Revelation’s author, known to Christian tradition as Saint John the Divine, finds himself in the heavenly throne room. To this point in the Apocalypse, John is earth-bound, but now John finds himself transported to the throne of God. John writes, “At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne” (Revelation 4:2). Our text, Revelation 7:9-17 furnishes a description of but one of the many things John sees in the throne room. Among the visions is “a great multitude.” When John suggests that these are those who “who have come out of the great ordeal,” John implies those who have been faithful to Christ’s ministry with their lives—they are martyrs. In this sense, they are the convincing stewards. These stewards have offered everything to God’s Realm.
All Saints Sunday is the day that the church celebrates those believers who have died in Christ. It is a day of remembrance. On occasion believers ask, “How does a person become a saint?” All Saints Day and Revelation bring this sort of question to mind.
Chapter seven provides strangely contrasting visions of the church militant and the church triumphant. First, there is a specifically calculated throng of 144,000 contrasted to “a great multitude that no one could count.” Second, John contrasts the twelve tribes of Israel to “a multitude from every nation.” Third, John describes the church militant as a company prepared for threatening peril and distinguishes it from the victorious and secure counted in the church triumphant. Whatever this chapter wants to impart, above all, it is John’s attempt to describe a vision of heaven.
Over the centuries the concept of heaven has fueled much speculation—regularly confused and confusing to those on this side of death. A cartoon once appeared in The New Yorker Magazine. It showed a group of heaven-bound saints lined-up just outside the heavenly gates. Peter stood at a podium; reading off the answers to the most frequently asked questions on earth, now finally and decisively answered in heaven. Saint Peter reads the list: “# 48, true; # 49, false; # 50, William Shatner; # 51, yes; # 52, the Ponderosa; # 53, every other Tuesday . . . .” People have inquiring minds and we want to know. John’s heavenly apocalyptic vision offers us one such image.
“How does a person become a saint?” For stewards this is a controlling question, for we all believe that our response to God offers us a just “reward.” But however we conceive of heaven, John writes at least this much: heaven is the place where saints or believers—they amount to the same thing—commune with God.
Our efforts do not make us saints. Rather, we become saints when God confers on us “gifts and graces” to handle as stewards. When we use God’s resources for shaping God’s Realm, then God develops us into true saints. God bestows sainthood at the point where God’s grace encounters our stewardship. There, we find God and God’s saints.