The Belonging of the Saints (Intro)
It is your first day of university, after seven years you have left the comfort of school, enjoyed the summer that you hoped that would never end, and now you find yourself sitting alone in the “freedom” that is yours. The morning of Freshers-Fare and you head to the venue to search (somewhat awkwardly) as you moving between stalls, people, and places – looking for something: but what? Perhaps, it is your first day of work, you have finally got the job you wanted! Thus, on your first day (in a pre-covid world) you enter into the office, seated with the new starts, then moving around people and places; all the time looking for people like you – Why?. Consider even what it must be like if you have moved to a new town. On that first night in new space: you look for a gym, football club, or maybe even a church via google. Places where you can go to find that one thing we are all looking for. What is it? Belonging. Whether a student in freshers fair, a junior in a corporation, a fresh start in a new town: at some point in our lives we have all found ourselves searching for a place to belong and people to belong with.
Belonging in a Distant World
These last seven months of lockdown, social distancing, face masks and isolation have only heightened our awareness of our desire for belonging. Add into the mix new lockdowns and darkening nights the urgency of the community has never seemed greater. We are enteral students in the fresher week seeking our own tribe. A search that we often struggle in, because, it confronts that most basic lie of our culture: the lie of fulfilment via the self. Thus, to search for belonging is to admit that there is something we need that comes from no just one other, but the community of others. Belonging is the opposite of loneliness and is not only something we desire but something we need. As Amanda Enyata wrote:
“as humans, we need to belong. To one another, to our friends and families, to our culture and country, to our world. Belonging is primal, fundamental to our sense of happiness and well-being.”1
Consider the time, money, and effort we spend to belong throughout our lives: Sports, politics, work, hobbies, charity, the gym, family. All radically different things, yet, at some level they are all places of belonging lived out. Sports teams have strips, political parties have colours and ideology. We give ourselves to them because, in them, we find community and belonging. Why? because belonging has power and to feel belonging affects how we act and live in the world:
“a sense of social belonging can affect motivation and continued persistence, even on impossible tasks. That is, if you don’t feel like you belong, you are both less motivated and less likely to hang in there in the face of obstacles.”2
A Day Of Belonging
This weekend marks All Saints Day in the Church Calendar. A weekend in which (if we are honest) we are probably more familiar with its eve. Yet All Saints Day is an important day in the calendar of the Church of Ireland and the global because it calls us to stop, pause and remember that we are a people who belong to something beyond our comprehension. We, as the people of God gathered today are a people who belong to something beyond our context, culture, class, time or understanding! That belonging should both encourage and empower us. As Screwtape put it as he wrote to Woodworm, we are a people who belong to: “the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity.”
As they belong of God our belonging is in God, and All Saints day reminds us of what we belong. Then to give thanks for, and consider the example of those who have gone before us, yet, belong with us now! Thus, our passage today from Revelation 7 is one of belonging. A passage full of the hope and challenge as we remember about the diversity of our belonging, the foundational assurance, the cry of our belonging, the future of our belonging and then we are called to consider do we belong and if we do how does it impact our lives?
Passage – Revelation 7:10-17 NIV
After this I looked, and 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.10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” 11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, 12 saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God forever and ever. Amen!” 13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” 14 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. 15 Therefore, “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. 16 ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb at the centre 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.’ ”
The Diversity of the Saints (9)
In 2018 I wanted to take some time away and enjoy teaching, community, and worship in a different context: I love travelling, and I love that sense of being part of a global church. I was blessed that around the time I was looking for something, there was a conference in happening that offered everything in Belgrade, Serbia. Serbia is not exactly a popular place to travel to for city breaks from Ireland, so half the fun was going to finding flights to get there that did not empty was little was in my account! After searching, I finally booked my three day trip to Belgrade (flying there via Dublin, London, Bucharest, Belgrade and home via Amsterdam and Dublin).
