“A Vision of All the Saints”
In a well-known movie, “Dead Poets Society”, Robin Williams played a poetry teacher at an elite boarding school for teenage boys. His unorthodox teaching style engaged the students in high contrast to the otherwise stuffy and straight-laced expectations of their parents and teachers. In a well-known scene early in the movie, he takes his whole class downstairs to the exhibit hall where he shows them old pictures of boys who attended the school in generations past. As the camera zooms in on these ghostly figures of a bygone era, the teacher tells the students to listen to their predecessors – listen closely – and you will hear them whispering, “Carpe Diem”, which of course means “Seize the day”. The teacher challenges his students “make your lives extraordinary”. It's all very poetic, and maybe even inspiring on some level.
And in a way, it reminds me of the picture we see today in our reading from Revelation. There, John sees in his heavenly vision, a picture of the church in glory. The eternal reality of the innumerable multitude of those who are saved – they who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. They are from every tribe, nation, people and language. The span the whole of Christianity throughout space and time. They are, as it were, all the saints. It's a fitting text for this All Saints Sunday.
But if you listen to them, they don't whisper “Carpe Diem”. They aren't going to tell you to make your lives extraordinary. In fact they won't point you to yourself at all. Instead, they cry out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
They point you not to yourself, but to Jesus, the Lamb who once was slain.
It's his blood that proved the only detergent that could lift the stain of sin. It's his life laid down, and taken up again, that paved the way for their life and yours. It's his salvation, that belongs to him, that he gives to us, freely of his grace.
And so they are not a society of dead poets. Rather, they are a communion of saints, very much alive in Christ! Even the dead who have gone on before us live with him. For he who believes in Christ, even though he dies shall live. And he who lives and believes in Jesus Christ will never die.
Such is the picture of the church in her glory. It's a picture of all the faithful, Old Testament and New Testament. Jew and Gentile. Male and Female. Long gone, and not even born yet. And it's a picture of you, too, Christian.
For somewhere in that multitude from every nation, there's a face very familiar to you – a face you see in the mirror every day. If this is all the saints, then that includes you. For you, too, are washed in the blood of the Lamb. You, too, were buried with Christ, and raised with Christ in Holy Baptism. You, too, gather at the altar of Christ with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, and you share in the blessed sweet communion not only with Christ, but with all those that are in him. Even those who are already asleep.
All Saints Day is a reminder to Christians that we are saints – even while we are sinners. That we live in the strange paradox of this dual reality. Though I sin every day, though I sin much, though I sin by my own most grievous fault, God sees me as righteous through Christ. He sees me as, declares me to be holy and blameless. When God looks at you, he doesn't see or regard all the embarrassing realities of your fallen, corrupt and naked shame. He looks past the filth. Rather, he sees you clothed with a white robe of righteousness. It's as if he's looking at Jesus himself, and so he says of you, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”.
The Elder who interprets this vision for John, and for us, then tells in poetic verse that describes them further:
“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.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
the sun shall not strike them,
nor any scorching heat.
For 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.”
Ah but it was not always so. There was a time when we were not before the throne of God, but were cast out into the exile of separation over sin. Not fit to stand in his presence, or enter his holy temple. Even when they were, only the priests, and only at prescribed times could so enter. But now, all are holy, all are in his temple, all serve him day and night, that is, forever. There is no more wall of separation between man and his creator. This is what heaven is all about. Sheltered in the presence of God. Does it get any better?
Oh in this world, we suffer. In this world we are hungry and thirsty, scorched in the flames of sun and heat. But this is more than just a typical August in Texas. These bodily sufferings are emblematic of the suffering all of us face as consequences of our sin, and as part of the brokenness of the world we have inherited. It doesn't stop at hunger and thirst and heat. We see all manner of infirmities, persecution, heartbreak, loneliness, conflict, war, addictions, injustice, abuse, disaster, poverty, betrayals, lies, mockery, depression and even death itself. What a world! What a vale of tears! What a wilderness wasteland!
How far we've fallen from the green groves of paradise God made for Adam and Eve. But Adam's sin touched all of creation, and as the head of it – so the body would follow. Adam's sons were brought forth in his, now broken, image, and they died. And Adam's world, entrusted to his care, would now spit thorns at him, and that was just the beginning.
But paradise lost is restored in Christ. What sin had shattered, Christ makes new. Through one man came death to the whole world, but through another man came life for all.
And so, with the Lamb as our Shepherd, everything is right and good again. No more hunger, thirst, or scorching heat. No more suffering and pain. And in his tender mercy, not only does he take away sin and suffering, but the picture is so up close and personal – he wipes every tear from our eyes.
Dear saints of God at Messiah. Christ knows your suffering. He suffered all – even the very wrath of God – to procure your salvation. He is not unable to sympathize with us in our weakness. In fact, he knows it better than we ourselves. The man of sorrows wept bitter tears for you on the cross, to take away all tears from you forever. And though in this world, while we are in the body, we still suffer for a time – those sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that is to come. For behold, he makes all things new.
No, I won't march you out into the narthex and show you pictures of the saints of old today, and whisper in your ear, “Carpe Diem”. But we will gather in a few short moments at the communion rail. And there we will join that great throng, the communion of saints. There we will receive that body and blood of the Lamb that makes our filthy robes white again. There we will join all tribes and peoples and languages gathered around his throne. There, we will have a foretaste of the great feast to come. And then we will add our voices of thanks and praise for the Salvation that belongs to the Lamb, the salvation that he works for us.
Thanks be to God for all the saints that have gone before us. Thanks be to God for incorporating us into that blessed communion. Thanks be to Christ the Lamb for his salvation. Praise be to the Father and to the Spirit enthroned with him.
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”