Jesus once compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed. Though it is the smallest of seeds, when it is planted, it grows and becomes a tree large enough for birds to build their nests. To our eyes, the Church this side of heaven seems, well, as small and insignificant as a mustard seed. As members of that one, holy Christian and apostolic Church by faith, we struggle with this reality. The Church, it seems, is always on the verge of extinction, always ready to sell its birthright for a pot of worldly porridge. This is especially true when the membership of a congregation dwindles and people fall away. It is true when we look around us and see trouble on every side; trouble in the world; trouble in the economy; trouble in the government. It makes us uneasy.
In this, however, the Church is no different than her divine Head, Christ Jesus. He came in lowliness, not pomp and glory. His life was not one of great accomplishment, when you compare it with the likes of some Kings. For all appearances, it seemed as though there was nothing all that exceptional about him, other than the fact that he could heal the sick and raise the dead and teach with authority. In His suffering and death He certainly was not a picture of strength or victory. By the end, He had lost most of his followers, and those who remained with him hunkered in the shadows. On Good Friday, the Kingdom of Heaven appeared, well, as small as a mustard seed.
The Kingdom of heaven truly is like a mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. This was true of our Lord Christ, who after he had been sown in the ground in death, rose again from the dead and filled all of heaven and earth with His glory. All Saints’ Day reminds us that this is also true of the Church, which is much larger and more glorious in reality than what is actually seen or perceived by our senses. Today we get a glimpse of the Church that is fully grown, the Church as it looks from the other side of heaven. It is the mustard seed fully bloomed.
Consider the words of St. John today: “And I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number.” John received a vision of the Church from God’s perspective, the Church that exists among us whenever we are gathered for the Divine Service, but which we cannot see with our eyes. It is enormous in size, so big that it was impossible to number. We call it the Church Triumphant, just as we call the Church this side of heaven the Church Militant. The Church Triumphant is that part of the Body of Christ that has finished the race ahead of us, that has entered the rest won by Christ, the part that is found on the other side of the Beatitudes: the poor in spirit have been comforted; the meek have inherited the earth; the hungry and thirsty have been filled; and those who were persecuted and mocked and killed for the sake of Christ have received their great and heavenly reward, the reward that awaits us who believe in Him, if we too persevere and do not take our eyes off of the heavenly goal.
Every husband tends to see the best in his wife, and to him she is the most beautiful and glorious creature that exists even though she is convinced of the opposite. She could be fat or thin, pretty or ugly, it doesn’t matter. She is the apple of his eye, the object of his devotion and the one in whom his heart delights. This is also true of the Church, and we see it in this vision today. When we look at ourselves or the Church in general, we see only its warts, only its imperfections. We see hypocrites and false Christians using the name of Christ; we see our sins, and like every humble bride, we are never quite pleased with how we appear. But what does our Lord see? What does He behold? He sees only beauty and perfection. He sees the true Queen of heaven. He sees not a Bride who is ugly and full of sin, but rather the most glorious and most precious treasure of his heart.
It’s not simply that Christ ignores the faults and sins of his beloved Bride, or simply winks them away. He has actually washed them and taken them away. He has shed his blood for her. The white robes which cover the saints and martyrs in John’s vision are evidence of this: “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Lamb’s blood. That’s what it took to cleanse, to purify, to make white the sinful hearts and lives of God’s people. And not just any Lamb, but the Lamb of God, God’s Lamb, the Lamb that God provided to take the place of all of us Isaacs, the Lamb to which John the Baptist pointed, which takes away the sins of the world. No other Lamb, no other creature could do what Christ has done, and for this reason these saints who stand before the throne and the Lamb cry out in unending song: “Salvation belongs to our God, and to the Lamb who sits on the throne.”
The blessed thing to remember on All Saints’ Day is that we who are here on earth are one with those whom John sees in His vision. All those saints and martyrs, men and women of every tribe, race, tongue and nation, all are one in Christ. Reformation Day, which we observed last week, calls to mind the fact that there are divisions in the Church this side of heaven. Satan has sown his seeds of false teaching everywhere and causes division in the Body of Christ, something which we Christians lament, but must accept nevertheless. The Church which John sees is the Church without divisions, without false teaching, the Church without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, and we through our union with Christ, truly are a “communion of saints,” as we daily confess in the Apostles’ Creed. As one hymn puts it: “Yet she on earth has union with God the three one, and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won. O blessed heavenly chorus! Lord, save us by Your grace, that we, like saints before us, May see You face to face.”
Today we breathe a sigh of relief and wipe the sweat from our brow, seeing that the race has already been won and the winner has already crossed the finish line, along with those who have gone on ahead of us. Christ, the victor, has taken his great power and reigned. The devil has been defeated and thrown down into the abyss. For our part, we still await the consummation of all things, but for God and for those who have been received into glory, it has already come to pass. “We feebly struggle, they in glory shine.” The songs of celebration have already begun, and those who have already finished the race urge us on by their example and their deeds which follow them. Today we put fears and doubts aside, and remember that we truly are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, a cloud of saints and martyrs, angels and archangels, of Martin Luthers and St. Pauls, Matthews and Peters, Abrahams and Isaacs, Isaiahs and Deborahs and Marys, men and women who were hated and despised in this life like you are, but who have persevered and obtained their eternal inheritance.
Let us then, as the writer to the Hebrews urges: “lay aside every weight, and run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Though our flesh is weak and burns with exhaustion, though our spirits are faint, and we have our doubts about whether or not we will survive, let us not give up the fight and the struggle. Take refuge always in the Words of Christ; seek your strength not in your own will or efforts, but in the One who was given up into death for us and was raised for us and ascended into glory. And soon, dear Christian, you too will come out of this great tribulation, having washed your robes and made them white in the blood of the Crucified. Amen.