, and you are strengthened in your own faith and life by the demonstration of the Lord’s mercy toward him. He is more than just a character in a story or a parable. As Jesus declares, this wee little man is also a son of Abraham.
That is not simply an affirmation of his genealogy; no one could dispute that, although Zaccheus (as a tax collector) would surely have been regarded as a traitor to his native people. But, no, as St. Paul indicates in several of his Epistles, the true children of Abraham are those who share the faith of Abraham — faith in the promise of the Christ who was coming — now faith in the Word of the Lord Jesus Christ who has come. Zaccheus was granted such faith, and by such faith he is a son of Abraham. Indeed, by such faith he is a son of God, and so is he your brother in Christ.
This story of Zaccheus, like so many of the stories of Holy Scripture, is the story of real life in Christ — the story that you also share with those who have gone before you in the confession of His Name. In this respect, the Holy Gospels are not only the revelation of God in Christ, but also a revelation of Christ in His saints, a commemoration of those who lived and died by faith in Him, who now live forever in His crucified and risen Body. So shall He be glorified in all His saints on the Day of His appearing; and then you shall see Him as He is, and you also shall be like Him.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles 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 set before Him endured the Cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the Right Hand of the Throne of God.
So does the Epistle to the Hebrews conclude its lengthy commemoration of the Old Testament saints who lived and died by faith in the promised Seed of the Woman who would come in the fullness of time and crush the serpent’s head. And so do we also remember with thanksgiving the faithful departed on this Sunday of All Saints. As one Body in Christ, we rejoice in our fellowship with those who have fought the good fight and finished the race, who now rest from their labors.
To avoid misunderstanding and superstition, let us be clear about our relationship with those dear saints who have gone before us. We do not worship the saints or pray to them for help in this body and life on earth, but together with them we worship and pray to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We do not remember them or pray for them with doubt and fear, but we give thanks in the confidence of faith for the life that is theirs in Christ, our Savior. Though we love them as fellow sons and daughters of Abraham, we trust not in the saints but solely in the Son of God.
How is it, then, that we commemorate the faithful departed in accordance with Holy Scripture?
If not for abuses that have at times developed in the history of the Church, this would be a fairly simple question. For though we do not pray to the saints for their help, we do look to their faithful example for encouragement in our faith and life on earth. And though we do not worship them, we do remember the saints with thanksgiving toward God, who has done such marvelous things for them and us. And again, we rejoice in the fellowship that we share with them in Christ Jesus.
Our Lutheran Confessions likewise describe a threefold honor that is rightly given to the saints:
First, we should give thanks to God for showing examples of His mercy in the lives of the faithful departed, thereby revealing His will to save both them and us, and at the same time giving these saints to be our teachers and fellow Christians in His Church. We praise God for giving these gifts to His people; and we praise the saints themselves for their faithful stewardship of His gifts.
Second, we honor the saints by the strengthening of our faith and confession with the witness of their repentance and forgiveness — as in the case of St. Peter following his denials of Christ.
Third, we rightly honor the saints by imitating their Christian faith and life within their callings: first of all their faith in Christ, and then also the good works that flowed out of their faith in Him.
In all of these things, our focus is fixed on Christ Jesus, who alone is All in All. Just as St. John sees in the Book of the Revelation, the entire host of heaven is circled and crowded around the Lamb upon His Throne, all eyes riveted on Him. The saints are rightly honored, then, when we consider them as living “stained-glass windows” through whom the Light of Christ is reflected and shines on us. They all have their own unique colors and patterns within their particular callings and stations in life; but all the while, Christ is the Sun who shines upon them all, thereby casting their colors and patterns upon us. For their steadfast faith and their good works are not a product of their own reason or strength but exhibit the presence of Christ and the work of His Holy Spirit.
Certainly Zaccheus is a good example of these things, first of all in his desire to see and hear Jesus, no doubt because he has already heard the word concerning this Man from Nazareth; then, also, in his receiving of Jesus into his home; in his repentance and faith; in the forgiveness of his sins; in his reparations for the wrongs that he has done against others; and especially in the declaration of Jesus that he, too, is a son of Abraham by faith.
