“ ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’… ‘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.’” – Revelation 7:13-14
I know this passage. I know this passage because it is one of the scripture choices for the burial liturgy, and I have heard it read at dozens of funerals – including my mother’s – and I have chosen to be read at mine. I know this passage!
We are going to get back to this passage from Revelation, but first I want to go to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the 15th chapter, where Paul writes beautifully and passionately in support of resurrection. I quote only a portion here:
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died… – 1 Cor 15:19 – 20
As I consider Paul’s words – “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” – I am convinced of two things. First, of their rightness. If Jesus has not been raised from the dead – “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ” – “we are of all people most to be pitied.” For here we are, “wasting” time on Sunday morning, while others read the Sunday Times or play tennis or golf. Here we are, Christians doing our best to live sober, upright and godly lives, while others seem to play by a different set of rules. Here we are, church people giving of our substance to an institution deemed by so many to be quaint and irrelevant, while they go on great vacations. By all means, “if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied!”
The second thing of which I am convinced is how few believe Paul’s words. The vast majority of people today – including many who call themselves “Christian” – live as though there were no resurrection. The vast majority of people today – even professed Christians – live “for this life only,” disregarding the next, making decisions to benefit me individually, now in this life. Financial decisions, for example, that do not consider that what may be “good” for me may not be good for those around me or for those who come after me. Or decisions of how to spend time, spending our time not on things that will benefit unto eternity –worship, prayer, a relationship, or serving someone in need – but spending our time on things to help us to get ahead now in this world. Or decisions about our intimate relationships… Never mind “forsaking all others,” but allowing others in to where only our spouse ought to be. There are many who live as though this world and our “threescore years and ten” were the totality of our existence. Even among professed “Christians,” it is for this life only that we hope in Christ!
Now getting back to Revelation… “’Who are these robed in white, and where have they come from?’” John the Divine sees that there is another reality to our existence. For him it is not for this life only that we hope in Christ. We Christians proclaim – we insist – that there is more: “’Who are these robed in white, and where have they come from?’… ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes white in the blood of the lamb.’”
Notice that St. John the Divine is not a perfectionist who expects Christians to live above the fray of this world, to not get our hands dirty. “These robed in white” had a hard go of it: “they… have come out of the great ordeal.” They are not perfect – their robes need washing. Notice, too, how they arrived where they are now, hungering and thirsting no more, God wiping away every tear from their eye: “They have washed their robes… in the blood of the lamb.”
For us Christians, it is a hard go of it in this life; we are often called to swim against the current. Look how few are here on any given Sunday; our culture does not do church, much less weekly. Look how much greed and corruption there is in our world; our culture does not believe “blessed are the meek,” and certainly not “blessed are the poor.” Look how many broken hearts and hopes and relationships there are in our world; our society does little to encourage the patience, the self-emptying, the charity that sustains committed relationships. There is little hope – none, actually – that we will get through this world unscathed; our robes will get dirty. To be a Christian – to be one of that multitude standing before the throne and before the Lamb – is not to be perfect; we are not called to live fantasies of perfectionism or to be in relationships that never change. We are called to live in a world filled with loss and failure; we are called to dwell in a land scarred by sin and injury. We are called to live here just as Jesus lived here. We are called to live here in this world, doing our best to live his life, and trusting that – even though that life may not make sense to this world, in the end, with him, with them – we will be able to wash our robes in the blood of the Lamb.
Emmanuel, Cardinal Suhard, the wartime Cardinal of Paris, once said that: “To be a Christian… means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”
Why not take a chance on resurrection? Why not make choices not merely for me for now, but choices that would make no sense, if God did not exist? Which does not mean not getting our robes dirty. Which does not mean living perfect lives in a perfect world. But which does mean living His life and, when we fall, washing our robes in the blood of the Lamb who is merciful and full of redemption.
We “wash our robes” weekly in the Eucharist. As we take his body and blood into ourselves, he comes to live in us and we in him. And we are strengthened to go through, and then come out of, the great ordeal and to be part of that multitude no one can count, standing before the throne. Who hunger and thirst no more, whose shepherd is the lamb at the center of the throne.
Why not take a chance on resurrection? Why not live your life in such a way that it would make no sense, if God did not exist? And can you take consolation in knowing that, thanks to the blood of the Lamb, any failings will not preclude your one day being part of that multitude, robed in white, standing before the throne, neither hungering nor thirsting, but adoring? Adoring Him. Who even now adores you.