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The Saints of God
Sermon for the Sunday after All Saints, November 7, 2004
The Episcopal Church of the Holy Family, Jasper, GA
The Rev. Mary P. Johnson
Texts: Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14; Psalm 149; Revelation 7:2-4,9-17, Matthew 5:1-12.
Don’t listen to your children or your grandchildren when they say: a) that they totally tune out in church so why should they go; or b) that they never pay any attention to the words when they listen to music.
Why would anybody want to be a saint? The word has “holier-than-thou” overtones, on the one hand. (How could it be any fun to be a saint?) And it has become almost synonymous with “martyr,” with bloodshed, with dying for an unpopular cause. (How could anybody responsibly put his or her life at risk by expressing viewpoints on something so controversial as religion?)
Yet, today we have a day in our church calendar to honor all the saints. And we do so in the context of Holy Baptism, when, often, babies, of all people, are brought into the fellowship of the Church. What parents in their right mind would enroll their children in an organization where people might be killed by a fierce wild beast? Or by their fellow human beings for their allegiances?
There are parts of the world where becoming a Christian and publicly professing Christ as your Lord and Savior can still get you into serious trouble. If you put “Persecution Christians 2004” into any search engine, you’ll get hundreds of thousands of hits, with references to Christians experiencing significant persecution or losing their lives in North Korea, Iraq, Myanmar, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Syria, China, Zanzibar, Sudan, Nepal, Turkmenistan, Nigeria, and Egypt. This is not an exhaustive list. Furthermore, you may remember, here in the United States, in the past decade, at least one student at Columbine High School was killed specifically because she admitted to loving God.
Christians have suffered persecution from the very beginning. The beloved words from the Gospel of Matthew that we read this morning, the Beatitudes, include Jesus’ blessing on “those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” and directly on his listeners: “you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” And the context for the Book of Revelation is the persecuted church at the end of the first Christian century. Christians were losing their lives in the Roman Empire because they were saying that there was a higher authority than Caesar to whom they owed their allegiance. It was a time when saying “Jesus is Lord” meant implying “Caesar is NOT Lord.” John’s vision describes a Reality greater than the reality of suffering and persecution that the early Christians experienced. The goal of the vision was to encourage those faithful Christians. John employed a genre that is perhaps as unfamiliar to us today as Lawrence Welk would be to fans of Eminem. He used the language of apocalyptic, of mystical unveiling—for that is what “apocalypse” means in Greek: unveiling. This is allegorical and metaphorical language on steroids, as it were, with images of angels and beasts; of thrones, lampstands, swords and jewels; of lakes of fire and waters of life; of heaven and hell; of the wily old whore Babylon, and the transcendentally beautiful bride, the new Jerusalem. It is not the language of science or of history. Yet it speaks of ultimate truths and realities, and there may be no better language to speak of these things, to proclaim that, in the end, God--who is holy, just, merciful, and true—is triumphant. An angelic guide shows John, the narrator of Revelation, a vision of a vast crowd, triumphantly praising God; and, although they represent people from every tribe and nation, all are dressed in white. He explains:
These are they who have come out of the great ordeal...
The one seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their Shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
These are words of comfort for the saints of all times as well as of all places. These are words of comfort for all of us who have had tears of sorrow. These are words of hope for all of us who have at one time or another experienced our life as a great ordeal, for all of us who have sensed a hunger and a thirst at the core of our being, for justice and goodness and love to prevail. These are words of promise.
The message of Revelation is really the same message as that of the more familiar Beatitudes of Jesus: You are holy, you are blessed, you are saints (for all the words are related in the Greek language in which the New Testament is written) when you experience deep hunger and thirst for God, for righteousness (that is, for good to prevail, both in the world at large and in your life). You are holy, you are blessed, you are saints, when you work to make peace, when you know deep sorrow and brokenness, when you are merciful, when you know how small and needy and paltry are your own resources, but how great God’s gifts are. You are holy, you are blessed, you are saints when you attract the attention of the forces of evil because of your love of truth, goodness, justice and mercy. Those forces of evil may put you through The Great Ordeal, to use the language of the Apocalypse of St. John, but they will not prevail.
It is to this life of triumph and deep joy that we welcome even the smallest child at the time of his or her baptism. It is entirely fitting that we should give the newest Christians this glimpse of eternity. It is entirely fitting that, when we honor the faithful saints of the past, we also remember those saints who, a year ago, were in our midst, but today are in that heavenly throng surrounding the Throne of God. Baptism welcomes the candidates with the promise that they, too, will one day be in the triumphant crowd. And, in fact, once you are baptized, you are a saint. It’s not just about the future. It’s not just about something that happens after you die.
The Feast of All Saints invites us to give thanks to God for all the faithful people who, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, have responded to God’s call in their lives. We honor this long line of faithful people from those original followers of Jesus all the way to our day. The first people told others and invited them to meet Jesus. Those people experienced God’s goodness, strove to live lives characterized by love and truth, and became, themselves, channels of God’s grace. You and I, here, today, are the latest links in a beautiful and resilient chain.
At a baptism in the Episcopal Church, we mark the newly baptized with the sign of the cross. The officiant says: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” From the moment of your baptism, you are already a saint in the truest sense of the word. This sealing is not an essential part of baptism, but it is meaningful to many people as they struggle daily with the “not-yet-ness” that is also a part of our experience of our new life in Christ. It is not yet something we can know in its fullness. But that sign of the cross on our foreheads may serve to remind us that, even in the times of suffering, of longing and “not-yet-ness”, Christ is with us. We belong to him, forever. We belong to a body, a great throng, a Holy Family, praying for one another, praying for God’s richest blessings upon those we love. And these blessings God bestows on us from the richness of his love; and nothing: not pain, not sorrow, not cynicism, not suffering, not even death itself can separate Christ from his own.