Listen to it:
“What We Are, What We Will Be”
1 John 3:1-3
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Something’s gone terribly wrong/everyone, all the world is mad” (Thrice, “All the World is Mad, Beggars). Everything is infested and infected with multiplying sin, like a house overrun with rats or roaches, or a body with a fatal disease. Every hidden thought contaminated with prideful judgment or faithless despair. Every smiling word polluted with hidden motives or secret scorn. Every good action spoiled with selfishness or a desire for praise. Anger, bitterness, gossip, arrogance, sexual abuse, emotional abuse. And that’s just in the Church! “It has not yet been revealed what we will be” (1 John 3:2). It’s a good thing, too. But that’s not where the problem is. The problem is in the first part of the sentence: “Beloved, we are God’s children now” (3:2). I think the reason why the Church began to speak only of the faithful departed as saints is because the faithful who have not yet departed simply don’t look the part. If we have white robes, they must be stained and ripped. If we have the palm branches of victory, they must be a bit ragged. And that gap—no, canyon—between what we appear to be and what we will be has caused people to reject the Holy One who calls His people to be holy. It has caused people to blaspheme the Name of our God. Worse, it might cause us to doubt the Word of God that we are His children now; that we have been bought back from the devil’s lordship, set free from the tyranny of sin and death, and separated from the unbelieving world; that we, who are so far from what we should be, might not really be what He says we are. Some see the gap and try to take matters into their own hands. Maybe pharmaceutical companies who sell the good life in tablets and pills. Maybe politicians who try to implement saintly standards of health, and wealth, and an American dream. Maybe educators who try to instill the holy virtues of tolerance, self-esteem, and good feelings. Maybe theologians or pastors who feed the spiritual-but-not-religious with the Pablum of positive thinking, with “faith” that makes one feel enlightened but actually believes nothing, with a “holiness” devoid of either content or conviction. But: “We can’t medicate man to perfection again/we can’t legislate peace in our hearts/we can’t educate sin from our souls/it’s been there from the start” (Thrice, “All the World is Mad”). All attempts at such secular sainthood are doomed to failure because they try to make the sinner a saint with reference to himself or to other people.
Even our Christian ideas of sainthood are tainted if we think holiness of life or miracles granted make someone a saint in the most basic sense. Saints do live holy lives, and God does grant extraordinary requests to His holy ones; but neither of those things makes a saint. When St. John writes, “Everyone who has this hope in him sanctifies himself, just as that One is holy” (1 John 3:3), he defines sainthood with reference only to God. God alone is holy in Himself, but whatever belongs to Him is holy also. Beloved, we are God’s children now, we are saints now, we are holy and pure now, because He has made us His own by the holy and pure blood of Jesus on the cross. God alone is holy in Himself, but we belong to Him and so we are holy also. He has planted in us this utterly super-rational hope that when Christ is revealed before all creation, we will be like Him, because we will see Him as He is (3:2). But we know the truth about Christ and ourselves only by faith. Everything we see in the world and in ourselves says that Christ does not reign, that He is not Lord, that He is not our Lord. And yet, John says, “See: how great a love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and we are!” (3:1). See. Look. But don’t look at yourself. Don’t look at medications. Don’t look at the government. Don’t look at schools. Don’t look at pastors and theologians. Look at Christ! Look at the Son of the eternal God, who is holy in Himself. Look at Him in real flesh, with real blood running through His veins. Look at that flesh torn and that blood shed. Look at Him, no longer in the grave, but alive forever and interceding for you (Hebrews 7:25). Those are things that we do not see with physical eyesight, but with the eyesight of faith. And only Christ can open eyes of faith; only Christ washes each and every one of His poor, sightless creatures and makes the scales fall from their eyes into the baptismal water.
And so it is that we now see what great love the Father has given to us, first that we should be called the children of God—and not only are we called His children, but we actually, really are: children of the heavenly Father, who cannot die anymore, because we are “sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36, ESV). It is to children of heaven, sons of the resurrection, that God brings heaven here and now. When Christ speaks His Word over that very ordinary bread and wine, what we do not see is far greater than what we do see. We do not see heaven being opened and Christ descending with angels, archangels and all the company of heaven to surround us here on earth: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of Thy glory.” The communion of saints in the holy things is not just a nice metaphor in an old creed; it is a hidden, yet very real, fact every time the Lord feeds us His Supper. Remember, to be holy is to belong to the Holy God. And if the Holy God is here to feed us His own Body and Blood, then all those who belong to Him are here as well. Wherever Christ is, there is His Body, all of it—including the souls of all who have died in Christ. But they are not dead now; just unseen by us. They wait with us for the revealing of our one Lord, who joins us to each other in one faith by one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. With them we confess that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21, ESV). Come to think of it, maybe the Church had a point when it spoke only of the dead as saints. According to St. Paul: “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4, ESV).
“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when He is revealed, we will be like Him, because we will see Him as He is” (1 John 3:2). Whatever sin you see in yourself or in the world, know that Christ has already conquered on the cross; this mad world is not the reality any more. The Son became a Man to make you holy, to join you with Himself and His Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit. It is in that “union with God, the Three in One,” that we celebrate the Feast of All Saints! Around that altar is the closest we will ever come in this life to being reunited with all the saints and martyrs who have gone ahead of us. Yes, “Blest communion;” yes, “fellowship divine;” but it is only a foretaste. It is the modest feast of saints who are on their way to the full marriage feast of the Lamb; robed in white, holding the palm branches of victory, coming out of the great tribulation with the cry of all the saints: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:10, ESV). Blessed are you, with hearts purified by the pure blood of Christ: “Therefore [you] are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter [you] with his presence. [You] shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike [you], nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be [your] shepherd, and he will guide [you] to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from [your] eyes” (Revelation 7:15-17, ESV).
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 10/27/09