The Great Multitude of the Saints

Revelation 7:9-17

All Saints’ Day is a day I feel. It’s a day I feel in my bones, in the deepest recesses of my being. It’s also a day that I have a hard time talking about. And I think it’s because there’s something ineffable about it, something which can best be experienced, best be sung, rather than expounded upon with words. But here we are. And words are what I have, or am supposed to have.

I think this year is harder, as well, because it is much more raw than in other years. Since this day last year, we, as a church have lost three pillars of this congregation, and personally, I have lost two significant people in my life, and so this is still very open for me right now too.

But this is the mixed blessing of All Saints’ Day, is that it invites us into this space, it invites us to remember, and to celebrate, but even more than this, it invites us to look beyond the veil, and this passage from the Revelation does just that. 

Revelation usually brings up images of fear and war and destruction, and all that. But this is what happens when only part of the Revelation is read. Indeed, it is a single narrative unit from beginning to end, and when you realize that the community for whom this was written was one in which it seemed as though the world was falling apart, and the Revelation, in part, helps to put this experience into a broader context, and when you read it from beginning to end, you can see the comforting and hopeful direction of this enigmatic text. 

The text before us is an amazing sight. We are given an image of an innumerable multitude. Uncountable. If you listen closely, perhaps you hear echoes from early in the Sacred Texts, at the very beginning of the story of the people of God, all the way back to Abraham. Abraham was unsure of what was going to happen, and God asked Abraham to step out of his tent and look to the night sky. And with no tall trees and no glow of street lights, the stars were just that much brighter. I imagine that it would have felt as though Abraham was surrounded by stars as they reached across the horizon as far as the eye could see. And this, God said, this is how many your descendants will be. I always imagine Abraham starting to count, 1…2…3…but giving up when he realized that it is impossible, that it is uncountable. And here, on the other side of the Bible in this vision to John the Seer, exiled on the Island of Patmos, we have this vision of a great multitude that no one could count. 

But what is so amazing about this, is not just that it is a lot of people, but that it is people of every nation, all tribes, peoples languages. A multitude representative of the diversity of humanity that God created all together, in one place, standing before the Christ, robed in white, waving palm branches in their hands in celebration, in triumph, in worship. 

We are told that these are those who have come from the great ordeal. They are the ones who have now entered into the rest awaiting those who have completed the journey of the life of faith, the struggles of the church militant, and this is an image of the church triumphant. 

Indeed, these people are the saints. And these are the people we remember on All Saints’ Day. 

***

When we hear the term “saints,” we usually think of super-Christians, those who were better than the rest of us. And lest we think that saints are just a Roman Catholic thing, we need to look no further than St. John’s Lutheran Church to see that the Reform movement of the sixteenth century did not get rid of the concept of the saints, but rather, returned it to the fullness of its meaning. In the Latin creed we profess that we believe in the communion of Saints. But the saints are not just people with names like Francis of Assisi, or Benedict of Nursia, or Lucy, the namesake of the community of our Roman Catholic siblings here in the village. But the saints include people with names like Martha, and Henry. Margaret and Harriet, Alanson and Jim.

And today is the day that we remember and give thanks for those saints who have gone before, those saints who have completed the journey, who have gone through the great ordeal. Those saints who now stand in the great multitude with brilliantly bright robes, with palm branches in their hands. 

But this is not all, for we see not only the saints of all places and all times, but we also see a perfected reality, a reality that was originally intended, and which will be brought to completion. 

“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.”

***

But today, we not only remember the saints, we also have an experience with them. The sacrament which we celebrate today is not only something that invites us to remember, but most importantly to experience. The Holy Supper is that moment when we are lifted up into the heavens to commune with Christ, and the saints of all times and all places. The sacrament, then, is the time in which we sit at the table with all the saints, when we are bound together with them as an organic whole, with Christ as the head holding the whole thing together. 

I remember a story told to my by Allan, one of the saints that I remember this day. When his father died, Allan went to the monastery nearby. He went to celebrate the sacrament because he so badly wanted to be with his father again, and it was that sacramental moment which brought him close again. And this sacramental moment does the same for us. It unites us with one another, but it stretches even beyond the grave to unite the people of God, from every nation, people, tribe, and language. And within that multitude, that multitude too great to count, if you look closely, you might see faces that you recognize, with names that you recognize. Names like Allan and Gregg, and Jackie, and Newt, and Joel—and so many more. 

And let us continue “forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” And that when we finish our part of the journey, that we might also take our place amongst that beautifully diverse multitude, that we might wash our robes in the blood of the Lamb only to find them even more brilliant than before, as we take up our palm branch and join our voices with the saints. “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Published by Matthew van Maastricht

Matthew serves as the pastor and teacher of the Altamont Reformed Church in Altamont, New York. He is a Fellow of the Reformed Church Center at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, and teaches for New Brunswick Theological Seminary. His particular interests are church history, the Reformed confessions, and church polity. The views expressed here are his own.

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