Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It is a curious thing that Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, the Eve of All Saints. Of course, it could have been nothing more than an interesting coincidence. But knowing Luther’s sense of the Church and history, I doubt it. The Feast of All Saints was one of the great celebrations of the Medieval Church, and even in Luther’s time it remained one of the principal celebrations of the Church Year, unlike our day, sadly. The city would have been full of people from small, isolated country parishes, who would make their way to the city for this great spiritual event. And in that posted list of theses for discussion, Luther was addressing issues vital to the life of the Church, the saints of God.
The first of the theses set the tone: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” There was nothing new or shocking in these words, as they stood. But as Luther explained what he meant, it became clear that his understanding of repentance was taking a radically different direction from what accepted Church teaching was. Was repentance a good work that merited the favor of God? Or was it the gift of a gracious God, a means by which God Himself cleared our way to Him and to His forgiveness and life? And this is good preparation for considering the first of the Beatitudes, as we call them. The reason the Beatitudes have, for centuries, been the Gospel reading for the Feast of All Saints is that they describe what it means to be the saints of God. And the first Beatitude is this: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Perhaps the first thing to do is to be sure that we understand just what a saint is. The simplest answer is that a saint is a Christian. The Scriptures refer to believers on earth and in heaven as “saints.” Literally, “saint” means “holy one” or “one who has been set apart.” Saints are set apart from this world, not in the sense that they go into some sort of spiritual isolation, but because they walk the way of repentance and faith. The Beatitudes describe the characteristic marks of that faith. One of those marks, as the first Beatitude tells us, is spiritual poverty.
In Psalm 38, David prays: “Lord, all my longing lies open before You, and my sighing is not hidden from You.” Ours is a life that is wholly dependent on God’s mercy and goodness. And so our Lord Jesus Christ, as He begins this series of blessings, puts first those who do not forget the source of all things; that before we can even speak, we must be given the breath of life. We depend on God just as our lungs depend on air. Without Him there is nothing; with Him there is life and salvation and all blessings.
To be so radically dependent on God is the greatest blessing—though, of course, such dependence runs directly counter to how we normally think. But that is why it is the mark of a saint. To cling to God with our whole being and have nothing to offer of our own is our highest blessing. This utter blessedness and this extreme poverty of spirit, though they may seem to contradict each other, are joined in God-pleasing harmony. And this is where repentance comes in. In repentance we acknowledge that not only do we have nothing to offer God, but that also what He has already given us, we have misused and spoiled. And yet, God’s greatest desire and work is to make us holy.
These words show how far we truly are from being like God because of the sin that continually condemns us. But, at the very same time, they tell us how this chasm between God and man is abolished: through our union with Jesus Christ. He not only proclaims the blessedness of being poor in spirit. These words describe also what He did for us. Though He is the Son of the Highest, surrounded with honor and glory and blessing, He took on human flesh and was made like us. He endured our life for us, even to the point of suffering and death, to save us from ourselves and the consequences of our sins. His dependence on His Father was complete and unquestioned.
What is at work in the first Beatitude and, indeed, what is at work in the lives of God’s saints, is one of the great paradoxes of our faith. When we are weak, then we are strong. We are at the height of spiritual power when we understand that we have no power at all. When the storms of this life sweep over us, those who think they are self-sufficient find that they really have nothing, while those who depend not on themselves but God receive the strength and power of God. When we are poor in spirit, that is when we have the Kingdom of God.
And there is something here, if we see it and comprehend it, that should give us great comfort and great joy. The Beatitudes that follow the first speak of future blessings, blessings that will await us some time in the future to be fully realized. But this is not the case with the first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Whatever blessings may come in the future in the Kingdom of Heaven, the blessedness of that Kingdom is real to us now. If you are poor in spirit, the Kingdom of Heaven is yours now. If yours is a repentant heart, the Kingdom of Heaven is yours now. If you know that you have nothing to offer God, but that He has everything to give you, the Kingdom of Heaven is yours now. Whatever trial or trouble you may find yourself in now, whether it be fear or doubt, suffering or sickness, pain or even the onset of death itself, the Kingdom of Heaven is not just something out there that is waiting for you. It is real now. The saints of God live under the cross of Christ in this life now and, at the same time, we live and breath every moment of this life in the glorious light of heaven and eternal life.
The blessed Sacrament of the Altar makes this clear to us in a way nothing else can. We are given and receive the very body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, given and shed for the remission of our sins. He who came to us in flesh and blood to be our Savior again comes into our presence, in this way. And wherever He is, the Kingdom of Heaven is present. And that means, as well, that it is at the table of the Lord that a great reunion takes place between the saints in heaven and the saints on earth. It is precisely as we pray: “Therefore with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Thy glorious name, evermore praising Thee.” In poverty of spirit we come, the saints of God, and what we are given is the Kingdom of Heaven. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.