The three readings for All Saints day (Rev 7:9-17, 1 John 3:1-3 and Matt 5:1-13) each lean forward to the end of time and heaven.
Revelation was a pastoral letter written in the mid-90s from Patmos, an island in the Mediterranean, to support communities that were suffering from sporadic repression and persecution.
This passage, inspired by a vision, is part of a long scene in the heavenly throne room in which the Lamb is opening seven seals of a mysterious scroll. While we may find this an unfamiliar form of literature, it is, perhaps, akin to science fiction in the sense that we don’t look at it as literally true, but as a way of telling us about ourselves and our relationships, under different conditions.
Sunday’s passage begins,
There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.
People from all over the earth had come to the throne of the Lamb, who is Christ. Their white robes and palm branches signified worship and praise.
And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
The scene describes a sense of majesty, praise and awe.
All the angels…the elders… and the four living creatures….fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Scholars debate the meaning of the great tribulation. It could be the current troubles and local persecutions of it could be some greater ‘war on Christians’. The letter’s audience would have read their own difficulties into the words.
As a result of their faithfulness during these tribulations they will receive God’s protection and reward.
“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
The author cites Isaiah 49:10 with its repeated promise of never again.
‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
Again the author evokes both Isaiah (25:8) when he said the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, but also Jesus in John 4:10 when he promised living water to the Samaritan woman at the well. To a persecuted community these reminders from both Isaiah and Jesus would have provided encouragement.
The promise of heaven also appears clearly in the second reading from 1 John 3:2. The writer tells the people, we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
The promise of heaven is also clear in Matthew’s account of the beatitudes. (Matt 5:1-12)
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…
Echoing the reassurances of heaven to the persecuted communities to whom Revelation was addressed … (or perhaps Revelation was reflecting this story of the beatitudes) Matthew reports that Jesus said,
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
There is much, much more in the beatitudes, but the promise of the heaven, (which is also a synonym for God in this usage) is repeated.
- Have you ever experienced any negative consequences for being a Christian? Has someone scheduled an event on Sunday morning when you had planned to attend church and chided you with something like “couldn’t you skip it just once?” Have friends or family turned down your invitation to come to Christmas or Easter services because they “don’t do religion”?
- What is your personal image of heaven? Many people have a vague picture, one that was formed in childhood, of a place that did not ‘grow up’ as they matured. It may even have been formed by recollections of passages from Revelation, and been populated by people standing around in strange clothes singing boring hymns. It may be worth renovating this image to reflect a more dynamic, beautiful, joyful and healthy place.
- What is your hope for heaven? Is it to be reunited with loved ones who have died? Is it to be healthy? Will heaven be a place of happiness and freedom from concern? Is heaven a place to ask Jesus questions about his life on earth and whether the events took place as described? Maybe it is an opportunity to explore the cosmos with its Creator and understand its wonders.