As we gathered this morning for worship, you may not have noticed it visibly, but we have gathered with an enormous congregation of believers that cannot be counted. We have gathered with all the saints who have gone before us in faith, what Hebrews 12 calls the “great cloud of witnesses.”
Through the visionary language of Revelation 7, we have gathered in spirit with those representing the 12 tribes of Israel and the great multitude of believers from every tribe, people, and nation that is and will be gathered in worship before the throne.
Today, through our raw grief at the events that transpired yesterday, we recognize among those 11 worshippers of the people of Israel that now join the heavenly chorus in praise of God: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The first and the last, the beginning and the end.
As it was explained to us in the voice of the unnamed elder, the multitudes who have gathered, dressed in white, waving palm branches in their hands are the saints of God, the ones who have come out of what is called the “great ordeal,” the oppression and suffering that has typified the common Christian experience on earth for millennia.
With the saints, we proclaimed, “Salvation belongs to our God!” With the angels, we declared “Blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever.”
And truly, God’s salvation is good news for these saints of the church triumphant with whom we worship the Lord. The saints have come through the great ordeals of life and now worship without hunger or thirst, scorching heat or frigid cold. They no longer shed tears—the only flow of water is that of the springs of the water of life.
No longer are those saints subject to unjust human rulers, but Jesus is their shepherd.
As we have transported ourselves into that crowd and stepped through the thin space between the physical church in which we worship and the invisible church that worships in glory, we find ourselves surrounded by a great stadium full of believers—a multitude that no one can count.
All Saints Day is in many ways a solemn occasion, as we remember those whose presence among us is missed, those who have finished their course on earth and have recently joined the great chorus. But it’s also a time of celebration, as we peek behind the curtain separating heaven and earth and experience a foretaste of heavenly worship. Through our tears, we celebrate too that for them, hunger, thirst, pain, and grief have been vanquished by the love of God.
Who are these saints? As you know, we as United Methodists don’t venerate saints in the same way that our Catholic brothers and sisters do. We don’t have a calendar of feast days commemorating the saints or an official canonization process by which people become “saints.” In fact, we believe that because of the work of Jesus Christ, we are all called saints, though we may still in some manner be sinners also. All of us, the experienced Christians and new believers, those who have done powerful works for God and those who are timid and unsure—we are all called saints.
Yet, today we recognize those saints who have entered the church triumphant, those who have finished their course in faith. As we gather with them in spirit through the visionary language of Revelation, we recognize some familiar faces and many whose stories we don’t know.
When we hear their stories—and, to be sure, there will be plenty of time in eternity to hear the stories of all the saints—there’s one common denominator to them all, both the great saints and the ones yet unknown to us.
All their stories begin, as Hebrews tells us, “by faith!” It was the faith of these saints that “set them above the crowd.”
Hebrews defines this faith, in the NRSV, as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Peterson’s Message paraphrase calls it “the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.” Others have called faith “daily courageous trust in who God is and what God has done” (Rowan Williams) or “believing the promises of God, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.”
However we define faith, it involves daily trust, confident hope, and belief in what cannot be seen in the moment. Faith is hopeful perseverance through the muck and mire of life.
According to Hebrews, the first act of faith is understanding “that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things unseen.”
But, as Soren Kierkegaard attests in his writings, the more wonderful miracle is that “God makes saints out of sinners.”
The stories of all the saints live this faith out in practice, showing how God truly does make saints out of sinners.
Today, as we dwell on Hebrews 11, we recognize that the way to salvation was laid out for us by our common Jewish ancestors in faith. We have been grafted into the great family tree of Abraham and Sarah…
By faith, Abraham left the place he knew and went on a grand adventure with God, trusting God to provide and protect a son that would carry God’s promises down through the generations. He was willing to offer his son to God, trusting that God would not allow harm to come upon him. Sarah too trusted in Gods promises though they seemed absurd.
By faith, that son Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau and Jacob blessed Joseph and his sons, trusting that God would follow through on the promise through generations yet unborn.
By faith, Moses was hidden as a child, refused the privileges of the Egyptian house as an adult, and after encountering God in the bush that would not burn up, Moses led God’s people out of Egypt. Moses had so many reasons and excuses not to go through with God’s plan, but by faith the Israelites were led out of Egypt, they walked through the Red Sea, and entered the land of promise. There’s so many other great saints of faith in the Old Testament—Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets…
But the list doesn’t end there for us.
By faith, Jesus’s disciples left their fishing, taxation, and violent revolutions to put their trust in a wandering prophet who assured them that God’s kingdom was coming. By faith, they put their trust in him when he revealed himself to be the Son of God and the promised messiah. By faith, they endured watching Jesus crucified and attested to his resurrection, in time enduring similar violent ends.
By faith, the confident Jewish scribe Saul listened to the voice of God and ceased his persecutions. By faith, we was led to Damascus and was healed by Ananias. From there, he traveled near and far, spreading the good news and creating and sustaining a system of churches.
