…And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them (Revelation 7:14-15).
Every All Saints’ Day, we hear chapter 7 from St. John’s vision of Christ’s complete victory over evil. At this point in his life, St. John was dying in exile on the isle of Patmos, but it should be no surprise to us that the apostle whom Jesus loved would be gifted with this intense experience of His resurrected friend and master’s reign over time and space, heaven and earth. Who else but the one apostle who didn’t abandon Jesus at the cross, the apostle who held his blessed mother while humanity murdered her son, who else but he should be blessed with the unending waves of comfort which can only come from perfectly knowing that the suffering church is the triumphant church. If we wanted to give a one sentence summary of Revelation, we could do much worse than this one: the suffering church is the triumphant church. Revelation is first and foremost the church’s book of hope and comfort because the church is the Body of Christ, and our persecution and suffering are His persecution and suffering just as His resurrection and glory are our resurrection and glory. St. John has gifted the church with a book which grounds every aspect of history in the lordship of Christ, and so we begin today with a question chapter 7 is answering: who can stand in the great day of God’s wrath?
St. John hears this question on the lips of “kings of the earth…great ones…generals…the rich and powerful, and everyone, slave and free.” This cross-section of humanity dramatically calls for mountains and rocks to fall on them rather than face the just wrath of the Lamb (a symbolic term for Jesus Christ). Throughout chapter six, this Lamb—rejected by men but loved by God—opens a series of seals which gradually reveal the chastening hand of God against an evil world. These tumults are not limited to the end of the world but occur throughout the age between Christ’s ascension and His glorious return: the second Advent in which the Lamb will forever purge this world of evil. The persecuted church, the church of every age, is meant to draw immense comfort from seeing the unrest and turmoil of the world as not a failure of God’s protection, but as a necessary consequence of God’s campaign to rid the world of pain and sadness and suffering and death. Christians will inevitably be caught up in this judgment of the world; we will suffer and die as the mad, rebellious world learns just what it means to be at war with our Creator, what it means to side with the men who murdered God the Son by joining them in their sin and trespasses and death.
The hard part for the church in the comfortable West is that nowhere does St. John say our membership in Christ’s church will protect us from physical danger. We simply are not entitled to go through life unscathed just because we’ve had our attendance card punched; in fact, Jesus promises the exact opposite in today’s Gospel reading, “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven…” (St. Matthew 5:11-12). Jesus doesn’t say “if” we are reviled and persecuted, but “when,” and when we are persecuted we are to rejoice and be glad about it because we share in the reward Christ Himself has revealed in His resurrection and enthronement in heaven. The terror of pain and death has been forever banished from our hearts because Christ’s victory is the stored up treasure of the saints even when we are being ripped apart by bullets or cancer, depression or addiction. The comfort from St. John’s vision does not come from the modern idea that we will be spared from tribulation because God loves us so much (how could it when the Father’s beloved Son suffered so much, the Son who tells us to pick up a cross and follow Him); no, our abiding comfort rises up from perfectly knowing that our future has been secured by Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the Cross. We have been bought out of our slavery to sin and death, and even if our former slave owner finds us and murders us, we will die free men.
And so, we see nothing but free men today in St. John’s vision of heaven, but because our freedom has been established by Christ’s ransoming death, this freedom is exemplified, in this life, not by a selfish, individualistic pursuit of our own desires—this would only be appropriate if we have saved ourselves; rather, those who will survive the cleansing justice of God are those who bear the seal of their redeeming God on their foreheads. St. John’s imagery is of a slave bearing the mark of his master, and our comfort with sainthood being equated with slavery is an excellent test of how much we believe we are indebted to the Lamb. If we truly recognize just how lost and blind and terrible we are without God, then it simply makes sense that we would gladly put ourselves under His yoke while we navigate this mad and crazy world, but if we think we’ve got everything under control, then we will inevitably bristle at the idea that holiness in this life will look like submitting ourselves to the perfect freedom known only by serving God. We will choose self-rule, self-righteousness, and self-love, and we will choose the death which comes with them.
The other heavenly analogy used to describe the church triumphant is of an army being assembled for battle. Those who’ve been in the military know their isn’t really much difference between a bondservant and a soldier. In chapter seven, St. John hears the numbering of Israel’s tribes, a census which recalls the one for which the book of Numbers is named—at that time, a mustering of God’s people as they prepared to invade the promised land; here, a symbolic roll call of God’s new covenant people assembling themselves for the last battle, praying before the new Joshua as He prepares for His second coming. These holy warriors carry palms symbolizing the feast of tabernacles, originally, a remembrance of God’s protection in the first wilderness wandering; here, the saints praise and honor the God who has protected their faith as they made their way through the wilderness and tribulation of our world—a wilderness and tribulation you and I experience ever day of our lives. St. John hears this roll call and turns to see an innumerable army ready to go to war for the blessed eternal union of heaven and earth. Even on an island of exile St. John is not cut off from this faithful army preparing to stamp out evil forever—neither are we.
St. John presents us then with an image of heaven so very far removed from some imaginary place of lounging or interminable harp playing; rather, heaven is shown to be the great throne room of God where our brothers and sisters in Christ stand ready to welcome us home to Christ’s army of liberation. What’s more, these images of a holy servant army are not the end of our existence. Importantly, the reward for our faithful and reasonable service, our trust in God, goes beyond even this high calling. Those who bear the seal are those who are already co-heirs with the Lamb, which means of course that the Lamb’s inheritance is our inheritance: we are heirs to the new heaven and the new earth, the new earth Christ and the saints are bringing to us. Which raises the question, what trinket or desire or possession or sin could possibly replace an inheritance which includes eternity and all its contents? What responsibility or love could distract us from our solemn duty and privilege to serve the Lord? “Nothing,” is the answer to both questions. All that we are or ever will be is a gift of God’s grace, all that is worth loving is that which we can love in eternity.
Our lives then, in the here and now, should be a daily preparation for the future glory which awaits us; our lives, the lives we should be praying for every day, are to be a mirror image of our brothers and sisters in heaven. Everything we have been brainwashed by our wounded culture into thinking is essential will be nothing when we are either handed a white robe or given one more chance to madly fight our Creator and His saints. There is a beautiful cosmic fairness to being granted in the next life that which we loved the most in this life. But, in truth, there isn’t anything fair about the Lamb of God giving his life that we might wear white robes cleansed in His blood; there is nothing remotely fair about Almighty God’s knit together elect receiving an otherworldly and terrifying love we cling to as humanity’s only hope. God’s people are called to be saints, and it is our duty to follow that calling even as we fall down and skin our knees and blacken our eyes and fail again and again and again. We will struggle and suffer in our struggle, but let us never confuse trying and failing with an adulterous love for the dying things of this world. There is no hope in them, as we see today, all hope resides solely in the Lamb and the new world His resurrection guarantees.
So, today and every day, let us band together and march through the pain and suffering of this present darkness. Let us be a beaten but never defeated reflection of the heavenly army waiting on the other side of the Jordan. Even now, as you prepare to be united with them through Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, remember you are closer to the washed and waiting saints then you are to any person in our confused and alienated world. You are closer to eternity, closer to the church triumphant then our limited imaginations can even dream. For the sake of your family, your neighbor, and your enemy, may your union with Christ inspire you as it inspired all God’s holy ones; may the glory of the saints in light shine forth in every moment of your life; may you be a saint, and may we be the suffering and triumphant church together.