Sermon on St. Matthew 5:11-12
All Saints’ Day (Observed)
4 November 2012
Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. – St. Matthew 5:11-12
They’re called “The Beatitudes,” a series of blessings given by Jesus to the faithful who heard His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). If you were listening carefully to the Gospel Lesson, you might have noticed that the first eight beatitudes or blessings are given to believers in general: “Blessed are the poor,” “Blessed are those who mourn,” etc. But the last beatitude is given directly to the disciples: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you,” etc. As someone said, “The cross casts its shadow before Christ, the disciples, and the people—the stage is set for the passion of Jesus and his Church” (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 118). Today, I’d like to focus on the cross casting its shadow over four groups of saints, each depicted on your bulletin cover (van Eyck, Ghent Altar Piece): Apostles, Prophets, martyrs, and the whole Christian church.
Blessed are the Apostles, for great is their reward in heaven. Jesus told the disciples that they would suffer at the hands of the world, as sure as Jesus was condemned for crimes He never committed. Think, for a moment, of how it went for Jesus. He preached the right doctrine. He brought life to this world. Yet the multitude of unbelievers was offended by His message, angered by His claim to be the Son of God, and determined to bring public shame, suffering, and death on the Christ. So it goes in the Gospels. In the book of Acts, we see the Apostles living out the same pattern as our Lord: miracles and teaching, followed by suffering and rejection. Consider, for a moment, Acts 5. There we read that Peter and John had worked miracles and taught the people about the Christ. And how did the Jewish leaders and other unbelievers respond to the acts of the Lord through His Apostles? They arrested Peter and John, who were quickly sprung by an angel. Then they were tried before the same leadership that condemned Jesus. After Gamaliel counseled the leaders, they beat Peter and John, commanded them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
So the disciples were reviled and persecuted for Jesus’ sake. And how did the faithful Apostles react to suffering for Jesus’ sake? “So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for [Jesus’] name” (Acts 5:41). Do you see how the Apostles did not pursue the trophies of this world, but rather, forsaking all that they had, suffered for the sake of the right Gospel, even unto death? The stained glass windows that line our beautiful nave remind us of their suffering. See how most of them include an emblem of death. See, for instance, the Greek “X” cross for St. Andrew, who was crucified on such a cross. The Apostles were blessed to live and die in Christ, so that their entire life, from Baptism to death, was a living sacrifice to God. As the greatest of all Christian hymns, the Te Deum, puts it, “The glorious company of the Apostles praise Thee,” for they are blessed with the riches of forgiveness and eternal salvation.
Blessed are the prophets, for they were persecuted in the former days. See how Jesus comforted the Apostles in knowing that the prophets also suffered at the hands of evil men: “for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Here we think of Hebrews 11, the “Hall of Faith,” which summarizes how the prophets suffered in the Old Testament. What did the prophets do? The author of Hebrews reminds his New Testament readers that the prophets “subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, [and] stopped the mouth of lions” (33). Moreover, they won battles, quenched fires, and raised the dead (34-35). Yet how did the world react to the work of the prophets? “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword” (37). Still others were exiled, being left to wander in caves and deserts (38).
Yet how did the faithful prophets of old react to suffering for the sake of the coming Messiah? The author of Hebrews says that they did not accept deliverance here and now, “that they might obtain a better resurrection” (35). In other words, they did not bow down to the false gods of this age. Those of us in Adult Bible Study recently studied the life and work of Daniel, who did not even accept food from a pagan king, refused to worship the false gods of Babylon, and was quite comfortable with one night’s lodging in a den of lions. All he had to do was pray or sacrifice to the Babylonian god, Marduk, and he would have been spared. But, as with all the faithful prophets, he left it all behind to obtain a better resurrection, viz. the final resurrection of all flesh to eternal life. Again from the Te Deum, “The goodly fellowship of the prophets praise Thee,” for theirs is the heavenly fellowship of the final resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
Blessed are the martyrs, for their blood is the seed of the church. All who die for the faith suffer the ultimate persecution, yet also the ultimate reward. Think about it: Saints’ days and great cathedrals are not named for those who lived a relatively easy life, but for those who suffered all, even death, for the sake of Jesus. We think, for instance, of the proto martyr (first martyr) in the New Testament, St. Stephen. He preached Christ. He was tried by the Sanhedrin in a scenario that followed the pattern of Jesus’ own Passion. He was stoned to death, yet forgave those who killed Him, in word that once again recalled Jesus’ absolution from the cross: “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 8:60). And then the prayer for His great reward in heaven: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). And Stephen became the first blood-witness to the Gospel.
