“The saints and angels and the whole host of heaven pray with you to Christ Jesus” Rogate 2024

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05. May 2024
John 16:23-33

In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Numbered among the doctrines the Reformers sought to return to the Scriptures is prayer. The medieval church prayed thoroughly by Psalms, Collects, and the Our Father. They prayed repeatedly throughout the day, even waking through the night for prayer. They had prayers for every occasion, every ill, and every need. Certainly, those in the professional clergy did so, but it’s clear that many laity’s piety was also rich in prayer. However, there was yet an error the Reformers noticed that needed correction, namely, the invocation of saints.

Lutherans have always set aside days to remember the saints, although the practice has become less pronounced in our piety. Today, we commemorate Frederick the Wise, the Elector of Saxony, the prince of the German states. It seems odd for the church to remember a prince, Christian or not. In 1502, he founded the University in Wittenberg, with two of its earliest professors well known to you: Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. As Luther began to preach and teach, his prince Frederick began to see much of his piety as medieval superstition, setting aside the false doctrine of purgatory, sale of indulgences, and veneration of relics. When Luther was threatened by the Roman Church and Empire, Frederick hid Luther at Wartburg and continued giving Luther wide birth to restore the faith of the prophets, apostles, and saints as given in the Holy Scriptures. We give thanks to God for Elector Frederick, learning from his example, encouraged in the faith and in virtue. 

As faithful Christians, we hold in high esteem those who paved the way for us. We express our gratitude to God for all those He has blessed His Church with. Their unwavering faith in the face of suffering and martyrdom serves as a beacon for us. We acknowledge and honor those saints whose faith and virtues are shining examples for us to follow. We hold that as the angels pray for us (Zechariah 1:12), perhaps the saints who rest in the LORD might as well (2 Maccabees 15:14). But the recognition of the saints has slid into disuse and obscurity because we reject the false piety of praying to the saints. When we were no longer given to pray to them because we had no promise that they could hear our prayers or answer them, many now have fallen into obscurity and lost to our piety. 

But it’s okay. As St. John the Baptist declared of Jesus, “He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the bridegroom’s friend, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore, this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all; he who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all.” St. John is content to decrease that Christ Jesus may increase. And that is true of all the faithful saints. They are content to be forgotten as long as Jesus is remembered. They believed that there was salvation in no one else, for there is no other who made atonement (blood-covering) for the world’s sins except Jesus. 

Thus we confess that “In a person who makes atonement, two things are required. First, there should be a Word of God from which we certainly know that God wants to pity and listen to those calling upon Him through this atonement maker. There is such a promise about Christ, ‘Whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it to you’ (John 16:23). There is no such promise about the saints. Therefore, consciences cannot be completely confident that we are heard by the invocation of saints. This invocation, therefore, does not spring from faith.” (AC XXI) But we have both the command and promise to pray to Jesus. “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). And today, “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24).

And “the second requirement for an atonement maker is that his merits are shown to make satisfaction for other people. They are divinely given to others so that through them, just as by their own merits, other people may be regarded righteous. For example, when any friend pays a debt for a friend, the debtor is freed by the merit of another, as though it were by his own. So Christ’s merits are given to us so that, when we believe in Him, we may be regarded righteous by our confidence in Christ’s merits as though we had merits of our own.” (AC XXI)

Only one has promised to hear our prayers and can answer them by the merit of His suffering and death: Jesus. We cannot have this confidence in praying to anyone else, as faithful, noble, or virtuous as they may have been. While we can remember the saints who came before in thanksgiving and encouragement and emulation, their prayers and good works cannot save us. Our confidence is in the Divine Promise of Jesus and in His merits. We want to be confident that our prayers are heard. That can only come from Jesus and His promise of mercy. 

Perhaps you’ve never considered invoking the saints, thinking the practice weird. Yet we lost something of theirs when their faith and life were no longer acknowledged and slid into obscurity. We lost the example of their steadfast prayer. Those who came before us heard Jesus’ Word in John’s Gospel and themselves modeled for us how to put it into practice. Jesus taught them and how to ask and pray rightly, what to pray for, and why would should pray. 

Jesus has not only instructed us to pray but also pledged to hear: “Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9). He confirms this pledge in our Gospel today with an oath, saying, “Truly, truly, Until now, you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive that your joy may be perfect,” that we may be sure of His pledge and answer, and know that we do not pray in vain.

Prayer is founded on God’s pledge. It is impossible for a man to please God without faith; we seek this grace of God with all diligence and devotion and make a daily habit of asking God for faith, and that He would increase it in us and sustain us therein until the end. And we pray in Jesus’ name, for St. Peter says, “There is no other name given to men in which we shall be saved” (Acts 4:12). By God’s decree, we are indebted to worship and honor that name. We can, therefore, give no higher praise to God the Father than by calling on Him in our troubles and cares through Jesus Christ, His beloved Son.

And no matter what troubles, anxieties, and sorrows we face each day, Jesus gives us to be confident. For Jesus says, “Call on Me in time of trouble, and I will deliver you; so shall you glorify Me” (Ps. 50:15). And Christ calls out, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened; I will refresh you” (Matt. 11:28). And today He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father something in My name. He will give it to you.” And be confident that the saints and angels and the whole host of heaven pray with you to Christ Jesus, the Lamb, who always hears and answers. 

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin