Sermon on Revelation 7:9-17 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA on the occasion of my daughter’s baptism. Audio for this sermon may be found here.
In the fall of 1951, Hugh Beaver, an executive at an Irish beer company, was on a hunting trip with some friends. After missing a particularly speedy bird, Beaver and his companions began to debate which game bird was the fastest in Europe. Each member of the group had a guess, none were at all certain. Hoping to settle the question, the hunting party trod off to a library, where they discovered that there was no reference book in which information like this was readily available. Surmising that questions such as these were probably debated nightly in pubs throughout Ireland and indeed the rest of the world, Beaver decided to compile a compendium of facts and figures that could settle bar bets and other questions once and for all. Since he published it with the assistance of his employer, Beaver called this guide The Guinness Book of Records.
Since its inception, Guinness has evolved substantially. While the earliest editions tended to focus on immutable facts and figures, later versions of the guide began to explore the limits of human accomplishment. These newer records are less about settling bar bets and more about making us marvel at what some people have done, knowing that we would never be capable of such a feat. The guide now features entries celebrating the world’s most tattooed man, the person who has played Grand Theft Auto for the longest period of time, and of course, the person with the most world records. To be included in the guide, those who believe they have broken a record or established a new world record submit their proposal to the independent arbitrators at Guinness, who determine the veracity of the claim. The process is designed to make sure that only worthy people are immortalized in the pages of the Guinness Book of World Records, to ensure that we only remember those who truly have reached the pinnacle of human achievement.
Believe it or not, there are ways in which the process Guinness uses to verify and establish new records is similar to the process by which the Church identifies and celebrates saints. In the Roman Catholic tradition, for instance, potential saints are put through a rigorous process of investigation. Church officials examine the lives of the individuals being considered, determining their worthiness. This vetting process also includes the identification of miracles that can be attributed to the candidate. Ultimately, the Roman church’s assumption is that saints are people who lead exemplary lives and as a result are able to call upon God to intervene in particular situations. In the Anglican tradition, the criteria for including a person in the calendar of the saints are not quite as rigid. In spite of its flexibility, we have tended to ignore even this process. For the most part, those added to our calendar of holy women and holy men in recent years tend to be people who strike our fancy more than anything else. They are not necessarily remembered for being conduits of the holy or miraculous, but rather for their impressive accomplishments, for being exceptionally good at what they did while coincidentally being Christian.
This focus on spiritual or vocational accomplishment implies that being a saint means reaching the pinnacle of human achievement in some way. In one view, a saint is a person so in touch with God that she can literally transcend natural laws. In the other view, a saint is someone who is so adept at his chosen profession that his work will be remembered well after he is dead and gone. There is a level of unattainability in both of these understandings of sainthood. According to these definitions, saints transcend normal human limitations. Saints have some kind of superhuman ability. Saints, in other words, are not like you and me. And if this is the case, why should we take time to celebrate the saints? If sainthood is unattainable, or attainable for only a very few, it means that reflecting on the lives of the saints is a bit like reading the Guinness Book of World Records: a mildly diverting opportunity to be impressed by what people have done, knowing that there is no way we could ever live up to their example.
While the Church has tended to define sainthood in terms of human achievement, the Scriptural witness frames sainthood within a very different context. Take, for example, the text we read from Revelation this morning. In his vision, as John the Divine gazes on the uncountable army of martyrs, an elder comes to him and asks, somewhat rhetorically, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” On its surface, the answer to this question is fairly obvious: these are martyrs, people who have died for their faith, people whom the early Church considered saints. The answer that John provides, however, is not so straightforward: “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.” This response is striking, not only for it paradoxical imagery, but more importantly, for the way it characterizes the action of the martyrs. Instead of saying, “these are they who have sacrificed their lives for the faith,” as one might expect, John uses a far more prosaic image, suggesting that the saints simply washed their robes. It’s not that John is denigrating martyrdom; in fact, the martyrs are given pride of place in John’s sweeping vision of earth and heaven. Rather, John is placing the sacrifice of the martyrs within the much larger framework of the Lamb’s sacrifice. In this vision, the action of the saints derives all its meaning from God’s action in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the biblical witness, sainthood is less about the limits of human achievement and more about the limitlessness of God’s grace. In the end, the saints are not saints because they are fundamentally different from you and me, but because they have allowed their lives to be transformed by the grace that is available to each and every one of us.
There is a challenge at the heart of this understanding of sainthood. I think there’s a level at which we would prefer the saints to be fundamentally different from the rest of us, because if that’s the case, we don’t even have to try following their example. “There’s no way I could possibly live up to that standard. I’m good enough; I’m not going to worry too much about how I live my life.” If, however, the saints are those who have allowed their lives to be transformed by God’s grace, then each and every one of us is called to be a saint. No matter who we are or where we have been or what we have done, we are called to live lives shaped by the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s not as though we have only one chance to do this. Every day is an opportunity to be more and more shaped by the transforming grace of God. As we baptize Luke and Cecilia today, we are proclaiming that they have been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the same time, we are affirming that they are called to be saints, living their lives continually aware of the limitless grace of God.