So it is for all the martyrs. The word “martyr” in the language of the New Testament is the same word for witness. Those who die for the faith are witnesses to the faith. From the Apostles to the prophets to the martyrs, as documented in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, those who die for the right cause only increase their cause. Again, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, for blood spilled for the right reason recalls and proclaims the blood poured out on the cross for the remission of sins. Christ died for us, and we are quite willing to die for Him. Along these lines, folks sometimes ask if it is possible to be a Lutheran and a pacifist, i.e., to be Lutheran in faith yet object to all wars in the world. I suppose we will debate this issue until the end of time. The challenge of being a Lutheran and a pacifist is the question of whether or not we believe there is a cause that is worth dying for. Whatever one may think of the possibility of being a Lutheran and a pacifist, we must be willing to “suffer all, even death” for the right Gospel. Yet again from the Te Deum, “The noble army of martyrs praise Thee,” for they forsook all here and now to have all in the eternal kingdom of God.
Blessed are all the saints, for they are blessed with all the gifts of Jesus’ cross and resurrection. We mentioned at the outset that this final beatitude is addressed directly to the disciples: “Blessed are you.” However, the blessing is passed on to the believers who are in Christ, for we are given to suffer for the sake of the Gospel, yet rejoice in our eternal reward in heaven. Listen, for a moment, to how St. Peter describes your life under the cross, in terms that recall the beatitudes: “If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the spirit and glory of God rests upon you” (I Pet 4:14). Christians are reproached for the sake of Christ. The history of Christianity is the history of bloodshed, persecution, and martyrdom. Oh, I suppose we are pretty comfortable here in America, where religious freedom is a founding principle. But be not deceived! Christians are still persecuted when the government infringes on our health care decisions, when any religion but Christianity can be spoken highly of in the public schools, and when other events are scheduled against our holy days. Yes, Christians suffer here and now when our family and friends object to our church attendance, when Satan works through us to create in-fighting in the church, and when he encourages us to leave sin to fester in our souls instead of confessing it before God.
Yes, in all these things, St. Peter has a word of great comfort. He says, “the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.” As sure as His benediction rested upon Apostles, prophets, and martyrs gone before us, and above all upon His own Son, so the blessing of God rests upon us. From the first blessing of Baptism (“Receive the sign of the holy cross, upon the forehead and upon the heart”), to hands raised in absolution (“I forgive you all your sins”), to the blessing attached to the Lord’s Supper (“keep you steadfast in the true faith unto life everlasting”), the spirit and glory of God rests upon all the saints. And yet again from the Te Deum, “The holy Church throughout all the world doth acknowledge Thee,” for in Thee alone, O Lord, do the saints put their hope.
Having surveyed what it means to blessed for Apostles, prophets, martyrs, and the whole Christian church, we ask if there is any place on earth for the fellowship of suffering that they describe. “Clearly, there is one place, and only one, and that is where the poorest, meekest, and most sorely tried of all men is to be found—on the cross at Golgotha” (Bonhoeffer, Cost, p. 127). As someone said, “The fellowship of the beatitudes is the fellowship of the crucified” (Bonhoeffer, Cost, p. 127). As He stood righteous before God yet rejected by the world, so it is for you, the saints. Though persecuted here and now, you are blessed with every heavenly blessing in Christ. “The echoes of this joy reach the little flock below as it stands beneath the cross, and they hear Jesus saying: ‘Blessed are ye!’” (Bonhoeffer, Cost, p. 128).
+ In Jesus’ Name + Amen.
Nota Bene: Quotes from Bonhoeffer’s classic exposition of the beatitudes, edition SCM Press Ltd, 1963.
The New King James Version of the Bible is quoted in this sermon.