Monday, November 2, 2015

Who are these clothed in white robes?

THE GREAT CLOUD OF WITNESSES
Revelation 7:2-8
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Then one of the presbyters addressed me, saying, "Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?"  Revelation 7:13

ALL SAINTS is a festival day of the church, a day set aside each year to thank God for giving us such a "great cloud of witnesses," and a day to exult in the blessed future we will share with them in heaven, in Christ.

It is an especially important day for Lutherans because we are so influenced by Puritanism that we don't think heaven is very populated.  We think of it as inhabited by God, some angels, and our deceased loved ones, but rarely do we give serious thought to St. John's vision, "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"

We don't give such things much consideration because we have never been taught to know the saints of the ages, those who endured torment and humiliating death rather an deny the name of Jesus.  To our shame we do not know the lives of Ignatius, Polycarp, Perpetua, Felicitas, Sebastian, Alban or Agnes, yet these names represent only the tiniest fraction of saints who, by their blood, advanced the one, true, saving faith to every corner of the globe so that we might sit here today, the beloved children of God by faith in the world's only Redeemer.

So it is only right that we should exchange our tiny vision for the beatific one that St. John reveals; that we should put aside parochial thoughts of "me and Jesus," or "me and Christ Lutheran Church" and by God's grace obtain the "strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge that you may be filled with all the fullness of God."  (Eph. 3:18)

What St. Paul speaks of in this verse happens each Sunday in the church, where we obtain a glimpse of what is happening in heaven, but not a vision only because we, the baptized people of God, are also privileged to play a most vital role in it.

As we have said before, people talk about "going to church on Sunday," but that does not begin to cover what is happening here because God has given us, the Church Militant, a privilege greater than even the Church Triumphant.  He has given us the exclusive mission of preaching the Gospel to all creation until the end of the age, not only to people but to angels, to demons, in short to all things visible and invisible, so that at the name of Jesus, spoken in the church's worship, every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth should bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

"Who are these clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?"  St. John asks the heavenly Presbyter.

Who indeed!  They are the believers of the ages who were willing to suffer and to die for the Holy Name.  They are the great "cloud of witnesses" (for that is what the word "martyr means) who taught the world by their death that there is only one Lord, one true faith, one baptism that delivers from death and the devil:  all others are impostors, but such exclusive claims were too much for the vain-glorious Roman Empire to bear, so it became the business of the State to extinguish this holy fire with ISIS-like cruelty so that Rome alone in all her magnificence and all her hubris might be the sole object of men's worship and of men's allegiance, but a strange thing happened!  The more they afflicted the church, the more she multiplied and grew!  The blood of the martyrs, far from extinguishing the holy faith, watered it, nourished it, and spurred it on as nothing else possibly could, until finally in the fourth century, in the dying words of Emperor Julian, "the Galilean conquered," and the one time persecutor of Christ became the conduit to spread the Good News to every corner of the globe.

"Who are these clothed in white robes?"  Martyrs, yes, but not only martyrs, for this Great Multitude that no one could count also includes believers who did not die for their Lord, but lived for Him; faithful followers who devoted their every effort to the service of their God.  Their lives were dedicated to worship, prayer, study, teaching and to beautiful works of charity that softened stony hearts, and taught them to love their God and Lord.  They healed the sick, clothed the naked, and fed the hungry and stood with the oppressed.  Among them are names like Ethylberga, Macrina, Collette, Paulinus, Gregory, Hilary, Brigitte, Martin (of Tours) and of recent memory Mother Theresa.  Among their most prized virtues were humility, poverty, chastity, fasting and other forms of self denial.

"Who are these clothed in white robes?"  They are martyrs, and the faithful of history, but the number also includes you.  In holy baptism you, too are clothed in the white robes of Christ's own righteousness.  Your sins are washed away by the blood of the Lamb shed on the cross, and taken to your lips in holy communion at the altar.

This being the case let us discard our ignorance of holy people and resolve to study, and to imitate the Great Multitude that no one could number, for we are part of it.  Let us be willing to give up our lives if need be, but if not our lives then for certain our sinful passions, vain pursuits, creature comforts, and the sins of the flesh that are so highly glorified and praised by the dead culture about us, so that we might, with clean hearts and clean hands, worship the Lamb upon the throne and be reckoned in that number that no one could count.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

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