It is that very same life as a “son of Abraham” that you also have received by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. And the same thing is true of those whom we remember today, who departed this life in the faith of Christ over the course of this past year. You will not recognize the names of all these people; probably there are many of them you never knew in this body and life. But these, too, are the sons of Abraham, as are you. And together as one body in Christ, as the family of God, we have one-and-all received the inheritance of faith, in which we live and die and live forever.
For the time being, of course, the blessed life that you live by faith in Christ includes the Cross and suffering, just as it did for those who have gone before us in the confession of our crucified and risen Lord. But you may greatly rejoice even in this, precisely because it is a share in the Cross and Suffering of Christ Jesus. If you have died with Him, you know that you also live with Him.
As you struggle though this life under the Cross on your pilgrimage to heaven, you are able to find comfort and take strength from the witness and example of the faithful departed, the saints of old as well as those who have been near and dear to you in this body and life on earth. Not only are their lives a reflection of the Christian faith, but even more, their victory in Christ over death and the grave is a powerful witness and encouragement as you struggle feebly on.
Thus, as in the Epistle to the Hebrews, we remember and give thanks for the saints who have gone before us, that we might see in them a demonstration of the Christian faith and life. And by the testimony of so great cloud of witnesses, you are indeed encouraged to fix your eyes on Jesus.
The confession and faithfulness of the faithful departed, in life and death, are set before you as the evidence of our dear Lord’s faithfulness toward them — and so also toward you and all of God’s people. That is what the Greek word for “witness” really implies. It is a legal term, not only for a person who gives testimony, but for the evidence that is brought forward and placed on exhibit.
The saints who have gone before us have thus become the living “exhibits” of the Lord’s great Salvation — accomplished and fulfilled in Christ, and so also manifested in the bodies and lives of His Christians. Their repentance and faith, their confession and absolution, their words and works of love within their callings, and their persistent prayer and worship in the Name of the Lord Jesus, are the evidence that the Kingdom of God has come and is at hand in the Body of Christ.
What is more, you already share a blessed “communion” with that great cloud of witnesses — a common unity in the one Lord, Jesus Christ — especially as you are gathered here at His Altar for the Lord’s Supper. In the words of one familiar hymn, “The saints on earth and those above but one communion make; joined to their Lord in bonds of love, all of His grace partake.” For the “communion of saints” is not some “pie in the sky,” but a Banquet set before you here and now.
It is, indeed, the ongoing, neverending Feast of Christ, which you are given to share with Christ — already here on earth — in the company of angels and archangels and all the host of heaven.
Certainly, it is no coincidence that we are given to sing of this heavenly reality in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Nor is it merely poetry when we join with all the saints and angels in singing the “Holy, Holy, Holy.” For here in this place the Lord Himself, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, is present in the utter reality of His human flesh and blood. He is here to feed you with Himself, to join you to Himself — not only in some sort of abstract “spiritual” sense, but in the truly spiritual fact of His sacrificial Body and Blood. Nothing else would be enough, since you also are of flesh and blood, and His salvation is for you, for both your body and your soul.
So Christ is present here with you and for you; and wherever Christ is, there is the greatest glory and blessing of heaven itself. Indeed, in the words of another beautiful hymn, heaven itself would be void and bare if the Lord Jesus were not present. But He is here with you in His Body given and His Blood poured out for you to eat and drink, granting you forgiveness for all your sins, and bestowing on you His Life and Salvation. And because those who have departed in Christ are with Him forever, you can rejoice in their presence here with you, as well — closer now than ever.
It is, therefore, truly meet, right, and salutary, that our worship here on earth should blend with theirs in heaven, as we are gathered around the Lamb upon His Throne. He feeds us here at His Altar with a gracious preview and a foretaste of that very same Feast which they enjoy throughout eternity in His Kingdom. And in our grateful response, we sing with All Saints the majestic hymn that is chanted forever in heaven: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come. Blessed forever is the Lamb of God. Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.”
All glory, honor, thanks, and praise to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.