A Multitude from Every Nation

November 1, 2020                      All Saints’ Day

Revelation 7:9-17                    Matthew 5:1-12


In the year 112, Pliny, the governor of one of the Roman provinces of what is now Turkey, wrote for instructions to the emperor Trajan. The problem was how to deal with Christians in his province, an issue he had no experience in. He was a just and learned man, and he wants to proceed properly.

“In the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians,” he writes “I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy surely deserve to be punished.
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition.”

This letter gives us a wonderful window into what it meant to be a Christian in the Roman empire. Pliny is no blood-thirsty emperor Nero, throwing Christians to the lions out of sheer cruelty. He is a reasonable, responsible governor – and that makes it all the more chilling with what indifference he has some executed, others tortured. These lives are worthless to him – they were simply unimportant to him, poor, not Roman citizens, slaves – lives that could be snuffed out without value or meaning.

Not twenty years earlier, in another province a couple of hundred kilometers to the south, another Christian fled an even more savage persecution. His friends and neighbours, the people with whom he shared in the joy of the gospel, had been dragged from their homes, beaten, mocked, raped, tortured, slaughtered. He has taken refuge on an island, hiding in the mountains, and he has put pen to paper to pour out his trauma and his rage and his grief and his love for the victims. His name, we are told, was John, and the pages he wrote would become the last book in our Bible.

“After this I 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. Then one of the elders addressed me, saying,‘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.”

I don’t know about you, but this is a passage that has always left me cold. It smacks too much of the sentimentality of Victorian hymns, of a view of heaven as an eternal old-fashioned Sabbath of hymn-singing and starchy white clothes. This multitude, these people, never seemed real for me, just faceless props in some huge cosmic triumphal show.

I was wrong. Because the thing is, for John these people were real. They had faces, and names, and voices, and dreams. There are Judith and Ezra, the Jewish couple who sold fruit at the market, where they were beaten by soldiers – now they are holding palm branches. There, right by the throne, are Chloe and Artemis, the two deaconesses, who were tortured to give information. There is Nestor, the old Greek tutor, who had known the apostle Paul – he looked the governor in the eye and spoke his faith aloud. There is Galba, the Nubian slave, a gentle giant, who would not let them take his dignity away from him, who would not recant the faith that set him free.

These, John claims, are the saints of God, these are the first in the kingdom of heaven, these are ones standing closest to the throne. Not the bold heroes of the faith, the scholars and preachers and missionaries and doctors. These are ordinary folk, most of them. They are the poor in spirit, those with the simple neighbourly caring of the poor. They are the meek, the ones who can so easily get crushed by the powerful and arrogant. They are the ones who mourn for all the pain and brokenness of the world, who hunger and thirst for justice, who strive to make peace. They may not have accomplished much, but their hearts are in the right place, they are with Jesus and the ones he calls his friends. And for that alone they have been cut down, brutally and mercilessly. Some of them were courageous and defiant – many of them were never even given that chance. They were in the way of progress, or the Roman empire, or someone’s path to the top, and so they had to die.

And when I really look at their faces, as they gather round the throne, I realize how wrong I have been about them. This is no pie in the sky when you die, no empty and childish promise made to keep the poor meek and submissive here on earth. That is what the powerful have made of it, because there is no end to their arrogance and cynicism. But at its root this vision is a passionate protest against the exploitation and abuse of the innocent, and insistence that if the world is to have any moral shape at all, then these people must not have died in vain. It is an act of revolutionary imagination, to see them in their rightful place by the throne of God, to see them so honoured who were dishonoured, so exalted who were so abused. It is a vision right at the heart of the great cry of rage and grief and ultimately hope that is the book of Revelation.

Take a moment and look at this crowd that surround the throne. Look past the white robes and palm branches, look into their faces. Perhaps you will recognize one or the other of them.

There, not far in front of the throne, stands Matthew Shepherd. Matthew, you may remember, was led out of town by two boys who pretended to be his friends, savagely beaten, chained to a fence and left to die, because they were uncomfortable that he was gay. He is robed in white now, holding a palm branch. There stand many with him, a great multitude, out of every nation.

And there is Emmett Till, beaten to death in Mississippi for smiling at a white woman, and Tamar Rice, a 12 year old shot for playing with a toy gun, and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and so many, a great multitude, shot and whipped and lynched over the centuries for the colour of their skin. Surely you can see them around the throne.

There is a great multitude standing there with yellow stars sewn to their clothes, so many, too many to count, of every nation and language, giving praise to the God of Israel.

There are the children – so many children – abused and trafficked in every nation, their bodies exploited, their souls crushed for the profit and lust of men more powerful than they. There they stand, robed in white, cradled by the love of God.

And there the children of the residential schools, robbed of their families, their language, their culture, robbed of tenderness and innocence and joy. The tears are scarcely dry on their faces, but they stand with palm branches in their hands, giving praise to their Creator who has redeemed them.

And so it goes on, multitude upon multitude, millions upon millions, too many to count, of every tribe and people and language, the meek, the mourning, the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the innocent who have suffered violence. These are the saints of God. The promises of God are for them, first and foremost, and they are first in God’s heart.

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 centre 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.’

But what about us? Do we have a place in God’s kingdom as well?

Of course we do. Of course we too are beloved, are treasured in God’s heart, are invited to join them. But here’s the thing, my friends: they are first in the kingdom, who were last here on earth. In God’s kingdom we are invited to follow them. And we have a choice to make. We have to take sides. In a world where so many choose to follow the successful, the comfortable, the arrogant, the powerful, and aspire to be with them, we are called to make the other choice. We choose to follow them, the humble and downtrodden, the victims, we choose to love them and care for them and fight for them. We choose the one who was crucified, we stand with him. Because that is the choice God has made. It is such a simple choice. But it may be that everything depends on it: the future of the world, and the health of our very souls.