Why do I tell this story? Simple: When I consider that time, I am reminded of the diversity of the Saints: as great as the teaching was, for me the most encouraging and challenging aspect of that day was the company. To sit beside, sing along with, listen to sermons, pray and share stories with brother and sisters from across Europe was one of the most powerful experiences ministries. On those days, I see the global, diverse Church of Christ incarnate as the Saints of God gathered from across Europe. The Saints of God that span time, nation and ethnicity. Thus, I as heard stories of bombings in turkey, or struggles with the government that Armenia pastors faced weekly, even the fact that a group of pastors had hired a car and driven for three days to get there; it was in those moments and conversations that Passages like Revelation 7:9-17 came alive. Our belonging is not defined by our denomination, our parish, or our theology. If we are those who are in Christ are belonging is defined by Jesus and that belonging joins us together with brothers and sisters across the world whether within the Anglican Church or parts of other networks – we worship the same God, and we serve the same purpose. This the diversity of saints called by God to his cause across time and space.
The Heavenly Multitude
In Revelation 7:9 we see the diversity of the saints gathered together as the journey of the saints reaches its culmination before the throne of God. Such was the scene that John almost struggled to put it into words, his eyes cannot comprehend the fullness of what he sees: the gathered people of God from every nation, tribe, people and language standing together before the throne of God as one in praise of God. It is the people of God gathered before the throne of God moving towards God! What an image of what is to come for the children of God as all the Saints of God are gathered together each week in the church whether that is online or in person, without fear of one another or socially distant. Today we live out the diversity of the saints by gathering, and in the days to come, we will know the fullness of that gathering and belonging as we come before God.
The imagery in verse nine acts as both as assurance and a challenge. Our Assurance is that imagery of culmination: that God sets into motion he will see through – gathering his children from across time and space, regardless of ethnicity, state, possessions, positions, or power under his care. The Challenge, We belong to diverse people. Thus we must ask the question of how diverse is our current contextual belonging? Do we marvel in the diversity or the potential of diversity, or does the thought of such things cause us to shutter? That which will be true to come must be true today in our own context: as a church, we must seek to live out that heavenly reality now. Thus, we must consider what diversity looks like in our context, worship, and mission. Are the saints around us in our church family carbon copies of us, or a place where gospel diversity is practised and preached. What does this mean? It means that our churches are places where everyone is welcome regardless of their political beliefs, ethnicity, social status or economic factor. Furthermore, we seek to be a place where all can come to know the beauty of Christ and relationship with him; then grow in that relationship through community and service regardless of any earthly factor (giving, ethnicity, political influence, national identity). Additionally, it means that the only factors we should employ when trusting people with leadership or responsibility in the gathered Saints of God are where they stand with Jesus and the fruits that are bearing in their lives.
The Church of Jesus Christ is uniform in what binds us: the Grace of Christ as received through the cross and the dwelling of the Holy Spirit, yet, we are diverse in practice. Morning prayer looks very different in Banbridge that compared to Nigeria, Kenya, or even England – yet, it is worship offered to the same God. Additionally, as the people of God, we support the work of God in diverse situations. That means today we are mindful of our brothers and sisters who find themselves in different and difficult situations and seek to support with them in both spiritually and practically. Whether that means lifting an offering for our link diocese in South Sudan to help them through covid, or praying for our brothers and sisters in Albany as they continue to wrestle with the fall out of Bishop Love – the saints of God support the diversity of the saints because together we are fulfilling the work of God.
The Assurance and Response of All the Saints (10-12)
In 5:9 we learn that the Lamb of God is worthy to open the scroll of God because he shed his redemptive blood for every tribe, language and nation. Now In Revelation 7, all the Saints have arrived! To belong is to identify with a group, people, or place and often requires something from us. Perhaps, we have to earn our belonging through deed or simply paying membership fees: An act that allows us to gather, and gives us the confidence that in those moments of belonging we are welcome, wanted and deserving of being there. That might be the foundation or earthly ideas of belonging, yet in the Kingdom of God and for all the saints gathered in Revelation we are sure of one thing – they are not thereby their own effort!
