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. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
"Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "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.”
Christianity has traditionally used the term saints two ways. In the New Testament, it is always used in its literal meaning, which is of someone set apart, in our case set apart in Baptism. In God’s eyes, Baptism is the way he definitively marks us as people called, chosen, and sealed as members of Jesus Christ. When God looks at a baptized person, he sees the identity we are given in Baptism; he sees us set apart from the world and marked as Christ’s own forever. If you are a Christian, if you have been wrapped up in that white baptismal robe, you are also wrapped up in the righteousness and holiness and identity of Jesus Christ, and so the New Testament recognizes that by using the term saint, or set-apart one, for all baptized Christians. So we hold on to one truth: God has already done what is needed for us to be completely his in Christ.
But the term saints is also used in another way, and that’s the way our feast today is observing. When we sing “For all the saints who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed,” or “I sing a song of the saints of God,” we’re using the word in that second sense, which means, to quote one of our Episcopal teaching documents, “men and women of outstanding holiness, heroism, and teaching in the cause of Christ, whose lives and deaths have been a continuing, conscious influence upon the on-going life of the Church in notable and well-recognized ways.” That’s probably what many of us think of when we hear the word saints. And with that use of the word we hold on to a second truth: There is always room for each and every one of us to grow more fully into the identity God gave us as baptized Christians, and we know that because we have seen people do it.
Who are these, robed in white? We all receive that robe in our Baptism; however, some of us treat it as an inconvenience or pretend we don’t have it. A lot of us rather half-heartedly try, in various ways, to let our identity in Christ shape us. But some wear that robe over years so wholeheartedly, so humbly, with such love and discipline, that the dazzling, pure baptismal presence of Jesus that envelops them becomes second nature. And those, the women and men who took notable hold of what God gives us all in Baptism, are the people we celebrate today.
One of the things that comes home to you, I think, as you spend time with these people through their writings or visiting the places they lived or talking to members of communities they founded, or as you spend time with people in your life that you suspect may be well on the path to that kind of sainthood, is that holiness is a path that is open to everyone. It’s just that most of us don’t choose it.
The saints are signs of potential. Of yours and mine and of every Baptized person. In Christ, by grace, they prove that we can make the choices to live out the identity God gave us. I can choose to say Morning Prayer tomorrow, or I can choose to scroll through Facebook. I can choose to set aside a proportion of my income for God first, or I can choose to give away just what I think I can afford. I can choose to stop and listen for God’s guidance before an important decision, or I can do what seems best to me. I can choose to speak openly about Jesus Christ, or I can choose to skirt over being that specific. I can choose to confess my sins tonight and ask forgiveness, or I can let my head hit the pillow without meeting God’s eyes.
What choices we make in all those situations will not do one thing to change the fact that a person is baptized, that God has already chosen them in Christ. But every single choice to put God’s will first, or second or third or twenty-fifth in our lives, will make a difference in who we become, in how fully we reflect the dazzling beauty and purity of Jesus that is, ultimately, what we were made for and what we long for. We know that’s true, because in the saints, we’ve seen it.
They lived not only in ages past;
there are hundreds of thousands still;
the world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
and one was slain by a fierce wild beast:
and there’s not any reason, no, not the least,
why I shouldn’t be one too.