Today we are going to take a little break from talking about the Stepping Stones of faith in order to celebrate and thank God for those who have walked before us along those stepping stones of faith. We call them saints, and our lesson is a picture of what being a saint means.
Text - Rev. 7:9-17
I’m not much of one for crowds? Are you? Yesterday my family went to the University of Illinois football game, and man! It was crowded. 54, . . . people is a lot. There were lots of people crammed into little seats about this wide. On the bench in front of us there were four numbers showing. And then a family of four showed up and the momma and the daddy were each “like this” wide. They just looked at the numbers and went “whu”? And the two little boys, who were about the designated size for one of the bench seats had to sit between them “like this”.
Most everybody was wearing orange – which is not the most flattering color for my skin tone. I wished I could have worn my coffee-colored sweater set – much more practical for the weather, too. But dressing alike is part of being a good crowd, so there I was in my orange turtleneck. “Pushing up sleeves”
Crowd and crowded are related for a reason. And after the game, Mom and I were walking through this mob of people, both of us trying to make sure we were keeping up with the traffic, and that she was on even footing, and we’re getting jostled by people attempting to travel faster than everybody else, or who still so excited by the games big finish that they are throwing their arms around their buddies, or punching them “take that you Hawkeyes”. Crowds can be a little crazy and out of control.
So, on first glance, it makes the picture of the saints in heaven seem a little puzzling, doesn’t it? I mean, this is a picture of a huge crowd of saints, all wearing similar clothing, shouting and singing in unison, and waving palm branches, like pompoms or Zook Zone towels. And this is heaven? Hmm.
But then I remembered the people who first read the Book of Revelations. It was written at a time when churches and church members were being persecuted mercilessly. When to walk in Jesus’ way meant that you were an enemy of the state, and a pariah to your neighbors. Meeting together was forbidden. Leaders were exiled or fed to the lions. Family members were dragged off to slavery or prison or worse. It was hard to know who to trust. Who you could rely on. Christians, lots of Christians, were tortured and killed in a systematic effort to destroy this movement. And the threat that you could be next was always there. And the most effective method of killing off any movement is to make its members feel that they are alone and at the mercy of a more numerous and more powerful enemy. To make Christians feel as if they are alone.
In many ways, we are in a much safer, much more felicitous situation as a church than those earlier Christians. To belong to a church does not make you an enemy of the state. Your neighbors don’t hate you for that. Even if you invite them to church, or tell them about Jesus, they probably wouldn’t hate you. There’s little threat of torture of martyrdom for the faithful. We’re blessed to have it pretty easy.
And yet. I wonder if, underneath, many of us don’t feel, as the Revelation age church did, quite threatened and quite alone. Even if we sit here on Sunday morning, we may find in the corner of our souls, a sense of being alone in a crowd that does not really know what we are going through. And cannot help us deal with the threats to our souls.
Maybe we think that we are the only one going through a period of doubt and uncertainty.
Maybe we think that we are the only one struggling with addiction.
Maybe we think that nobody else knows what it’s like to wake up in the morning and have a mental illness,
or a painful marriage,
or scars of a divorce,
or an impossible boss,
or a soul-sucking job,
or fears for a child’s future.
That we are the only ones who feel the way we do and that, really we do not belong.
The most effective way to kill faith – to make people feel alone and powerless and just plain wrong in the face of implacable opposition. So let me just say this: you are not alone. There is hope. Others have made it through.
And what strengthens faith, and builds hope and inspires courage? A glimpse of the truth that we are part of something much larger than ourselves, much more powerful than the current opposition, ultimately victorious over even them most difficult opposition. That’s what our scripture lesson offers us: a vision of a mighty and triumphant crowd that includes us. And that is focused around the Lamb who was slain, whose is now “mighty to reign” – Jesus Christ who faced betrayal, isolation, torture and death on our behalf, so that we would know that we NEVER face those things alone.
This is a vision of belonging to the saints of God. And the vision is quite specific about what sainthood means:
1) Sainthood is inclusive. The crowd is innumerable. It is from every nation. Every ethnicity. Every language. We aren’t the last little pocket of God’s people on earth. We are connected to African Christians, Asian Christians, Arab Christians . . . and that’s just the “A”s! Sainthood is inclusive.
2) Sainthood is based on redemption. Every one of the saints gathered around the throne is wearing a white robe that has been washed in the blood of the Lamb. There aren’t any that got there on their own. There aren’t any that climbed the ladder of holiness to knock on heaven’s door by their own power. Every single one of us depends on Jesus’ death and resurrection to forgive us and wash away our sins. Nobody becomes a saint by being better than anybody else. We become saints through the grace of God and sacrificial love of Jesus.
3) Sainthood is supremely joyful, because it’s better to win than to lose, and saints are assured that, ultimately, love is more powerful than hate. Faith is more formidable than fear. Forgiveness blows vengeance off the map. God will lead his saints like a shepherd, provide them what is good, and wipe away every tear from their eyes. So that they sing and shout and wave their hands together, losing themselves in thankfulness and praise.
And when it comes right down to it, that’s a crowd we want to be a part of. And the good news is, Jesus has bought us a seat. He’s given us a ticket. He’s gotten us in.
It’s not a ticket to the throne room of the Lamb. Not yet, anyway, though we know some folks that are wearing the robes right now. We’re going to read their names and ring the bell for them in a few minutes. But, for right now, Jesus has admitted us, not to sainthood in heaven, but to a table here on earth that is a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom. Here we share Holy Communion with other saints who, like us, are struggling on earth. But we also share, in spirit, with those who have triumphed, whose earthly struggles are through. And all of us are gathered together by the Good Shepherd that is also the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world and invites us to break bread of life and raise the cup of salvation remembering the ultimate and complete triumph of God’s love.