“These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14).
The feast of All Saints celebrates the unknown saints; those who do not have their own day on the calendar. It highlights the tension between the historical and biblical meanings of the word, “saint.” Historically, the church came to identify certain luminaries of the faith and give them the formal title, “saint.” However, in the Bible each and every Christians is called a saint or holy one, for each Christian has been set apart by God and given the gift of the Holy Spirit.
One problem with the idea of saints as super hero Christians is that it makes them seem completely other than us. It rather common for Christians to say, “I’m no saint.” Yet, a person with the formal title of saint is merely another Christian who is a bit further down the path upon which we all are traveling. Apart from becoming saints, apart from becoming holy, we cannot attain to the resurrection and the life of the world to come. As Hebrews says, “Pursue…holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (12:14).
The tension between saints as a chosen few and saints as all of the chosen is brought out in the lesson from Revelation. St. John saw a hundred and forty four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel. They were sealed by God and, thus, saved from the judgment that is coming on the earth. A hundred and forty four thousand is a symbolic number. It represents the fullness of Israel. In the vision, the hundred and forty four thousand become “a multitude which no man can number of every nation and kindred and people and tongue.” This shows how, in Christ, the fullness of Israel has come to include people from every nation. The multitude which no man can number is the whole church; and each and every member is a saint or holy one.
St. John is told, “These are they which came out the great tribulation.” The symbolism and language of the passage suggests two meanings. On the one hand, these are they who have gone through some particular period of tribulation. On the other hand, these are every single Christian who attains to the glory of the world to come; for every Christian participates in the great struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil, and every Christian hopes to triumph through faith in Jesus Christ.
This passage suggests that holiness requires tribulation. The saints of the church always triumphed through opposition or adversity. They overcame an enemy, maintained their faith unto death or stood for truth again an onslaught of falsehood. In other words, these are not they who lived an easy and trouble free life. Holiness requires a battle.
We were visited recently by two holy men, Bishop Alan from South Africa and Bishop Wilson from South Sudan. Their ministries are full of stories of struggle against evil and opposition. In their daily ministries, they combat overt Satanism, active idolatry and militant foes. Through their ministries, Jesus is healing the sick, vanquishing demons and raising the dead.
Where is this battle to found in America? Where is the evil one here? Where is our great tribulation? The enemy’s presence here is more subtle. Our tribulation is precisely that the enemy is hiding. He is busy trying to convince us that there is no need to fight. Everything about our consumer and media culture teaches us to pursue a life of pleasure and ease; to eschew any agonizing struggle. Why would the devil bother with a frontal assault when he can buy us off for a few creature comforts or a little more convenience?
Our Apostolic friends from Africa brought us two distinct messages from God. Bishop Alan said, “God loves you very much.” Bishop Wilson said, “You need to fast and pray.” These are complementary messages. God loves us very much and wants much more for us than what we typically settle for. Therefore, we need to engage the battle against apathy, lethargy and compromise. We need to learn to hunger and thirst for righteousness.
The temptation in America is to use faith as way to manage life. Rather than renouncing everything and following Christ, we are tempted to keep everything and retain Jesus as a coach or manager. We will seek his aid or advice when needed and hasten to him in time of crisis; but we will retain the right to reject his counsel if it is too hard, and will also reserve the right to complain when we deem his crisis intervention to be insufficient. Our temptation is to be consumers of God rather than servants and worshipers.
We are planning a building project and a capital campaign. As we begin, God is reminding us that a larger building is only necessary for a greater and more far reaching ministry. And a greater ministry can only be carried out by a church that is prepared for it and willing to engage the battle in a more committed way.
God has great things planned for us. He has put us here to be a sorely needed witness for the faith once delivered to the saints at the just that time when our culture most needs it. He has put us here to call people to a deeper commitment and a more profound experience of the life of prayer; to call people to move beyond the shallow spirituality of our age and grow out of childhood and into maturity. The ministry to which God is calling us must begin with our own renewal in the faith. We must fast and pray and gird ourselves for the battle.
We have set aside Wednesday as a day of fasting and prayer in our church. We are asking our members to fast and pray together for renewed repentance and increased faith. Let us each fast and pray and ask, what needs to change in my life? What is God calling me to do? What is my part in this ministry? Let us pray that God will show us how to reach out in new ways, and will send people to us who can be saved and brought to maturity through our ministry. Let us pursue holiness and fulfill our vocation to become what we are—the saints or holy ones of God.