November 2, 2014

Revelation 7:9-17
Matthew 5:1-12

When I was growing up in a Presbyterian church, I don’t remember celebrating “All Saints’ Day.” It’s only in recent years that I have noticed it in the Church Calendar and begun to think about what it means. Even Presbyterian churches that follow the lectionary quite strictly could miss “All Saints’ Day” because it’s not really a Sunday celebration. “All Saints’ Day” is November 1st – whatever day of the week that happens to fall on, and so most of the time it passes by without any mention of it. Unless, of course, a minister decides to put aside the Sunday readings and choose to celebrate “All Saints’ Day” instead. And that is what we have done.

You probably know that many of the well-known saints have a feast day. It’s a day when Christians celebrate and remember the life and witness of a particular saint. The feast days of the saints are not held on their birthdays, but on the day they died. Often they were martyred – put to death for witnessing to their faith in Jesus Christ – so they are memorialized on that day.

St. Francis was a holy man who lived in the late 12th century. He lived with animals, worked with his hands, cared for lepers, and preached a Gospel of simplicity, purity and peace. He inspired people through the centuries to renounce their wealth in favour of a simple life of service to God. He founded the Franciscan order based on a simple statement by Jesus: “Leave all and follow me.” The feast day of St. Francis is Oct. 4th.

St. Nicholas is the saint whose actions inspired the many legends of Santa Claus in various parts of the world. Nicholas was a priest, abbot, and then bishop of Myra who died in the year 346. He was generous to the poor and was known as a protector of the innocent and wronged. Many stories grew up around him, including this one that inspired the Santa Claus legend that we are most familiar with.

Nicholas heard that a local man had fallen on such hard times that he was planning to sell his daughters into prostitution. So he waited until night and went to the man’s house. He took three bags of gold and threw them in through the window, saving the girls from lives of prostitution. The feast day of St. Nicholas is Dec. 6th.

The feast day of St. Andrew – the patron saint of Scotland for whom our congregation is named – is November 30th. On that day, Andrew is remembered as the first Apostle, a fisherman, brother of Simon Peter, and follower of John the Baptist. He went through life leading people to Jesus, both before and after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Andrew was a missionary in Asia Minor and Greece, and possibly areas in modern Russia and Poland. He was martyred on a saltire cross – the X-shaped cross that we see on the Scottish flag. He is said to have spent two days preaching from the cross before he died.

The word “saint” comes from a Greek word that means “holy.” Saints are holy people, faithful followers of Jesus Christ whom we look to as examples of how to follow Jesus. According to the traditional concept of saints, they are people that we can be quite confident are in heaven. Knowing that they’re up there with God, people often ask the saints to pray for them to God, trusting that God will hear the requests of these faithful people.

The Roman Catholic Church has developed quite a system for confirming the sainthood of various Christians after their deaths, including keeping track of miracles that take place when they are asked to pray. You may know that Mother Teresa of Calcutta is now called “Blessed Teresa,” a step along the way towards being recognised as “Saint Teresa.”

Today’s reading from the Book of Revelation is a vision of the saints in heaven gathered around the throne of God in the presence of Christ. As in other apocalyptic texts, John’s vision is full of strange creatures and people and events. It is a story in code about God’s salvation in Christ. As we read it, we have the challenge of trying to understand the symbols and signs that would have conveyed great meaning to the original readers, but may be lost on us today.

The Lamb, for example, represents Christ. The white robes that the people are wearing indicate that they are followers of Jesus who are wearing the new clothes of baptism. And the palm branches that they are carrying in their hands are a sign of celebration, of victory, and of the coming of the Messiah to be their Saviour.

John’s vision begins with a description of the crowd of people who are standing in front of the throne of God. It is a great multitude – so many people that they cannot be counted! There are people there from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. And together, they are praising God and Jesus. They are worshipping God and singing: “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

It’s a joyful celebration of God’s goodness and the salvation of the people. But as John watches what’s going on as the multitude praises God, as they wave their palm branches and shout with joy, a question arises… Who are these people? Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?

The answer given is that “these are they who have come out of the great ordeal.” These are the people who have been through great suffering. And not just any suffering, but the great persecution that was expected to come at the end of time. These are the people who were tested and who held fast to their faith in God. These are the ones who were persecuted and killed because they confessed Jesus as Lord.