“And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” – Revelation 7:10 NIV
The saints of God are moving towards the throne of God and praising God for the mercy they have received through the withholding of judgment and the Grace they have received through the shedding of the blood of the lamb to allow the people of God to enter the presence of God. The NLT describes the scene as the gathered people of God shouting with a great roar. They have grasped the beauty of Grace and the gift they received in their belonging: that through no effort of their own have then been able to come before God without the blemish of Sin (dressed in white) and give him the praise that is due to him. Furthermore, as John writes here, his choice of language suggests more than the simple saving of people as an act of God but the final victory of God. The people of God are praising him for his saving them, and the final victory of God over Satan and evil.
Salvation Belongs to God
This is the assurance of faith, and the foundation of belonging for all the saints: “There is nothing we can do earn it or achieve it.” Is not ours by right, privilege, power, or blood. No, salvation comes only through the blood of Christ. Such is the wonder of this gift that the Angelic hosts of heaven respond to the praise of the gathered saints in agreement: “Amen!” They then add further truth to the cry of the Saints as they respond to the praise of the people reminding all who will listen about just how good God is. That he is worthy of all the praises creation can bring because he is all-wise, all-powerful, all strong, and all Glorious.
The foundation of our belonging is that we don’t deserve it! Yet, we gladly receive it because God is good, and through the lamb, he calls his children to himself. Not only is this our foundation, but it is also our assurance amid the storms of life – that the gathered people of God will one celebrate the victory of God because God is all-wise, all-powerful, and all strong! That which he sets in motion for each of us today – our walk with Jesus – he will see-through. Let us make sure of three things, that we have grasped the foundation of our belonging: Grace and no effort; that we have grasped the wonder of God and the work of the Lamb; and that above our else that perspective of our belonging gives context and meaning in all things.
The Journey and Joy of All the Saints (13-17)
Often those we group with are those we chose to journey with: At university, the CU may be that safe place where we find like-minded people to weather the storms, chaos, confusions and joys of those years; in work, it might be those people we end up taking our break’s at the same time as. People with together we move forward.
The Process of a Journey
I remember heading for a hike with a group of friends. A night’s camping and then a hike up Slieve Commedagh. We arrived and set up camp and enjoyed the craic that came from belonging, the anticipation about what was ahead the next day. Yet, soon the weather changed, and suddenly we found ourselves sitting in the snow! That change in weather changed the mood, as everyone withdrew to the tents with the hope that the morning might bring a different picture. The morning looked different, just not the different we wanted! As we awoke to what looked like the beginning of an arctic expedition. Most people were not in the mood for a hike; it was cold, damp, and we had barely slept because of the howling wind, so to have to walk up and down Commedagh just seemed pointless. As someone then commented: “there will not even be a view at the top.” Eventually, we got going at a trudging pace, there was not much banter of chat as the more we seemed to walk the worse the weather seemed to get! After an hour or so we seemed to find our pace and camaraderie; we realised we were in this together and so we choose together to move forward and make it to the top. The weather did not shift as we shuffled our way up the steep that seemed to never end. Add to that we had no real sense of our position because we could only see about 6ft in front! After what seemed like an age, we reached the top, and you could sense the relief as we got out our cooking equipment and started the process of making something warm.
Amazingly as we sat there the sun began to peek through the fog, then the cloud slowly began to lift, and we could see some blue sky above us, soon the horizon was clearing, and suddenly we could see as far as our eyes would travel. It was in that moment we felt like we have arrived and all the tiredness and frustration seemed to evaporate, it was the destination that made sense of the journey together. Furthermore, it was in belonging that we were able to travel together – to complete the challenge and it was the journey that increased are a sense of belonging.
