“Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”
At the opening of this afternoon’s session, in accordance with Methodist tradition, we will sing Charles Wesley’s moving hymn that asks: “And Are We Yet Alive?” And members of this Annual Conference will give thanks to Jesus that after a year apart, pursuing the different ministries to which we have been called, we once again see one another’s faces. (…Well, or at least some of you will give thanks // for some of the faces you’ll see here!) The gathering of the Conference is indeed a joyful celebration of God’s preserving grace that has brought us through “the troubles we have seen, …[the] mighty conflicts past.”
But this morning, at this opening memorial service, we engage in a more sobering act of giving thanks. We give thanks to God for the lives of members of this fellowship who will not be here to sing “And Are We Yet Alive?” We give thanks to God for brothers and sisters for whom the answer to Charles Wesley’s question must be “No.”
And so this morning’s act of remembering becomes also an act of acknowledging that we are “earthen vessels,” that death is at work in our mortal bodies. We praise our maker while we’ve breath. But for each of us, the day will come when our voices, lost in death, will not join in singing “And Are We Yet Alive?” Accordingly, both of our Scripture texts today direct our attention to mortality. And yet both texts also bear witness to the hope we share, the hope of the resurrection. Let’s consider each of these passages briefly in turn.
First, the passage from 2 Corinthians. The keynote of this section is found in a verse we did not read, the first verse of chapter 4: “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.” Perhaps a better translation is, “we do not get weary and give up.” In the idiom of the 21st century, we do not burn out. And the reason we don’t burn out is simple: the energy source for the flame doesn’t come from us. The ministry is not about us: “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (4:5). We are, says Paul, jars made of common clay, into which a great, luminous treasure has been placed. And what is that treasure? It is, Paul answers, “the life of Jesus” (4:11). That’s where the extraordinary, inextinguishable power comes from.
And so Paul reflects with a certain amazement on the contrast between God’s superabundant life-giving power and the frail, contingent, strangely resilient vessels in which that power is carried. We are afflicted but not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair, persecuted but not abandoned, struck down but not destroyed (4:8-9). Does that ring true to your experience of ministry? I suspect that many of us might say Paul is “telling my whole life with his words, killing me softly with his song.”
But everything depends on understanding this: Paul is not celebrating the innate resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity. Paul is not offering us the message of “Invictus,”that dreadful, self-aggrandizing Victorian poem that played a key role in the recent movie about Nelson Mandela and the South African rugby team. (Apart from the poem, by the way, it’s a lovely movie.) The poem begins like this: “Out of the night that covers me, black as the Pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul.” That is not the gospel—a fact that becomes even clearer when we hear the poem’s final lines: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” One could hardly imagine a sharper contrast to Paul’s view of things: “We don’t proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.” I’m definitely not the master of my fate, and I’m not the captain of my soul—because Jesus is!
But if Paul is not celebrating the unconquerable human spirit, the how then does it come about that we are “afflicted but not crushed”? There was a possible answer in a prayer we prayed a few moments ago, a prayer thanking God for being “a constant companion and source of strength” for those whose lives we recall and honor today. That is no doubt true, and we are accustomed to thinking in those terms: God will supply the strength that we lack. But interestingly, Paul does not quite say that here. He doesn’t say that God will strengthen us. Instead, he says something different and unexpected. The paradoxical contrast between the fragile clay jars and the extraordinary power of God leads Paul to map our lives onto the vulnerable life of God made flesh. So here is what he does say: we are “always carrying in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies” (4:10). Always carrying in the body the dying of Jesus! The claim is so odd that Paul repeats it for emphasis, even sharpening the paradox: “While we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.”
How can that be? We look in the mirror, and we are all too aware of the imperfections of our flesh. Some of us, like me, just have a bit more flesh on our frames than we might wish! Like Hamlet, we might wish that “this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew.” But whether we are fat or thin, young or old, we know that our flesh is weak, subject to pain, desire, sickness, and death. Yet it is precisely our mortal fleshly weakness that mirrors the weakness of the death of the Son of God—and thereby our flesh somehow becomes transparent to the life of Jesus. Our lives are shaped to the pattern of his death, and so, mysteriously, the life-giving power of the resurrection is released for others. “So,” Paul affirms, “death is at work in us, but life in you.”
Paul is saying that his vocation—and ours as well—is to display the self-sacrificial dying of Jesus in our own bodies in such a way that the proclamation of the cross actually becomes visible to the world. We are not only the carriers of an announcement; rather, we embody the announcement. Do you see the difference? We become the visible, palpable manifestation of the death and life of Jesus in the world.
Most English translations of 4:13 fail to convey this point fully. Paul writes, “Having the same spirit of trust, according to what is written, ‘I believed, therefore I spoke…” The same? The same as what? [And now you must permit me to put on my New Testament professor hat for a moment. What I’m about to tell you is something you won’t be likely to find in commentaries on 2 Corinthians, but I believe it is right.] Paul means that he has the same spirit of trust that Jesus had in his obedience unto death, and therefore he speaks, in the words of Psalm 116, just as Jesus did, to place trust in God and to proclaim the message. Listen to the immediately preceding verses of the Psalm that Paul quotes and ask yourself who is speaking here:
. . . you have delivered my soul from death,
My eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.
I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.
Do you hear it? The words of the Psalmist have become the words of Jesus—the Living One who was in fact delivered from death—and then they become also the words of Paul—and of the faithful departed colleagues whose lives of service we remember today. They have died, but through their faith they still speak.
