WHAT MAKES A SAINT A SAINT?
Text: Revelation 7:9-10,13-14
Three years ago, I was enrolled in a liturgy class at Santa Clara University that required me to visit a “festival occasion” service at another church and then write a report about the service. I decided to check out a local Catholic Mass on All Saints’ Day evening, since All Saints’ Day is supposed to be as big of a deal for Catholic churches as Reformation services are in Lutheran churches. But what struck me most about that experience was not the service, but the sermon. The sermon was what I would call “old school” Roman Catholic theology. The priest’s sermon was basically a checklist of things that the worshippers should do in order to become saints. He told the congregation that saints were just ordinary people who came to Mass, but they let the Mass move them deeply. They came with sorrow over their sin, they came to hear the Word of God, they came to receive “graces” in the sacraments, and they took the power God gave them in the sacraments and developed a “heroic virtue” that balanced out their sins. That was the formula the worshippers were given to become saints. And that’s what I would call old school Roman Catholic theology.
Christian church calendars have designated today, November 1, as “All Saints’ Day” since 835 A.D. Today is a day that the church remembers the example of faith set by those fellow believers who have gone before us into heaven. The reading from Revelation that you heard a few moments ago gives us a picture of those saints who have gone before us into heaven. That’s certainly a group we want to be a part of! Given the state of affairs on this side of heaven, with swine flu scares, rising unemployment, and global instability, I sure like the idea of escaping this world and being in that group of heaven-bound saints! But that begs the question: How do I get in that group? What will get me that title, “saint”? What makes a saint a saint?
You might suspect that the answer will probably not be found in the formula to sainthood that I heard a few years ago in the homily I described. No, the proper definition of a saint is one that we should draw from God’s Word. So let’s look carefully at our Revelation reading to determine what makes a saint a saint.
Revelation is a book filled with symbolic communication, and the symbolic communication in our first verse reveals certain characteristics about the saints in heaven. “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 in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” In ancient literature, palm branches were a symbol of victory. These saints in heaven enjoy their God-given victory over death and the grave. And the clothing they wear also tells you something about them. “They were wearing white robes.” Even if you’re not a Bible scholar, you can probably figure out that white is a symbol of purity and holiness. And in heaven, that’s exactly what the saints enjoy—a pure, perfect, and holy existence basking in the victory over death that Christ’s death has given them.
But remember our original questions. How do you and I get in this group? What will get us the title, “saints”? What makes a saint a saint? John tells us that holiness is their distinguishing characteristic. It doesn’t take long to figure out that you and I don’t fit into that group. Yes, there are the signs of a sin-stained and problem-filled world around us. But you don’t need to point to breaking bridges and bickering bureaucrats to find the signs of sin. You only need to look at the person who stares back at you in the mirror. You only need to look at the broken promises of the past, the loveless bickering in the home, along with any and every other sinful symptom of our inherited sin to realize that you and I do not belong in a group filled with holy and righteous saints. But that reality does not exclude us from some sort of sanctified country club! That reality ought to exclude us from heaven! That reality ought to condemn us eternally! That reality puts a permanent barrier between us and God that we can’t even dream of knocking down on our best day.
We need to find out what it is in those people in Revelation 7 that made them saints. If you and I are going to have any hope of being on the right side of God’s judgment and spending eternity in paradise, we need to find out what makes a saint a saint. Is there some distinguishing trait or characteristic that put this multitude in the mansions of heaven?
If we look through this reading for some type of distinguishing characteristic, perhaps we can find something if we refer back to the opening verse of this selection. John said, “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 in front of the Lamb.” If we are looking for a distinguishing characteristic, what do you find? There really isn’t one, is there? The crowd of people before John comes from every corner of the world. Together they speak most every language heard under the sun. There could not be a more diverse group of saints. It does not appear that there is going to be a singular common characteristic that threads these people together.
But something must have put them in this heavenly scene. Something must have put those palm branches in their hands and placed those white robes of holiness on their bodies. Something made these people the holy saints that we see in Revelation.
As the apostle John received this heavenly vision, someone who sort of fills the role of a tour guide appears – he’s called an elder – and asks John a question as he viewed these heavenly saints. “One of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?’” That’s the $64,000 question we need to answer! But it was a rhetorical question. John didn’t know the answer, but his heavenly tour guide did. “[John] 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.’”
The last time I checked, blood was not considered laundry detergent. Blood does not make things white. Blood stains and soils clothes, but it doesn’t make clothes white. But the elder in John’s vision wasn’t talking about any ordinary person’s blood. The elder was talking about the very same thing John wrote about in his first letter when he said, “The blood of Jesus, [God’s] Son, cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). What made these saints saints was not some common thread among them or an uncommonly heroic virtue within them. What made these saints saints was the shed blood of Jesus. What made these saints saints was the holiness he offered for their impurities and imperfection. What made these saints saints was the cleansing blood that Jesus shed to wash away every sinful blot and blotch that mars our life’s story. What makes these saints saints was the blood Jesus offered for them and for the world on his Good Friday cross.
And the saints in heaven recognize that! John told us, “They cried out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” The saints in heaven know and confess that their salvation came from God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
But you also recognize that. You know and believe that Christ “became man to set us free,” that he “humbled [himself] to be born of a virgin,” and that he “overcame the sting of death and opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers” (quotes from the Te Deum). The Holy Spirit first worked that faith in your heart at the font, and he has since nourished that faith every time you have come into contact with Jesus’ forgiving and life-giving Word. And as you return this afternoon to celebrate Reformation with fellow Lutherans from our sister congregations, you will receive the very same blood of Jesus that makes your spiritual clothes white, and the very same body that makes you a holy and righteous saint before God.
That group of saints in heaven isn’t done growing. When John asked his heavenly tour guide who that multitude was before him, the elder said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation.” But it might be a bit more accurate to translate that phrase this way: “These are they who are coming out of the great tribulation.” This is not a past scene but an ongoing present situation. Every time the Lord calls one of his own out of this great earthly tribulation, another saint is transferred from the church on earth to the church in heaven.
That’s why the correct answer to our opening question is so vital. What makes a saint a saint? Certainly not some grand achievement in our lives, but the greatest divine achievement brought about through Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. What makes a saint a saint is not only the forgiveness that Jesus won for us but also his holiness which now counts for us. As practical and useful as it is for us to consider how we might grow in holiness in our daily lives, it is far more comforting and assuring to know that our true holiness before God comes from the One who was holy in our place.
November 1 is All Saints’ Day, but October 31 is Reformation Day. Even though we’re celebrating All Saints’ Day this morning and Reformation this afternoon, there is a common lesson that we can learn from both days. Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel was not so much centered on the way that Jesus takes our sin away, but more so on the way that God declares us holy in his eyes. Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel was focused on the way Jesus’ holiness counts for us. Luther’s rediscovery of the gospel revealed that the way we become saints is not found within ourselves, but is received through faith in the Son of God and his righteousness lived for us. What makes a saint a saint? Jesus’ righteousness – that’s what makes a saint a saint. And Jesus’ righteousness is what will put you in that heavenly scene of saints for all eternity. Amen.