God Empowers us as his Saints
Sermon preached at the Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by The Rev. Thomas C. Pumphrey, November 1, 2020
All Saints Sunday, Year A: Revelation 7:9-17; 1 John 3:1-7; Matthew 5:1-12
Revelation 7:9-17: After this I, John, looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
“For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
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.”
Today is the Feast of All Saints. We remember those Christians who have gone before us in the faith, and who now rejoice in the nearer presence of God. We remember those saints that the Church titles as saints—those whose lives have been special examples to the faithful over the centuries. And we remember the everyday saints—saints like each of you. The saints are God’s holy ones, and God empowers us as his saints.
The word “saints” is used in the New Testament to describe all Christians. It means “holy ones,” those who have been set apart—sanctified, we call it. We are sanctified by God, set apart by God to bear witness to his grace and love in the world. Saints, according to the Bible, are not only those with heroic stories of unique Christian virtue. Saints are all Christians. We are holy not because we are perfect (we are not perfect). We are saints because God makes us his saints. God makes us holy by his grace—his gift of love to us. And God empowers us as his saints.
The saints of the early church were Christians who were living in a hostile Roman Empire. The Jews rejected them, and the pagans rejected them. The government persecuted them because they would not worship everyone else’s gods too—including worshipping the emperor. So they were constantly challenged to live in a foreign and hostile world, different and set apart, and constantly facing barriers, struggles and mistreatment.
Among them were great leaders, or those known for their virtue and love for the Lord. But among them too were ordinary Christians, those who said their prayers every day, who were faithful in sharing in the worship of Jesus each week, who taught others the faith and who lived the faith by their devotion to God and their service to those in need. Even the titled saints we know were often ordinary Christians whose lives were so well practiced in faithfulness that when push came to shove, they were able to stand without buckling under pressure. And when it might even cost them their lives, they were pleased to say, with joy, “I am a Christian.”
These are the holy ones, not because they did something super-human. These are the holy ones because God loved them as he loves us, and they responded by embracing that love each day. When the moment of crisis came for them, faithfulness was well-practiced, natural, easy even, and joyful to do, even at great cost. God empowers us as his saints.
This is the image in today’s first reading from the Revelation to John. Jesus shows John a vision of the heavenly throne room. While the faithful struggle in pagan Rome, the faithful departed share in singing God’s praises. These are those who have come out of the great ordeal, dressed in robes washed by Jesus’ sacrifice for them. Their struggles are over, they worship God day and night, with every tear wiped from their eyes as they await the resurrection.
The message of Revelation, especially to those who still struggle in our earthly pilgrimage, is a reminder that God has the victory! Despite the power of Rome or the powers of our own time, God already has the victory over sin and death. Our struggles are only a small part of the life God gives us. So we labor patiently, waiting for the fulfilment of God’s victory, and joining with God in bringing and finding God’s blessing in the world. This is where the lives of the saints shine. We share with those who have gone before us the joy of God’s victory, even in the midst of the challenges of this life. God empowers us as his saints.
On the Feast of All Saints, we remember in particular those saints that we knew in our own lives. Family and friends who have died before us. We remember them not for some heroic human achievement, some world-renowned accomplishments. Mostly, we remember them for the small things in their lives done well and done often. We remember the durability of their relationship with us, the way in which their daily lives left a lasting impact on who we are. We look back on our loved ones realizing that is was the daily virtues, the integrity out of public view that was so memorable, their walk with God at home that gave witness to the truth of God.
God empowered them as his saints. And God empowers us as his saints. God empowers us when we gather as the church, and God empowers us at home, where we can find God in our daily lives. The Christian life is not about human achievement, but about God’s grace in us. God empowers us as his saints. Yes, we need to respond to God, but being saints is first about what God does in us: making us his holy ones, empowering us as his saints, each day, at home, where we are in our daily journey.
Each day, we as Christians struggle to do the right thing. We don’t always get it right, of course, but at our best we really do try to embrace God’s calls to us. We try to do our schoolwork each day. We labor to keep a job. We strive each day to support kids in a pandemic—or to support our parents in a pandemic—or both! We strive to figure out the changing COVID rules and follow them as best we can. We labor to figure out the best choices in an election.
Our loved ones made a difference in their ordinary daily lives. So it is in our relationship with God. We can find God at home and wherever we are. And God is with us there—empowering us with his Holy Spirit not because we’ve earned it, but because God loves us. We often find God in the small things, in every day life. Though we might learn to recognize God when we worship and pray together, we often find God at home, discovering the God of sacred spaces to be the God who walks with us in our daily lives too. Each day, God empowers us as his saints.
We honor those who have gone before us—those great saints that the church remembers together, and those countless saints too many to number—those saints who walked with you and with me as humble and faithful Christians, bringing God’s grace to us, participating with God as God empowers us as his saints.
All these daily efforts that we engage, all this desire to be saints is not about self-improvement or gaining accolades. Rather the Christian life is about participating in the joy that Jesus brings. Jesus came to free us from our sins, to empower us with his Holy Spirit to live a new life with God, a life with joy and hope even in struggles we don’t understand. The message of Revelation is that in Christ, God already has the victory. Jesus brought new life to those loved ones who have gone before us, and Jesus has already brought us new life He invites us to enjoy that new life with him each day. Each day, God empowers us as his saints.