Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
“From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl stream in the countless host.”
So, who are these robed in white and where have they come from? As the elder in Revelation asks. Who are these saints? What do you think of when think of a saint? Perhaps St George striving against evil, killing the “dragon”, and martyred for his faith. Perhaps St Andrew, apostle and martyr for Christ. Perhaps St Cecilia, another martyr, and patron of music. Or Stephen, martyred, Saints Peter and Paul, again martyred? Hmm, there seems to be a theme here! Do we see saints as those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their faith? Something we hope we are never called upon to do. Something we possibly see as unobtainable for us ordinary mortals. Saints must be something special, something above and beyond. Surely. And yet, in Revelation we are told: “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages … robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, as we have just sung. Who are all these saints? Where do they come from?
So I ask again, who are these robed in white? Who is a saint? After all today is All Saints’ Day. And there we get a clue. Who is a saint? What is a saint? And for an answer I turn to the words of Rowan Williams: “When we celebrate the Saints, we celebrate those who have given evidence, who have made God believable by how they have lived and how they have died.“ (1) Saints are those who witness to God through their lives, their actions and words. Yes, some will have done incredible acts of witness, standing alongside the victims of tyranny or oppression, and suffering for it. But many also witness in quieter ways, unobtrusively following Christ in their daily lives. As Williams says elsewhere: “the fullness of the apostolic witness includes those whose only contribution is that they have lived faithfully in the company of Jesus.” (2) Those who attend church, who give to charity, who offer comfort in times of need – that cup of tea after a shock or bad news; the lift to the shops when travel is difficult. Those who sit and listen when an ear is needed. These are saints, and I am sure we all know, and have known, people like that. People who have made a difference in our lives, and the lives of others, quietly, lovingly, selflessly. Those who have given, but who did not count the cost. And, as I stand here, I can see a countless host of saints like that sitting before me. Because, everyone has those moments when we are there for someone else – donating time and gifts generously for charity causes; phoning a friend because you’ve not seen them for a while; bringing someone a chair at coffee time; welcoming and smiling at newcomers, and long-standing members. All of you, all of us, do these things, without thinking, lovingly. And because of these simple acts of kindness and love, all of us are part of the countless host, that great multitude that no one could count. Because by doing these things we are following the example and obeying the command of the one sent from God to bring us to salvation and bring the kingdom on earth. Jesus Christ.
But why do these things make us saints? And here we turn to the Beatitudes. Jesus’ own teachings on what it means to live a life for God. To be “holy”. Because these statements tell us that those whose lives act out the Beatitudes are “Blessed”. Holy. Doing God’s work and being Christ in the world is to be holy. To be meek – to put others first and love God’s people as God loves them is to be holy. Being meek for God means accepting God’s rule and living it in our daily lives. This is not weakness. It is a call to live differently, to turn the world back the right-side up by living forgiveness, generosity, selfless caring, commitment to justice, and love for our neighbour, and our enemies, and God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength (3). These are the values of the kingdom, values that we are called to uphold to and in the world, that we are to believe in our hearts and show forth in our daily lives – as the RSCM choristers prayer puts it. (4). As holy ones of God we will act for peace and reconciliation between peoples and between God and God’s children; we will be merciful; seek righteousness with our whole being; and we will be those who comfort the distressed, the scared, the lonely and the oppressed. And it is by doing these things, living the work and love of God in the name of Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit that we become holy, part of the noble army of saints. We become part of the fellowship divine, although feebly struggling as human beings here on earth to fulfil this calling, but knowing that when the kingdom comes all will be made whole, and our acts of blessedness, of holiness, will be made whole in Christ.
Who are these dressed in white, and where have they come from? They are the saints across the ages, past, present and future, who have lived God’s love in the world, bringing blessings to God’s people to God’s glory. And right now, you are sitting next to one. As Malcolm Guite puts it in a last beatitude:
And blessèd are the ones we overlook;
The faithful servers on the coffee rota,
The ones who hold no candle, bell or book
But keep the books and tally up the quota,
The gentle souls who come to “do the flowers”,
The quiet ones who organise the fête,
Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,
Doorkeepers who may open heaven’s gate.
God knows the depths that often go unspoken
Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,
Or the slow healing of a heart long broken
Placing each flower so, for a year’s mind.
Invisible on earth, without a voice,
In heaven their angels glory and rejoice. (5)
(2)Williams, Rowan. Candles in the Dark: Faith, Hope and Love in a Time of Pandemic (p. 24). SPCK. Kindle Edition.
(3)Pritchard J in Gooder P et al (2016) Reflections for Sundays Year A Church House Publishing London p.251
And Hymn number 190 For all the saints, Anglican Hymns Old and New