By faith, John of Patmos endured persecution and saw a vision from God of the way that God would succeed in making all things new!
And the list doesn’t end there either. Who else is in that great congregation of saints?
By faith, the fathers and mothers of the early church gave their lives in service of Jesus. By faith, saints like Augustine, Benedict, and Francis led the church in scholarship, prayer, and service.
By faith, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg and preached a message of confession, grace, and the love of God.
We recognize too some of the names of Methodist saints who paved the way for us. By faith, Susanna Wesley organized a makeshift worship service of almost two hundred people at her house when the formal services at the church were deficient. She nurtured all her children, including young John and Charles, in a vital and living faith marked by extensive study and personal devotion.
By faith, John Wesley was given an assurance of his salvation and was compelled to preach wherever he went—to workers in the mines, to criminals in the prisons, and to those ill in the hospitals. Like the apostle Paul, Wesley left flourishing churches in his wake.
By faith, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury brought the Methodist expression of the faith to America and organized preachers to bring the good news to every place, including down at Raccoon Creek, and Bethel, and finally at Eldersville.
By faith, Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, kept preaching even after he was shoved to the margins of the Methodist Episcopal Church he served.
By faith, Mary Bosanquet Fletcher and Lydia Sexton were motivated by the Gospel to preach and teach in an era when most didn’t believe that women could be ministers.
By faith, the Methodists Sojourner Truth and Francis Willard fought for women’s right to vote.
By faith Fannie Crosby, though she was blind, composed many hymns of God’s steadfast love.
By faith, Dietrich Bonhoeffer died challenging the tyrannical rule of Adolf Hitler.
By faith, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks led non-violent campaigns for the civil rights of all God’s people, even while they were threatened by those in authority.
By faith, Mother Theresa gave her life ministering to the spiritual needs of those who lived in abject poverty. Though she herself didn’t always feel close to God, she brought others closer through her work.
By faith, Bishop Leontine Kelly paved the way for African American women in the leadership of the United Methodist Church and for the training of Methodist leaders in Africa.
By faith, Oscar Romero defended human rights and died fulfilling his calling as a priest of the church.
By faith, C.S. Lewis discovered the power of the Christian message as an atheist and made the faith intelligible to generations of believers.
By faith, Eugene Peterson gave his life in scholarship and prayer to the pastoral work of the church and helped us all to hear the words of Scripture in a new way.
By faith, Pauline Stone, Louis Lepro, H. James Hammond, and Dorothy Petrel and the whole congregation of the saints from this place gave their lives to Jesus their savior and lived lives worthy of the calling of Christ. By faith they endured the hardships of illness and adversity while maintaining an unshakable faith in Jesus.
We could go on and on, but we don’t have the time! There’s too many to name!
These saints, by faith, as Hebrews 11 says: “toppled kingdoms, made justice work, took the promises for themselves. They were protected from all kinds of adversity. There were those who, under torture, refused to give in and go free, preferring their hope in resurrection. We have stories of saints and martyrs who were stoned, sawed in two, murdered in cold blood; stories of vagrants wandering the earth in animal skins, homeless, friendless, powerless—the world didn’t deserve them!—they made their way as best they could on the cruel edges of the world.”
But none of their awe-inspiring stories are truly the work of those whose names are attached to them. To be sure, they all had “faith,” they worked out their salvation with fear and trembling, but they were also just human beings like us.
What made these stories possible and powerful wasn’t anything these individuals did. It was the steadfast, faithful love that God showed them and that came together in the faithfulness of Jesus.
Let’s just admit it! Faith is difficult! We know this is difficult… we don’t want to submit ourselves to faith. We would rather follow our individual will. And if it wasn’t for the love of Jesus, we would!
It’s hard to commit ourselves to something we can’t see.
It’s far easier to think that how things are now is how it will always be—that doesn’t take any faith at all.
When we see acts of racism, sexism, anti-semitism, and senseless violence of all kinds, it’s easy for us, not having faith, to say “it will always be this way.” It’s so much harder to have faith that the way things are now is not how it always will be. It’s harder to have faith that God will work all things together for good and finally and decisively beat the powers of evil in the end.
But faith isn’t the sure and confident hope in things that are easily believable and verifiably true. Faith is being inspired by the witness of those who gave their all even when things seemed doomed to fail!
Yet, all the saints who we have named and left unnamed today hoped and trusted in the promises of God. Through their brokenness and even feelings of abandonment by God, they experienced redemption and communion with God.
We have to remember that not one of the saints that we’ve named got their hands completely on what was promised. They had to have faith in what they could not see!
Their example should inspire us to live in a posture of hope for the future—both our future and the future of our world.
It is with that faith, hope, and sure conviction that we attest that in life, in death, and in life beyond death, we belong to God.
Inspired by the witness of those who have gone before us, we proclaim the best news of all—God is with us! No matter how we struggle today, no matter the deepest struggles and cries of our hearts, this is the witness of the saints. God is with us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.