November 5th, 2023: "All the Saints"
First United Presbyterian Church
“All the Saints”
Rev. Amy Morgan
November 5, 2023
Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3
7:9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
7:10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" 7:11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 7:12 singing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen." 7:13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" 7:14 I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "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. 7:15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them 7:16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;7:17 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 away every tear from their eyes."
1 John 3:1-3
3:1 See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him.
3:2 Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.
3:3 And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
The Reformed church has traditionally shunned the reverence of particular saints in favor of emphasizing our theology of the priesthood of all believers, the sainthood of all the faithful. For us, the saints are ordinary folks, like you and me, who try, with the grace of God, to follow the way of Jesus. To reverence certain extraordinary witnesses to the Christian faith might overemphasize good works and make us feel responsible for our own salvation. The Reformers maintained that salvation belongs to God alone, and nothing we could ever do, no matter how extraordinary, would impact God’s unconditional grace one way or another.
But I think over the last 500 years or so we’ve managed to sort out a more nuanced position. It’s clear from the first letter of John that we are all children of God, that God claims us and loves us and is transforming us, day by day, into the image of Christ. That is an act of sheer grace. But it is also clear that we are able to joyfully respond to this love and grace with words and actions that bear witness to God’s great love.
1 John says that those who hope in Christ “purify themselves” just as Christ is pure. This word translated as pure is derived from the Greek word hagios, meaning “holy or sacred, free from ceremonial defilement.” Now, that idea of being free from ceremonial defilement might sound pretty foreign to us. What would “ceremonial defilement” even entail?
But early Christians, those first readers of John’s letters, were very aware of what this term meant. In the Roman Empire, it was not illegal to be a Christian. You could worship whatever gods or goddesses you wanted. But it was a serious crime, especially under certain emperors, to refuse to sacrifice to the Roman gods. Exemptions were made for Jews, who, as monotheists, were outliers. But since Christians broke from their Jewish roots fairly early on, they were not covered under that exemption. Their refusal to pay homage to the Roman deities was seen as a threat to the Empire, an action that would surely enrage the gods and bring ruin to the civilization.
Some Christians succumbed to fear or pressure from their families and made the sacrifices with their fingers crossed behind their backs. But an astounding number of Christians chose martyrdom instead. The word “witness” in Greek is martyrios. To bear witness to the Christian faith, to share the good news of Jesus Christ, as Jesus charged his disciples to do, was synonymous with being put to death for that witness. Many early Christians, children of God, as John calls them, purified themselves, avoided “ceremonial defilement,” and died for it.
And it is clear that their choice was not based on the belief that dying for their faith was a precondition of their salvation. It was, instead, a joyful response to the love and grace and salvation they already knew was theirs in Jesus Christ.
One of the earliest and most detailed accounts we have of this kind of martyrdom is that of a young woman named Perpetua. She, along with several other catechumens in Carthage, were arrested, tried, and executed in the gladiatorial arena. In her diary, Perpetua speaks honestly about her fear, her anxiety for her distressed father and grief for the son she is still nursing. But she also tells her father that, just as a pitcher cannot be called anything other than what it is, she cannot call herself anything other than a Christian. She confesses her faith at her trial, and after she and her companions are sentenced to death, they returned to their prison cell in high spirits. An eyewitness to her battle in the arena wrote that when the time came for the gladiator to end her suffering, she “took the shaking right hand of the gladiator, who was just a new recruit, and directed it to the cutting of her own throat.” Throughout her account of this ordeal, Perpetua expresses the joy she and her fellow martyrs experience at being blessed to respond to God’s love and goodness by witnessing to their faith in this way.
Even after official state persecution of Christians subsided, and as Christianity began to make gains as a political power in Western Europe, Christians lived out John’s call to respond to God’s grace with holiness. The monastic movement quickly spread, and men and women devoted their lives to community, service, and holy living. One community of monastics, located on the island of Iona, also gave their lives bearing witness to their faith. As Viking raiders began carrying out attacks on the shores of Britan, the brothers of Iona continued their worshipful work, including beginning one of the most beautiful illustrations of the gospels, the Book of Kells. When fleets of Viking ships stormed Iona Abbey in the year 806, looking for riches the brothers did not possess, the defenseless monks were slain, but some escaped to the Abbey of Kells, where work on their manuscript continued. Earlier attacks by the Vikings might have swayed the monks of Iona to relocate to a safer location, but the very thing that made Iona an easy target for the Vikings was the aspect that was most important to the monks – the isolation that allowed for solitude also provided easy access for Viking ships and no security reinforcements from the mainland.
