The seventh chapter of St. John’s Revelation is a powerful reminder for Christ’s Church still toiling here on earth, but looking forward to heaven. For those of us who grieve the death of our loved ones, and for those who long for the reunion – the restoration – of our dearest relationships under Christ. Our communion of saints is one that is not bound by geography or by history. It straddles heaven and earth, every time and every place. It is therefore also a wonderful text for us to consider on this day of the Church Year set aside to remember the Communion of the Saints.
It is also a very appropriate text for our little congregation to consider, given some of the grief and questioning we have gone through these past three months. No less than three beloved members of our congregation (Auguste, Sigie, and Else) have been called to their heavenly home in this little time. A further cherished couple from our fellowship is soon moving from our midst. And with every one of life’s changes, with each of the deaths, a noticeable hole is left in our community.
And while it grieves us, and gives us moments of pause, it should not surprise us. For this church is not safe from the effects of life in a broken and fallen world. This community is not meant to be permanent or eternal … at least not in the way we enjoy it now. What we have here, what we enjoy here for a time is but the barest glimpse of something far more wonderful to come. The church militant – the church that must be sealed against evil, that must fight with the world and this sinful life – is that church which must one day die and be reborn the Church Triumphant. Just as each of us must die and rise again to be part of her. But when we do … when we do, what a glorious thing that will be for all the saints of God!
9After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
The first thing we should notice about this heavenly congregation of saints (of which we will one day be a part even as our dearly departed are even now) is the Mood. What unfolds before John’s eyes (and ours through his words) is a tremendous celebration! The white robes, the Palm branches, the bowing and the singing (all found in OT imagery) all point to one thing … a celebration of triumph for the King of Kings, a celebration rededicating His Bride, a celebration of a promised deliverance now gloriously and eternally true.
The next thing we should make note of is that the multitude is gathered from all over the world. Every part of it with its host. No matter what sort of divisions we might observe here (nations, customs, blood, time or distance), there is no separation in this heavenly host. This is the sum total of the fruit of the Gospel on earth, the net result of all Christ’s mission work through congregations like ours, through His dear Church in every age.
Note also, what they sing. For no greater praise can be given to God than that his creatures attribute their salvation to Him and His Christ. The full and complete salvation from sin, death, and damnation which God and the Lamb have wrought. From beginning to end – in the joyous days and in the days of sadness and grief – He has been in control, to see us saved. To call us before Him for eternal joys.
11And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Bear witness, dear saints, that while separate from us, as they have been from the moment of creation, the angel hosts do lend their voices and their praise to ours. Amen! They cry out. Amen! They rejoice. And then they follow it up with a seven-fold hymn of praise of their own. A hymn we join them in singing nearly every Sunday. Back and forth the praises sound, round and round the refrains echo and grow. All creatures heavenly and earthly join in and add their own petitions of praise to a most worthy God.
13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
And here in the question of one of the elders we come to it. In the question and the answer we hit at the heart of the Good News for us saints here on earth. It is not enough simply to see the vision and hear the praises, we are told who these saints are and whence they came.
Those saints in heaven, voices lifted in eternally arching praises, are no more or less than those saints who first came through the great tribulation. Every Christian experiences testings of faith and witness, and every such trial points to the future great tribulation of the end times. Such trials become in that moment of time a part of that great tribulation for that believer. Some tribulations and suffering will be so piercing and poignant that the very faith and foundation of our hope will be severely tried, almost to the point of despair and defeat. Some of you, I dare say, have been to that point once or twice already. For we Christians at that moment, our sufferings and trials are the great tribulation. Sometimes the tribulations are truly great, and sometimes it is only great when they are all viewed together.
And yet the great throng of saints before the throne of heaven have come through – we will come through – all such earthly times of trial and tribulation not by strength of will or patience in our suffering. Not for the blood we spill or the life we are willing to sacrifice. We will come through this veil of suffering and tears, as our fore fathers and mothers in the faith did … only because we have been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.
Jesus’ strength of will to face down the sins of the world, to love when reviled, to sacrifice himself for us. Jesus’ patience in suffering, the weight of all sin, the ridicule of the very ones He was saving, the rejection of the Father whose bidding He was doing. Jesus’ blood spilled for you for me, for everyone of every where and every when. His life sacrificed unto hell to give us heaven. This and this alone is what calls us to God. This is what makes us saints. This is what grants us hope now, and everlasting joys then. This and this alone binds us to every other saint who has gone before or will come after us.
And so in Christ’s Blood the one or two truly tremendous times of suffering, or the multitude of nagging sufferings over our lifetime is all left behind the saints in glory now, just as it will be put behind us on a day not so far distant. The Church Triumphant is a communion where no part of any such suffering can ever again touch or trouble the blessed in Christ.
15“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. 17For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
What we do so imperfectly in our earthly sanctuary is done there in supreme perfection. No weakness hinders it. No fault mars it. No disturbances interrupt it. There it is our highest delight, our greatest privilege. God will forever be with His saints, His presence, His Glory, spread over them like a tent. The Lamb in our midst, no longer veiled by Word or Sacrament, but in gloriously resurrected flesh and blood.
On this All Saints Sunday, as we remember these promises of God to all His dear saints of every time and place, let us not dwell on what was. Let us not grieve what is no longer. Let us instead rejoice in what is even now, and will be forever. Our fellowship is not broken. Our loved ones are not really taken from us. When we are with Christ then we are with them. Let us lift up our voices in praise with our dear brothers and sisters who are before the throne of God. Let us join with the heavenly hosts and angel choirs giving thanks to God who has promised us such a glorious reunion in Christ.