Sunday, November 5, 2017

Saintly Multitude

Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-3

As we think about saints this week, I am reminded of this story which always tugs at my heart. The year is 203, and the persecutions in Africa are going strong and nasty. Perpetua was a 22-year-old woman with an infant son. She was arrested for refusing to give up her belief in Jesus. She was baptized before being taken to prison, which apparently was a dark dungeon.

Some deacons from the church and her father were able to get her moved to a place where there was some light, and she was able to have visitors and keep her baby with her. Her father begged repeatedly for her to recant her faith and be released, but she was determined to trust in Jesus.

The time came for her and others who were arrested with her to face the gladiators. The others all died, but the gladiator’s sword didn’t kill her. She reached for it and plunged it into her own body.

… It is for the women and men with faith like Perpetua’s that we observe All Saints Day or All Saints Sunday. It is also for those who entered the deserted places to let God work in their hearts more deeply than they found possible in a busy city. It is for church reformers like Benedict, and Francis and Clare, and Martin Luther, and Rev. Doctor Martin Luther King. It is also for those who died defending our rights as a nation.

To adapt the verse in Revelation from the first century to our time: Saints are from all ages, from every tribe and nation and language and color, every size and ability and gender and age.

The verses before these in Chapter 7 even include the Jews! In years 66-70, the Jews in Jerusalem revolted against Rome, fighting a losing battle against such a powerful enemy. In the year 70, the city, including the temple, was destroyed. Jews who survived were hunted down and killed. It was a frightening time to live.

Both Jews and Christians refused to worship the emperor. It is likely that their neighbors reported them to the authorities for several reasons: because they mistrusted those who were different, because they wanted to gain ownership of their land, or because they wanted to add to their own political reputation.

All around the Mediterranean Sea coast, communities of Jews and Christians were being rounded up and sent to the arena to battle animals and gladiators. The Book of Revelation was written around 70-75CE by John of Patmos. It is intended to offer hope and encouragement to those who are enduring persecution because of their faith.
Yet, because of the persecutions, John needed to be cautious in his use of words, names, and locations. Today, scholars are still puzzling out what some of his images meant in that time, but we know that he used Babylon as a symbol for Rome, 666 as a numerical code for Emperor Nero, and the Lamb for Jesus.

When life is hard, when we feel like these ancient sisters and brothers that we are suffering an ordeal, we look to stories and other words of encouragement. The main point of the Book of Revelation is that Jesus will win in the end, and because of that, we are to maintain our faith in him.

… John of Patmos tells us he looked and saw a great multitude. All week, I have been thinking about a saintly multitude. I began with my own memories of those I have loved who are now part of that saintly multitude: grandparents, parents, godmother, brother, friends, a few special parishioners. With each name I add, I grieve some, but I also give thanks.

When I begin to list them all, they form a small multitude of beloved saints. I have learned from these saints, different things from each one. But they all taught me about faith in Jesus.

Martin Luther taught us that saints are not just those who have died. In Greek, the word for saints refers to all believers, living and dead. Living saints teach us about Jesus’ love and forgiveness. We are also living saints who teach others about Jesus’ love and forgiveness.

Some of my living saints are my Wednesday lunch friends, Malala Yousafzai, and Bishop-elect Pedro Suarez. I also include Mattress Mack of Houston, TX, who invited those who lost their homes in Hurricane Harvey to sleep on the mattresses in his warehouse. I give thanks for these saints, and pray God’s blessings on them.

We are God’s beloved children. We are not perfect, but we are loved by God and by other saints.

Who are the saints in your life? Are they living or dead? What have they taught you? When you list them, do they make up a small multitude? For whom are you a saint?

Please pray with me: Holy One, we ask for your comfort today as we remember those we have loved who are gone from our midst. We remember parents, siblings, friends. We also take a moment to give you thanks for those living saints in our lives, who share your love with us. And we ask that you lead us to be saints for others. Amen