Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you … ”Luke 6:20
All Saints Sunday is one of the days on our church calendar when I always give thanks for being Lutheran. I grew up Roman Catholic. And as a Roman Catholic kid, I thought a lot about saints. I learned a lot about saints. But saints meant something very different from what it means to me now, as a Lutheran. As a Roman Catholic kid, saints were all people who lived out their Christian faith in very heroic ways. They were people like St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Patrick, and in our time, people like Mother Teresa of Calcutta. I looked up to these saints as a child, and I decided that I wanted to become a great saint, too. Some kids want to become professional baseball players, others movie stars. I wanted to become a saint. But just like many of those kids who want to become professional baseball players, I discovered that it was really difficult to achieve. Not everyone is cut out to be a saint, by the standards of the Roman Catholic Church. Certainly not me. So, I gave up trying to become a saint.
But then, thirty years ago, I became a Lutheran. And I learned a very different way of thinking about saints. I learned that we don’t become saints by what we do; we become saints by what Jesus did for us. We become saints by being baptized into Christ. When we are baptized, we are declared God’s beloved children; we are declared saints of God; because of what Jesus did. His death on the cross was done to forgive our sin, and to make us God’s beloved saints. All of us. We don’t have to be St. Francis or Mother Teresa to be a saint. We already are. And that was wonderfully freeing to me. As it should be to us all.
We don’t have to worry about becoming holy. As if we can, on our own. We accept the gift of God’s grace, and relax, and live our lives freed by that grace. We can still admire the great saints. Learn from them. Even imitate them. But we don’t have to think of them as being in a different league from us. We are all in the same league, all saved by the same loving God, all recipients of the same amazing grace.
Today’s Gospel Reading
I think that today’s gospel reading is a great illustration of how we as Lutherans approach all of this. This reading has a lot of instructions from Jesus on how we are to live, on what it means to be his followers. But that is not where this famous sermon on the plain from Jesus begins. It begins with Jesus looking up at his disciples, and blessing them. “Blessed are you,” Jesus says before anything else. And the order here is important. First, we are blessed. First, we are declared saints, you might say.
A lot of times, when we read this famous passage, we focus on Jesus blessing the poor and the hungry. That’s important. And I want to come back to it. But first, it is important simply to see that Jesus looks at his disciples and blesses them. They might be poor. They might be hungry. They might weep, and be hated, and excluded, and even reviled and defamed on account of Jesus. But they are blessed. Not because they are perfect. But because Jesus says so. When we celebrate All Saints Sunday as Lutherans, we are first celebrating the fact that we are all saints, because Jesus says so. We are all blessed, because Jesus blesses us. And I love that.
Blessed for a Purpose
But that’s not the end of the story. Because to be blessed in Scripture is always to be blessed for a reason. Blessed not for ourselves, but for others. That’s not how the word ‘blessed’ was first used. In ancient Greek and Roman cultures, it was the gods of Olympus who were considered blessed. Living on Mount Olympus, free from the cares and concerns of us mere mortals, these gods were looked upon with envy and considered blessed. Eventually, those who were wealthy and powerful were added to the list of those considered blessed, since they, too, were thought to be free from many of the cares and concerns of us ordinary people. The ancient gods, the rich and powerful, are all blessed without any obligation or expectation. There is no purpose to their blessing.
But it is different for us as Christians. In Scripture, God’s people are always blessed for a purpose. Do you remember the first blessing in Scripture? It was when God created Adam and Eve. He blessed them and then said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply … and have dominion over every living thing” (Genesis 1:28). They were blessed for a purpose.
And how about God’s blessing of Abraham? One of the most important blessings in all of Scripture. When God said: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis:12:2-3). Again, blessed for a purpose.
God’s people are never blessed for themselves, but always for others. And that was certainly true of Jesus’ disciples as well. When Jesus blessed them, it was for a reason. It was so that the world would be blessed through them.
And so, too, for us. We are blessed by Jesus for a reason. Not just to relax and call ourselves saints. But to make a difference for Jesus in this world.
And in today’s gospel reading, Jesus goes on to describe this purpose in a very powerful way. He tells us that we are blessed by him so that we can: love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, pray for those who abuse us; offer the other cheek to anyone who strikes us; offer our shirt to anyone who takes away our coat; give to everyone who begs from us; and do to others as we would have them do to us.
That is our purpose, the reason Jesus blesses us. And doesn’t our world need people to live like this these days? We seem to live in a world that constantly seeks to divide. We see that everywhere we look, in the newspaper, on TV, the internet. We see it in our government, to be sure. But not just there. Everywhere we turn, we find ourselves living in an increasingly polarized, divided world. What are we to do? Jesus challenges all of his followers to be agents of peace and unity – by loving our enemies; doing good to those who hate us; and blessing those who curse us. This is not easy. It may even lead to our being hated, excluded, reviled, or defamed. But none of that matters. What matters is that Jesus has declared us blessed. And he has challenged us to turn that blessing outward. He challenges all of his disciples to bless the world around us. We are blessed, yes. But we are blessed to be a blessing for others.
Blessing Those Whom Jesus Blessed
But there is one more purpose to our being blessed that I think this gospel reading highlights. And that goes back to the beginning of this sermon, when Jesus blesses the poor and the hungry and the weeping and the hated and the excluded. One of the things that we as followers of Jesus are called to do is to continue the mission that Jesus began. And that means that we are called to bless the poor, and the hungry, and the weeping, and the hated and excluded in our community. This is so important to Jesus, and it should be just as important to us.
There is an old expression that comes to mind as I think about this. It is an expression that I suspect many of you who are parents can relate to: “You are only as happy as your unhappiest child.” It may not always be true, but there is a truth there that I can certainly relate to, and perhaps some of you can, too. As a pastor, I am prone to thinking about such expressions in theological terms. And as I thought about this expression, I thought, what if that is true of God? What if God is only as happy as God’s unhappiest child? We are all God’s children. God has created each and every one of us, and cares deeply for each of us, as a parent cares for a child. So, what if that is true? What if God is only as happy as God’s unhappiest child?
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus blesses those who have good reason to be unhappy. The list includes the poor, the hungry, those who weep, those who are hated, those who are excluded, those who are reviled, and those who are defamed. And this is exactly the people that the world would say are not blessed. It is exactly the group that the world would say is unhappy, or should be unhappy.
So, why is this the group that Jesus blesses? Not because they are already blessed, by the world’s standards. But because they are not. God cares deeply for those in our world that seem not to be blessed, for those who have reason to be unhappy. And we who follow Jesus are called to do the same. We are called to care for those who the world sees as unblessed. And we are called to bless them. To bless the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, and the excluded. We are called to help the least among us know how much God cares about them, just as Jesus did in this powerful sermon.
For us to do this, of course, it can be rather overwhelming, I know. And if we were doing all of this to earn God’s love, or to become saints, we would probably give up. Like I did, as that Roman Catholic kid who just didn’t have enough in me to successfully become a saint. But that’s not why we are doing this. We are doing this because we are already saints, already saved, already loved, and already blessed. And this is simply a way to return the favor. We are simply doing for others what Jesus did for us. We are blessing them. His blessing upon us has given us the great purpose of our lives: To be a blessing to all of God’s children. To the glory of God. Amen.