After the Christian reformation of the 16th century, Christian missionaries continued to be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth. When Augustinian missionaries arrived in Japan in the early 1600’s, they were encountered with opposition from the Japanese shogun. A young Japanese woman named Magdelene, whose parents had been martyred for their Christian faith, served as a translator and teacher of the faith for the Augustinian order. After two of her mentors were burned at the stake, she sought out new mentors to apprentice herself to. When those two friars were also killed, she sought refuge with other Christians in the hills of Nagasaki, where she baptized the young and visited the sick. But after some time of observing how many Christians succumbed to the pressures of harsh and deadly persecution and renounced their faith, Madelene discerned that she must serve as a witness. She turned herself in to the authorities and declared herself a follower of Jesus Christ. After 13 days of torture, she was killed.
These stories of saints are shockingly gory to our 21-century sensibilities. Thanks to protections in our Constitution, to be Christian in America today does not come with the risk of torture and execution. And yet, last month, a 6-year-old child was stabbed to death by his landlord because he was Muslim and his parents had immigrated from the West Bank. A Jewish family in Los Angeles was attacked by an armed man who kicked in the door to their home screaming antisemitic slurs. Today’s martyrs may not carry crosses, but even here, even now, people are living and dying for their faith.
The Revelation of John, who was himself persecuted and possibly martyred, offers a vision of hope for all the saints who have come through great ordeals. 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 away every tear from their eyes.
John’s vision of Christ’s triumph over the evils of this world is not meant as a prophesy of what is to come but assurance that our present suffering is not in vain, that those who share the love of God, even when it costs them greatly, will experience new life. The Book of Revelation is full of some strange and frightening things, just as our world today is filled with strange and frightening things. Remembering those saints who have lived out their faith to the fullest, who have chosen devotion over safety, who have lived and died in strange and frightening times, encourages us to remember also that violence, death, and all the evil this world can dish out do not ultimately get the last word. The reason I have lifted up these saints today, in particular, those who were martyred, is because they went to their deaths with this hope in hand – that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, as Paul wrote to the church in Rome. They have been guided to the springs of the water of life and God has wiped every tear from the eyes. They continue to live on in grateful, joyful, worshipful praise. Because death does not get the last word.
That is what we remember when we come to the table of Jesus Christ, when we remember his death and resurrection that is at the heart of the Christian faith, that is so meaningful and transformative that thousands of people over thousands of years have died rather than deny that hope that has been given to them in Jesus Christ. As we celebrate at this table on this All Saints’ Day, we remember that we are gathering with the whole body of saints; those who are alive and coming to this table to be nourished so that we can continue bear witness to God’s love in the world; and those who have died, who now celebrate eternally with God. We all gather here to strengthen one another. We are all sent out from here to live out the love and justice of Jesus Christ, to testify to our hope in his resurrection.
These are sad and frightening times we live in, friends. But each era in human history has its conflicts, violence, persecution, and disasters. And it is precisely in these dark times, in times of crisis, that we are called upon to witness to our faith, to share the love and hope and grace of God that allow us to respond by living with joy, to live holy lives, refusing to worship at the altars of greed and hatred.
When we remember all the saints, we remember that we, too, are saints. We are those who have been entrusted with a great and precious hope. It is not a hope for ourselves alone, but a hope that God is making all things new. It is a hope for a new creation in which, as John envisions at the end of Revelation, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”
Perpetua, the martyrs of Iona, and Magdelene of Nagasaki, along with all the saints, living now on earth and living eternally with God, are witnesses, as Jesus commissioned us to be. May their examples inspire us, not to earn our salvation, but to celebrate it and to respond with joy and commitment. May the faith of all the saints bolster our faith when it falters, and may it strengthen the church to be the body of Christ in the world, to the glory of God. Amen.