Although on the landing page for this stand-alone service, we recommend to look to the Service of Death and Resurrection for insight into this All Saints Day worship experience, you are not preaching a eulogy. This is the time for a proclamation of the Word in a way that brings hope to a congregation struggling with loss and uncertainty and a nation divided by fear and hate. This is the time to speak of the promise of the kin-dom, of the gathering of the people of God into a fellowship of peace and comfort. This gathering is not just for “us” as opposed to “them.” This is a gathering of all tribes and peoples and languages, singing praise to the one who is their unity and their hope. That’s what you proclaim this day.
You might, however, choose to do it through the very real lives lost since the last All Saints celebration. You might do it with their stories and their witness. Perhaps there are those in that number who can serve as an example of acceptance and inclusion. Perhaps there are those who have, through their suffering or their labor, brought a sign of redemption into the consciousness of the community of faith. “These are they who have come through a great ordeal,” you might say, “who have borne witness to the goodness of God even as they struggled in their lives.”
The “this” that our passage comes after is the numbering of the saved (or the “sealed”) from the twelve tribes of Israel: the one hundred forty-four thousand that you might have heard referred to a time or two before. In fact, you have heard some say that there are only 144,000 in heaven. That is why you have to pay attention and make sure you got your number! Those folks obviously stopped reading before verse nine of chapter seven: “A great multitude no one could count” seems to be pretty inclusive.
Then we have the question from the elder. “Who are these?”
Did he not know? Was it a device to test John? Or was it just a way of starting a conversation? “Who are these?” Turns out they are those who have found their way into the kingdom. But it wasn’t a walk in the park. It took some doing, some effort, some struggle on their part.
The elder, when he at last recognizes them, or checks the program, or reveals what he knows all along, says that this multitude has come through a great ordeal. Older versions called it the tribulation. Some say it points to a specific event, having to do with the end times, the last battle, or the suffering that comes along with it. Others say that it is the ordeal of living in uncertain times. Maybe it refers to something cataclysmic and world-encompassing, or maybe it refers to ordeals like those we read about in our newspapers or see listed in our prayer chains – ordeals of illness or infirmity, ordeals of abuse or victimization, ordeals of hunger and poverty, ordeals of . . . well, you fill in the blank. There are so many ordeals, so many struggles, large and small, out there in the world. So, it may be the sum of all of them that add up to the great ordeal that the elder speaks of in verse fourteen.
“But wait,” you say, “it has to be more than just survival, more than just getting through whatever the struggles are.” And you would be right. They came through, the elder tells us, and they washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. That is one little indicator that you can’t take this literally! Washing robes in blood won’t make them white. So, what does it mean?
Blood, in the Bible, usually means life, sometimes a life of sacrifice. This multitude, then, are the ones who put on the life of the Lamb. St. Paul is always telling us to put on our faith, to put on the attributes of Christ, to put on the fruit of the Spirit. These are the ones who put on Christ, put on his life, and lived it as though it were their own. The lived it in front of any and all, particularly those in need. They lived and worked for the benefit of others.
They are the ones who cared for you, the ones who loved you. On All Saints Day, they are the ones we remember – those who loved and cared and now are no longer there to do so. Some of those we have missed will come again when we gather. But there are many of those white-robed saints who aren’t coming home. And they have left a hole in our midst; they have left tasks for others to do. They have given an example that someone has to pick up. They have left caring that others need to do.
In other words, it is our time in the laundry room. We wash our robes in the blood, in the life and witness and example of the Lamb, and then we put that witness on and begin to look like him and act like him. And love like him. And comfort like him. That’s the promise; and that’s the hope: That all that divides us, all that terrorizes us, all that wounds us will be gone. And the unity of the Spirit will be unity indeed.
Who are these? These are they who we remember. And they are we.