Churchyard Saints

In a sermon written circa 1520 entitled “A Sermon on the Three Kinds of Good Life for the Instruction of Consciences” (LW, 44, 235-242), Luther breaks the church down by churchyard, nave, and sanctuary.  “A churchyard saint, Luther says, is blind to sound doctrine, and his soul is tied to empty externals” (234).

Originally this blog was entitled “17 Minutes that Could Save Your Soul.”  It was about a sermon I had heard online from an LCMS pastor on “Get out of the boat; get out of your comfort zone.”  I couldn’t find it again, but you will have no trouble finding one like it:  long on clichés; short on doctrine; and thick with jokes.  I was going to point out that a steady diet of such sermons will wither your soul as certainly as thin gruel will your body.  What I really was warning about was churchyard saints.

In Luther day these were people who were content as long as they saw the trappings of the Roman church.  They didn’t care about doctrine.  They cared only that the externals were there.  Long ago I railed against Lutherans who were content as long as all the ‘L’s” were there.  As long as AAL, LWML, and LLL were in their church, they were church.

I wasn’t looking for anything to rail against when I stumbled upon the boat sermon.  It wasn’t from a pastor or church I knew.  As I set listening, I wondered why people didn’t rise up against such tripe.  Why didn’t they in good Lutheran fashion compel that pastor to preach to them the Gospel?  I can see how a person can get inured to such preaching and finally lose the ability to protest, but this prosperous church continues to bring in the sheaves.

Churchyard saints don’t care what is being said from the pulpit as long as there is a pastor saying something.  They’ve punched their ticket by being in church.  As long as they got something out of it: entertainment, motivation, instruction, they were content.  Luther says churchyard saints are only five cubits high. “This means that their holiness is circumscribed by their five senses and their bodily existence” (238).

Luther knew as well as you do that a cubit was about 18 inches.  He knew then that a churchyard saint was 7 ½ feet tall, but that’s not tall enough when it comes to righteousness.  We need a righteousness that reaches to the skies, that fills the void of hell, that extends way beyond what I can see, smell, touch, taste, or hear.  That is found in the genuine things of God not the things of men.

The pastor that points his people away from organizations, away from what they do, away from what they can think, feel, or opine to God’s righteousness won for them by Christ and distributed to them by His Water, Words, Bread and Wine, a pastor, who in Luther’s imagery takes them out of the courtyard, through the nave, and into the sanctuary, whether he does it with or without stories, jokes, or wit is a godsend.

Luther closes his sermon by saying that there has never been a people on the face of the earth with a bigger atrium than the Christians of his day (242).  I think our courtyard is bigger.  There is so much in our courtyard to keep people distracted and thinking they are getting all that they need, so they never think about reaching the sanctuary.  They live and move in the cube of their own self-made holy of holies.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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