A Sermon for All Saints Day (01/11/20): White in the Blood of the Lamb

 

White in the Blood of the Lamb

Revelation 7:9-17


These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

On All Saints Day we might ask: “Who are the saints?”

Perhaps a slightly facetious answer might be: “Someone you would name a church after.”

Though many a true word is spoken in jest. That definition would provide us with quite a select group of people. Methodists indeed are very narrow in who they will name churches after. Which is perhaps a little odd, because the one Christian festival beyond those which retell the Gospel story, which John Wesley was enthusiastic about is this one, All Saints. Indeed very few Methodist Churches are named after someone with “saint” in front of their name. The few that are named that way are named after a very small group indeed: only apostles, and not even all of them. So I have been minister of churches called St. Paul’s and St Andrew’s, and I certainly know of Methodist Churches called St. John’s. But that is about the limit. The notable absence from that select group is St. Peter! But if a saint is someone you would name a church after, then there is perhaps another group that Methodists appear to consider saints. There is John Wesley of course. There plenty of chapels erected to his memory. And there are one or two others from the first generation of Methodist preachers:  I can think of Thomas Coke, the founder of the Methodist Missionary Society, president of the Methodist conference in 1812, after whom the large Methodist Church in the centre of Kingston, Jamaica, is named. After that the names can become rather obscure. There is William Bourne one of the founders of Primitive Methodism. And there is Robert Young who was president of conference in 1856. And there is also Peter Mackenzie, who almost no one outside the village he was minister in with the chapel that bears his name has ever heard of. Then Peter Lee who was a Methodist local preacher who not only has a Methodist church named after him but the whole town that it is located in. Though perhaps he receives that honour not exclusively for his undoubted faith. Of course we know other Christians have a more extensive list of people they will name their churches after. The word “saint” becomes a title of honour for a special kind of Christian. To be a saint is to be an “illustrious” Christian, in the proper sense, someone whose life illustrates what it is to be a Christian. And therefore someone who it is worth naming a church after – to remind us of that life


We sometimes remember though that the word saint began as a more inclusive idea. In the New Testament it simply refers to the members of the church! The church is the gathering of the saints. Though perhaps in that original context being a member of the church was a lot more demanding that it tends to be now. Much more than having a name entered on a membership roll and being handed a membership ticket. Following Jesus was demanding and risk. It possibly meant alienation from family and friends. It meant becoming part of a persecuted minority. Suffering was clearly understood to be part of the deal. And from time to time it could cost you your life. Being a Christian did sometimes mean taking up a cross and following Jesus in a quite literal sense. Committing yourself to follow Jesus was committing yourself to a costly discipleship. The bar for the church being a gathering of saints was set a little higher than simply turning up each week.

But in his vision St. John (one of the people we would name a church after) is shown something quite different:

I looked, and there was great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and all peoples and languages.

John is shown a gathering that is truly inclusive. People of types from everywhere. And there is a vast uncountable number of them. Our definitions of the saints are too narrow. John is given a vision which fulfils the promise made way back to Abraham: that his descendants would be more numerous than the stars, and that he would become a blessing to every nation. John’s vision is one of a gathering of saints for whom numbers run out. The lists of saints we might make is never going to be long enough. There is an uncountable multitude of people who are saints before God. Who this crowd are offers us a somewhat different definition of who the saints are:

These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

That must be one of the most startling images in all of scripture, a striking oxymoron: whitening robes in blood! The “great ordeal” is the traumatic events at the heart of the vision that makes up the Book of Revelation. These are the people who have refused to be conformed to the beast and have resisted the allure of Babylon. They ones who have stayed loyal to the Lamb. The white robes indicate that these are martyrs, or at the very least they have suffered because of their loyalty to Christ. The crowd though is victorious, they are:

Robed in white with palm branches in their hands.

What John sees perhaps reminds him of the victory parade which led Jesus into Jerusalem. So he knows the connection between victory and suffering. But this, like Jesus himself, is a crowd of sufferers who have conquered. They are not conquerors who happened to have suffered. These are the weak who are made victorious by Christ, not the strong who have (falsely) claimed victory in his name.

In more prosaic less fantastical terms. The saints are those who have not accepted life on the terms that the powers of this world offers it. Indeed the reason they have suffered is because they have spoken out against that. They have not accepted that life has to be lived in terms of greed and acquisition and exploitation. And they have not be drawn away by the temptation of the things that life like that might offer. The saints are the ones who have lived the life shown in the life of Jesus. They are the ones of have taken the side of and witnessed for the hungry, the poor and the oppressed. They have done this whilst remaining alongside the poor and the oppressed, being poor and oppressed with them. They have never succumbed to the temptation of claiming power in this world on behalf of the poor and oppressed, which is a strategy which always leads to betrayal and ultimately catastrophe. Doing this in many places and at many times this has come at the cost of suffering. No one should have to suffer for doing good or for defending the weak, but the reality is that they do.

The thing that perhaps must be said is that “great multitude” is more inclusive than we might sometimes allow it to be. It includes many who never named the name of Jesus. Their inclusion is on the basis of how they live, not necessarily on the basis of the opinion they held or the words they used to describe what they were doing. But they are the ones who nonetheless lived lives that continued Christ’s life, who followed the way of the lamb and showed that life to the world.


One part of our earlier definition of “saint” was accurate. Saints are “illustrious” Their lives show us the kind of lives that should be lived by those who claim loyalty to Jesus. Part of the struggle for the Church in the present, in the places where Christianity had been dominant for so long, is that we have forgotten what saints look like, because the circumstances that create them haven’t existed. In the absence of martyrs it has become difficult for us to see what being a Christian should look like. No one should have to suffer for what they believe, or indeed for trying to do good. But being a Christian, a saint in the broadest sense, demands something more. It requires of would-be saints: witnessing against the beast, speaking out against all that it is monstrous in the world. And requires refusal to be conformed to world as it is. And most of all it requires following the way of the Lamb , the way of peace and reconciliation. The saints are the ones show us they way to become part of that great crowd ourselves.

Amen.


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White in the Blood of the Lamb by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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