CHURCH EXPECTANT, CHURCH TRIUMPHANT
SERMON PREACHED BY FR. TONY NOBLE ON ALL SAINTS’ DAY, 2009
Rev 7: 9 “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.”
Have you ever really wondered what heaven is like?
More to the point have you ever imagined yourself in heaven? What you would be doing, who you would be with? It’s hard to do, because none of us have been there yet. all the references in scripture are like that passage from Revelation – mysterious and unreal.
Most of us imagine being re-united in heaven with our loved ones, those whom have gone before us who we love. We know our existence will be different, but scripture tells us we will recognize people. We will see people that we know.
In actual fact heaven will be just like this congregation here this morning at All Saints’ that we are worshipping with. Imagine that – heaven will consist of people just like us here at All Saints…..a terrible thought! There will be people that we are close to, there will be others whom we recognize, and there will be some people we hardly know.
Seeing out All Saints’ Parish as an image of heaven may seem a little strange or far fetched – but think about it…being a member of the Church is meant to train us for heaven. We come to Church, we have fellowship as a parish, we pray, we do things together – so that we can train for heaven.
So that we can become what we are called to be – saints.
Right now we might think we’re not good enough yet. Most of us are aware of our sins, our failings, and our weaknesses – and we pray that God will forgive us and lead us to heaven when our time comes. It is not wishful thinking – it’s a prayer in confidence, because Christ has promised us heaven. We still pray that what is amiss in our lives will be forgiven at the great day. And we will enter heaven joyfully and join that company of the blessed saints.
The Gospel today indicates that heaven is for the pure of heart:
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”.
This is re-enforced by Psalm 24:
“Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord: or who shall rise up in his Holy Place?”
Then comes the answer: “He that hath clean hands and a pure heart”. We each have a way to go before we are pure in heart, I guess. As scripture reminds us, the heart is more devious than any other part of a person.
One of the great teachings of our Lord is that the heart is what is important. Remember he said that it wasn’t the things that go into a person that makes them unclean – it is what comes out of a person that makes them unclean. From the heart come our motives, our intentions, and ultimately, of course, our actions.
So our lives now as part of the church are meant to be a training and preparation for heaven – helping us to be pure in heart. Those who have already won the victory – the saints in heaven – are our example. They encourage us, not just by their example, but by their prayers. They pray for us, just as we pray for each other.
The saints aren’t just people we know of from 2,000 years ago. They could be people in living memory. When I was a child my Sunday School teacher was just an ordinary person – but she helped me to know that God was real. She was holy, I think, though she would have denied it at the time.
The other thing I remember when I was young was that when the priest invited people to pray for the Church and the world, he said: “Let us pray for the whole state of Christ’s Church, militant here in earth, expectant in paradise and triumphant in heaven”. A triple layer of the Church: the church here (militant), the church waiting (expectant in paradise), and the church in heaven (triumphant in glory).
The Church triumphant is all the saints as described in Revelation 7. Revelation is a mysterious book, with strong, powerful, and sometimes worrying images.
When you look at Revelation its central message is to give hope to the first century Christians who were undergoing persecution. The writer describes great victory and glory for them, even though they were being persecuted. The worse was yet to come, and they needed to have some hopeful news.
Firstly Revelation portrays 144,000 redeemed and sealed. What does this mean for us? 144,000 = 12 x 12 x 1,000. The number 12 is the twelve tribes of Israel, and also the twelve apostles whom Christ chose to be the foundation of the Church, which is the new Israel.
So 12 x 12 is the perfection of the Church in heaven. Multiplying that by 1,000 is infinity – 1,000 in biblical terms is an endless number. Thus the 144,000 is the church perfected and triumphant, forever in heaven.
Then we have “A great multitude which no man could number”. They are clothed in white robes. The symbolism is obviously purity. Thus the Gospel message today is re-enforced.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”.
And they do! Countless numbers of them, all dressed symbolically in white.
But did they earn this reward, this inheritance? Did they do something apart from being martyred?
Of course not! You don’t earn heaven. It’s not something you can buy, or work for, apart from a Christian life. Heaven has already been won for us by Christ’s death and resurrection. Revelation tells us that those robes were washed white in the blood of the Lamb. That is, they achieved perfection through what Christ did by his blood – His death on the Cross and rising to new life.
As the well-known hymn says:
“Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me, and that thou biddest me come to thee, o Lamb of God, I come”.
This hymn portrays what we find in Revelation 7. It is also the message of the Epistle today (1 John 3: 1-3):
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is”.
We are already blessed as the children of God. That is, we have already received our inheritance through baptism, when we receive eternal life and the promise of heaven.
But, of course, we don’t know what we shall be in the future. We may not be completely pure in heart yet – but Saint John says that when our time comes we shall be with him – in fact we shall be like him, because we shall see him
Then he adds: “Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure”.
There’s that word “purity” again – but it is something we gain by hoping in Christ. Our hope in Christ is what allows us to be pure in heart.
The Church has always seen itself in three dimensions.
Firstly, the Church triumphant in heaven – the saints who we honor today.
Secondly, the Church expectant – the departed waiting to join the saints. All those whom we pray for tomorrow on All Souls’ Day.
Finally, Church militant – us here! The Church on earth fighting against sin, the world, and the devil.
That is why the Baptism rite refers to us being “Christ’s faithful soldiers and servants”. We are called to battle, to fight against evil, and the world, and the devil himself – to fight against the sin that clings to us. Furthermore, Saint Paul refers to us as fighting against spiritual powers and wickedness.
When we come to Mass, we come to be strengthened for that fight and to be trained for our heavenly destination. In that struggle we face, in that training, and in our daily prayer and living, it is the saints in heaven who encourage us
The saints in heaven are praying for us – for they have been through this battle, and have won the victory.