When this apocalyptic text was written, Christians were suffering a great deal for their faith. They were being stoned and crucified and fed to the lions. And there was the feeling that the end must be coming very soon. The great ordeal was upon them. They had to be strong. They had to hold fast to their faith in Christ. And the Good News of God was coming to the faithful through visions like this one from John.

When the ordeal was over, John assured them, they would be standing with Christ in heaven, praising God with joy and victory, because God would bless them. “The one who is 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 centre 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.”

The Good News for God’s faithful people in the second century, and in every time and place, is that though you may endure trials and suffering now, God will bless you in the life to come. There will be peace and security, joy and abundant life.

Jesus said something similar in his sermon on the mount. Not that he called his followers to be poor or to mourn or to be persecuted. But he told them that when these things happen to them, when they are reviled and persecuted, and when evil is spoken against them on his account, then God will bless them. Though the world may not reward the saints for their faithfulness, God will bless them. “Rejoice and be glad,” Jesus said, “for your reward is great in heaven.”

I could end this sermon right here with the exhortation to remember and give thanks for the saints – for Peter and Paul, for Andrew, for Mary, for Francis, for Nicholas and Teresa. They followed Jesus with strength and determination. They put up with persecution. They stayed firm till the end. They were hung on crosses and fed to lions, and simply didn’t receive much credit in this world for all their work and witness. I could suggest that we study their lives and find ways to live by their examples. This could certainly help us as we seek to follow in the way of Christ as they did.

But today is not the feast day of Andrew or Nicholas or Francis. It is the celebration of the feast of “All Saints.” All Saints’ Day was created to give a time to remember those saints that have been forgotten – those that don’t have a feast day of their own, those whose stories have not been passed on and have not made it into the history books, those that are known only to God.

Today we celebrate “All Saints’ Day” so I cannot neglect the fact that a Reformed concept of sainthood goes beyond those holy people who have been recognised as such by the church. That big crowd in heaven – that multitude that John described may have included St. Peter and St. Paul and all the other famous ones. But I think that some of the other saints in heaven might come as a bit of a surprise.

Whenever I think of saints, I think of the Christians at Corinth. You remember them – the ones that Paul had to write to several times because of all the difficulties they were having. – the ones that were fighting and arguing so much that they couldn’t even get together to worship God without trouble.

But despite the fact that the Corinthians weren’t the kind of folk that you’d call saintly, Paul opens his first letter to them in this way: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified – to those who are ‘made holy’ – in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Throughout the New Testament, as here in Paul’s letter, the word “saint” is used to describe the regular people of God. They’re not likely to be canonised. They’re nowhere near perfect. But they are, as Paul says, “called to be saints.” They are called by Christ to be God’s holy people, living in the way of Jesus, loving God and neighbour, and calling on the name of Jesus Christ their Lord.

The New Testament concept of saints does not include only those who have died, or only those who have miracles attributed to them, or only those that have withstood persecution or martyrdom. The saints are the people of God! This is the reason why our newsletter at St. Andrew’s can be called, “Saints Alive” – telling the stories of God’s holy people today, as we work out our calling together in this place.

Today, I want to encourage you to remember and give thanks for the saints of all times and places. Celebrate the whole communion of saints – past, present, and future – with whom we join our voices in the communion prayer when we say “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might…”

Perhaps you might think of a saint that you have heard about today or that you’ve read about in a book. Perhaps you might remember a saint that isn’t so famous… someone whose life and witness made a difference in your life or in the lives of others around you. It might be someone who has died, and you could give thanks to God for the promise of blessing and joy in heaven. It might be someone who is still alive, still serving God through good times and challenges as well. It might be a grandparent, an elder, a friend, or a young person… someone whose witness has strengthened your faith, someone whose example helps you to follow Jesus more closely. You might decide to do something to encourage this saint. Tell them how their life and witness has impacted yours.

And today, I also want to encourage you to remember that as followers of Jesus, we are all called to be saints. We are called to bear witness to Jesus Christ in our words, our actions, and in our very lives. All Saints Day! This is our day! Let us rejoice and be glad because our reward is great in heaven. Not because we’re great, or because we’re perfect, or because we’ve done enough to earn it, but because God is gracious and kind and because God has made us holy people in Christ Jesus. We are called to be saints.

Praise and glory, wisdom and thanks, honour and power and strength be to our God forever and ever, Amen!