Sermon for All Saints' Sunday, Nov. 6th
The little Greek island of Patmos is not very impressive compared with the more famous tourist destinations of the Greek isles. Patmos features a pleasant little town of about 2000 souls, a medieval monastery on top of its only mountain, and—perched above a steep cliff—an Orthodox Christian seminary with a few dozen students. And yet many thousands of people make their way to Patmos by boat every year. It is not scenic beauty that draws them. It is sacred mystery. You see, behind that seminary on the cliff is a set of very steep steps that leads you to a remarkable cave. Ancient Church tradition tells us that it was in that extraordinary little cave that the Revelation to St. John occurred: “the revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place, and he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.”
The elderly St. John settled in that cave during his lonely exile near the end of the first century A.D., and it was there that he was overcome by the Holy Spirit on the Lord’s Day. He saw astonishing things in a series of visions: curious signs and fantastical symbols, confusing things--and yes—sometimes horrifying things. But St. John also received visions too beautiful and too glorious for the human mind to grasp: the awesome throne of the Living God, the victorious Lamb of our redemption, the worship of the angels, a sea of glass and streets of gold, a place where tears will never be known again, where the glory of God provides the light and the river of life flows bright as crystal. And John looked and saw “a great multitude, which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes with palm branches in their hands, crying out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”
These white-robed myriads are, of course, the Church triumphant—the saints who have gone before us into glory, who even now bow down in worship in the presence of the living God. “There are some of them who have left a name, so that men declare their praise,” in the words of Ecclesiasticus: Peter and Paul, Laurence and Vincent, Augustine of Hippo and Catherine of Siena, Francis of Assisi and Julian of Norwich—apostles and martyrs, theologians and mystics whose names will resound in memory until our Lord Jesus returns in glory. But there are others gathered in worship before the throne “who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not lived.” These, too, were men and women of mercy, “whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten” by their Savior. The distinctions of this world mean nothing to them now, bathed as they are in God’s radiant love. They “have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Their shepherd is the Lamb who lives even though He was slain. He guides them to springs of living water. God has washed the tears from their eyes, and they now see clearly who He truly is and who they truly are—the beloved elect of God, sealed upon their foreheads with His mark of ownership, conformed to the image of Christ by His never-failing love. They are the blessed who are comforted, the blessed who have obtained mercy, the blessed who see God.
The vision of the saints departed we discover in the Revelation to St. John is indeed glorious. And yet as we go about our daily lives the New Jerusalem can seem a very distant place. We don’t have much time to reflect on the praise choruses of Heaven while we are studying for exams, buying groceries, fixing a flat tire, or tending a sick child. And if you are grieving at the graveside of a loved one, it can seem as if an unfathomable chasm stands between Heaven and this fallen world we inhabit. And yet it is at times like these that we should turn to St. John’s visions more than ever. For they remind us that the supposed barrier between the Church militant in this world and the Church triumphant in Heaven is in fact tissue-paper thin.
In the Revelation to John the saints in glory cry out against the wrongs inflicted by the spiritual forces of darkness upon their brothers and sisters who remain in this world. The same clarity of heavenly vision that allows these saints to see God as He truly is, face to face, allows them to see you and me as we are now. And when they look at us they see family. At this very moment the saints in glory are lifting up holy hands in the throne room of Heaven on our behalf, for we are their loved ones. As St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Galatians, “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” A unity based in the risen life of Christ cannot be broken by physical death. It would never be allowed to endure separation. You and I, like the greatest of the saints who have gone before us, bear the indelible sign of God's ownership upon our brows, sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ's own, destined for an eternal life where we shall know God and enjoy Him forever.
The chasm that sometimes appears to separate Heaven and earth has in fact already been bridged by the wood of Christ’s cross and the nails that pierced His precious flesh. The curtains of sin and death that would block our vision of God have already been ripped asunder, as surely as the veil of the temple was torn in two as our Savior breathed His last on Calvary. The blood and water that flowed from the pierced side of Jesus on Good Friday even now flows into the font of Holy Baptism and the chalice of the Blessed Sacrifice of the Mass. The water in that little stainless steel bowl at the back of the church is in truth a few ounces of the river of life that flows through the New Jerusalem. The consecrated host that soon will rest upon our tongues is in reality a leaf from the tree of life, the food of new and unending life in Christ, given for the healing of the nations. So I ask you, friends, how can there possibly be a barrier between Heaven and earth? This very day, in this sacred place, you and I are already in the midst of heavenly things. And as we lift up our voices in the Sanctus a few minutes from now, angels and archangels and all the company of heaven—all the saints, both famous and unknown—will join their voices with ours to remind us of that fact. “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Host, Heaven and earth are full of thy glory. Hosanna in the highest!”
Now eight young people are about to join the ranks of those whose citizenship is in Heaven. They or their sponsors will make promises and we shall pray for them. Then Father Moore will pour blessed water on their heads in the name of the Holy Trinity and anoint them with a cross of consecrated oil. And they will be changed forever, their names written in the Lamb’s book of life. They will become new creations, adopted brothers and sisters of the King of the Universe, servants of the living God. They will share in Christ’s own life. For these children this is the day the Universe changes, transformed from a place of darkness and death to one of Light and Life. And there is joy in Heaven at this news.
Parents and sponsors, I charge you today: as you help these young people grow in the knowledge and love of God and the fellowship of Christ’s Church, never let them forget to whom they belong. They were bought with the price of Christ’s own blood. They are children of the promise, and they are of incalculable worth. Katie, you are old enough to remember these words yourself, but I hope that others will frequently remind you of them: "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever."
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.