A Journey of Formation (13-14)
In verse 13, after they have surveyed the multitude of the saints and watched as they and the multitude of the heavens have worshipped God one of the elders there with John turns to him and asks him a question about the journeying and belonging: “These in White Robes – who are they, and where did they come from?” It is a rhetorical question asked to hammer home the truth has already been a witness and the reality of the people’s journey. They are both those who have proved themselves in the journey, by coming out of a period of great hardship and suffering (the tribulation) and those who are there through no effort of their own. Robes washed and made white in the blood of the lamb – A picture of the imputed righteousness of Christ.
Here in the heavens before the throne of God stands a people who have journeyed together, even though they perhaps have never known each other, as they have walked in the faithfulness of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about the Kingdom of God. It was through belonging to Christ; they were able to walk, and it was in walking through all that life would throw that their belonging made sense. Now, as they stand in the throne room of heaven their journey has reached its culmination, not in the self-sense, they have not reached nirvana nor the ultimate place of self-improvement, but in a communal sense the people of God have reached the throne room of God to bask in the presence of God and serve him.
Understanding the Nature of the Journey
One of the greatest dangers in Christian faith is to believe that coming to Christ is meant to improve you or make things easier. Youtube, Facebook and the Christian channels on our TV are full of people who sell us lies in matters of faith. Whether it is through a diluting or distorting of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Lies that you can come to Jesus and not have to give up this idol or that idol or the deception that if your faith in Jesus is strong enough, then he will double your portion. These claims are not just fake news, they are dangerous news! To believe them is to believe in another Gospel, another god.
In verses 13 and 14 we see both the reality of faith and the Gospel: in following Jesus our belonging will be proved by suffering – the great tribulation: which some take this to mean the experience of Martyrs, others understand this to be the suffering the church has endured throughout all time. Regardless the point remains the same, that for all to follow Jesus will bring about difficulty, difficulty which in the worlds eye should put us off following. Yet, through the Kingdom eye, the difficulty that gives meaning and shape to our belonging. Furthermore, regardless of what we experience in this life – good or bad – it is not through enduring we earn the right to come before God, it is because we have received that gift through the lamb that we endure.
I wonder how your view of following Jesus copes with scenes of suffering and tribulation. If so, then there is something that needs to change, and it is not the Bible or the truth as presented, it is our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. Each context is different, yet, each context will bring its own form of enduring for the faith. Testing that in, the working of the Holy Spirit makes us more into the image of Christ as we belong and journey together. Our job is to make sure we are belonging, walking and serving. Whether we are following Jesus in the context of the UK and our greatest difficulty is the mockery of friends. Or the context is like the bother I had the privilege of being with at the Christian Institute in Jos, Northern Nigeria, they who were answering a call of God to return and advance the Kingdom where churches had been burned down by Boko Haram, by planting new churches and tending the sheep that remained. Our call is to journey together, and in the process of the journey be made more into the image of God for the Glory of God by the working of the Holy Spirit.
The Joy of the Saints (15-17)
A right understanding of what our belonging and journeying with Jesus looks like is important in this passage and for us. Yet, the imagery of the old ways soon gets left behind, a distant memory in a faded past to replaced with a picture of the eternal reality of the saints. As John turns to reflect the future heavenly inheritance of all the saints. What John sees now is the culmination of the Journey – the Joy of the saints. A Joy that is captured and presented using much imagery from the bible. In the eternal presence of God the saints of God will never hunger or thirst again (John 6:35); neither shall they suffer the pain of the world – the scorching sun – as we serve as God’s priests (Isaiah 49:10). His Presence is a protecting presence (Ezekiel 37:27). The Saints of God in the presence of God shall know only the goodness of God because by the lamb’s blood we were bought, and by the lamb, we will be guff to drink from the springs of living water (Psalm 23), and as we dwell there, God will wipe away every tear from our eye (Isaiah 25:8).