And so Paul goes on in v 14 to proclaim clearly the result of our carrying the death of Jesus in our bodies: “…we know that the One who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.” That completes the pattern of the mysterious correspondence between Jesus and ourselves: we suffer as he did, embodying faithfulness to God as he did, and we will then also become sharers in his resurrection and final vindication in God’s presence.
And of course, a picture of coming into God’s presence is precisely what we encounter in Revelation 7. And so we shift the focus to our second text. This passage gives us John’s vision of the final gathering of all God’s saints to worship before the divine throne. They are “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”
“From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
through gates of pearl streams in the countless host.”
And they are dressed up for a festival, like the celebration of our gathering here in Greenville. They are robed in white (That is why we wear these white stoles, to remind ourselves of their white robes). They carry palm branches in their hands, singing praises to God and to the Lamb.
In John’s vision, one of the elders around the throne asks, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” We already know, of course, that they have come from “all nations.” They are not just Jews, nor are they just Americans or Europeans, or any one ethnic group. The gathering of the saints is a great globe-spanning multiethnic party, summoning in believers from all over the world, so that national origin and language cease to matter. (Did you notice that though they come from all tribes and tongues, they nonetheless are able to cry out their praise in unison, “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb”?)
But the question of where they come from has a still more urgent meaning. When John can’t answer it, his heavenly informant tells him, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation.” That’s where they have come from. The point is a crucial one: it is not merely that they have died and gone to heaven; rather, they have passed through the crucible of suffering as witnesses to the truth. When the elder says, “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” this is not only a reference to baptism; it means that they have followed the pattern of the Lamb who was slaughtered. Their confession of the name of Jesus has led to their death, and this is why their robes are—paradoxically—made white by the blood of the Lamb.
As they stand now before the throne, they chant an acclamation that expresses their defiance of the Empire that put them to death: “Soteria belongs to our God…and to the Lamb.” It’s an important buzzword: soteria (“salvation”) is what the Roman emperor claimed to provide for his subjects. He insured peace and economic prosperity throughout the empire, the famous Pax Romana. But these martyrs knew that Roman peace had been achieved at a high cost of brutality and exploitation. So, having met death for their refusal to bend the knee to the throne of Caesar, they now stand before the throne of God, acclaiming God alone as the true source of soteria. This is trash talk: they are saying, in effect, salvation comes from God, not from you, Caesar.
Who are these robed in white, and where do they come from? They are the witnesses to the truth, and they have come through the great ordeal without capitulating to the comfortable lies of a society that urges them to relax, fit in, and enjoy the benefits distributed by Caesar.
From start to finish the Book of Revelation juxtaposes the truth of the gospel to the lies and illusions of powers that try to deceive the saints and lead them away from allegiance to the one true God of Israel who acted in Jesus Christ for the salvation—the soteria—of the world. The entire book calls us to discern the truth and to make a choice. So, in John’s vision, the martyrs in the heavenly throneroom are models for us. They diagnose our true condition by showing that the world serves false gods, and they offer us a model to be emulated: like them, we must worship only the one true God, and put our lives on the line for our testimony to him.
Wayne Meeks writes about the Book of Revelation, “The business of this writing is to stand things on their heads in the perceptions of its audience, to rob the established order of the most fundamental power of all: its sheer facticity. The moral strategy of the Apocalypse, therefore, is to destroy common sense as a guide for life.”
That is what the testimony of the saints does for us: to destroy common sense as a guide for life. Common sense has been undone by the gospel of the Lamb who triumphed by being slaughtered. But we fail to see it; we live as though the truth about the world were told by those who wield power and money, by politicians and pundits on CNN and Fox News, rather than by the one who died on a cross.
Jesus was notorious for destroying common sense. In Matthew’s Gospel, he inaugurates his teaching ministry by gathering his disciples on a mountain and speaking the Beatitudes, those strangely unsettling blessings upon those who suffer and mourn and endure persecution. These blessings are not intended merely as pious consolations for the have-nots of the world; they are designed to turn things upside down by stripping away the deceptions that hold us captive and showing us reality. It really is true that the merciful will receive mercy; it really is true that the peacemakers are the children of God; it really is true that those who mourn will be comforted.
After pronouncing these blessings, Jesus turns and addresses his disciples directly, to make it clear that these beatitudes are a sketch of their vocation—our vocation: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Jesus’ disciples are to live in such a way that the Beatitudes will be embodied in their life together. When that happens, they will be “the light of the world.”
Wesley’s hymn signals that calling:
“Let us take up the cross till we the crown obtain,
And gladly reckon all things loss so we may Jesus gain.”
Who are these, robed in white, and where do they come from? They come from the fishing villages of Galilee, as well as the small towns of North Carolina, from Capernaum and Kinston, and they are a sign of the new world that our loving God is bringing into being. They hunger and thirst for righteousness. Make no mistake: that does not mean only that they seek to establish their own personal moral rectitude. Rather, it means that they long for the coming of God’s promised righteousness, the perfect justice foretold in Revelation 7. Here is what that righteousness looks like:
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more….
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
And he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
This is not fantasy; it is the truth about the reality in which we live, and the end towards which we are moving.
Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from? They are the departed brothers and sisters who have preceded us into the presence of God. As we commemorate their lives of service, we give thanks, for they are our link to reality. The saints break the illusion of common sense that holds us captive; they show us a pattern of faithfulness, rooted in Jesus, the Lamb who was slaughtered; and they show us where we are going, to receive the eternal weight of glory beyond all measure. In the life of the resurrection, we will finally be comforted, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
Thanks be to God.
Texts: 2 Cor 4:5-18, Rev 7:9-17