There is much that could be said about the imagery here, but time is not our friend. What we must grasp is that this is an image of Shalom, true peace in the presence of God, where the people of God will finally know the fullness of what they were made for. The Saints of God who were made in the image of God now imaging God fully. This is the joy of the saints, as CS Lewis puts it “As we draw nearer to its uncreated rhythm, pain and pleasure sink almost out of sight.”
Today, regardless of covid or whatever situation we may be facing we can be sure as we face it what is ahead; thus as we belong today and journey together both as the body of Christ and individual disciples we live in that Joy now, knowing fully that there is yet more ahead. Today, let us place whatever we are facing, feeling or suffering in the context of the promises of God where one day it will all make sense, let us walk the journey together assured that God is walking with us through the presence of his spirit, working through us to bring about his rule and that when its s, our time we will know the joy of saints by belonging with the saints in the presence of God.
Conclusion: The Response of the Saints
Our passage today is full of so much truth that we could spend several weeks considering it. Truths about what it means to live for Jesus in the here and now, truths about what is to come and truths about the dangers of this world. The truth which we must heed, consider then apply as we live for God today. Our first response must be to consider the foundation of our identity and belonging in this life – are we those who truly belong to Jesus? Yes we might have gone to church every Sunday in our life, we might tune in to the online service every week; but is that to grow in faith as we look to Jesus knowing that we cannot save ourselves or simply as some act of self-saving. Revelation 7 makes clear that salvation belongs to God and comes through the work of the Lamb’s blood, so let us make sure we are a people who belong to the lamb and are marked by his blood – Let us make sure our faith is in the saving work of Christ on the cross and no in ourselves.
The passage also makes clear that suffering and hardship are not the sign of a lack of faith, or the bad faith but of true faith. That as we live for something beyond this world, this world will try to take our gaze of what is beyond. Thus, as the saints of God together, let us strengthen ourselves for what is ahead by what we see today – being a people who know the presence of God! Whether this is through Quiet times, Sunday worship or those moments alone with God. As we live for God now, we are called to enjoy him, and it is that enjoyment that strengthens the saints for the journey ahead.
Then when our foundation is secure, and our belonging knows let us be the people of God who live out and enact the way of God now, as we journey to what is to come. Journey in that knowledge that we are not alone and called to walk with one another, that as we walk with brothers and sisters in our own context and throughout the world, and as we walk together, we live together. It is the call to the diversity of the Kingdom, thus, whether, through prayer or gifts, we support the work of God by the body of Christ wherever that may be for the Glory of God. Furthermore, the saints of God are those who live not by the metrics of this world but by the metrics of the Kingdom of God. Thus our kingdom looks nothing like the world. It is diverse in talent, status, ethnicity, politics and creed because we are those who set aside all the things of this world because in what is ahead we will know a fullness of joy that this world can neither comprehend nor create.
Finally, let us be clear to which Gospel we believe. That we are those, who are called to prove our faith by walking together with one another and God through whatever life may bring, but also that proving is not earning. All things from God are gifts of Grace, as he calls us to himself. He sustains us in the journey, and then he will glorify himself through our reaching of the destination. Thus, let us be clear that we believe neither a diluted Gospel that suggests there is something in our life that God does not claim, challenge or seek to transform. Nor a distorted Gospel where God is shaped in our Image, and the gifts of faith are nothing more than the lies of this world: promises of blessing and possession – earthly things that will rot away. Let us make sure we have come to God through the Gospel of Jesus Christ – that we cannot save ourselves and that is only through his blood we are free, and as we journey together let us make sure that is the Gospel we live out in word and deed as we confront the lies of this world, and call people to know the fullness of joy that is ours already by trusting in the eternal Lamb of God. Let us believe the true Gospel of Jesus, let us by the power of the Holy Spirt confront all false gospels whether in the church or without, and then as the saints of God belonging today together as we walk with him now let us live in the Joy of his presence and look to the fullness of Joy to come whatever situation we find ourselves in. This is our belonging, this is our call, this is our foundation, and above all, this is our hope.