Then he said to me, “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 to John 7:14
As the story is told, a few years ago when the University of the South decided to renovate All Saints’ Chapel, they contracted with a liturgical architect to redesign the baptismal font. Like many Episcopal churches prior to 1979, the previous font was located off to the side in a small chapel, a location that reflected the theology of baptism pre-1979 – a private ritual to mark a life-event only to witnessed by close family and friends. The liturgical architect who was asked to resign the font recommended that the font be placed right in the chapel’s center aisle.
If you have ever been to All Saints’ Chapel in Sewanee, TN, you will know that it is a “chapel” in name only. The rich, neo-gothic architecture is feast for the eyes, with soaring, groin-vaulted ceilings; breathtaking clerestory windows that depict Jewish and Christian themes as well as a bit of world history; and a long aisle that makes it perfect for weddings. In fact, when the decision was made to place the font in the middle aisle, a complaint was levied by a long-time resident of Sewanee about the font’s intrusion into the aisle. “What about the brides? The baptismal font will get in the way,” they said. Without missing a beat, the architect responded, “that is precisely the point.”
The revision of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer makes clear that the two dominical sacraments of the Church – Baptism and Eucharist – are our main points of connection to God. Baptism is defined as “full initiation by water and the Spirit into Christ’s body, the Church,” whereas Eucharist is celebrated as the “principal act of Christian worship” wherein the Body and Blood of Christ are made present, hear and now, to feed the Body of Christ, you and I, for our journey ahead.
Both sacraments connect each of us in this room to Christians throughout the world and through time and space itself. Baptism calls to our attention the power of water, its ability to destroy and to create, as an agent of God’s grace. In Holy Baptism we become firsthand witnesses to the primordial waters of chaos in Creation, the parting of the Red Sea and the liberation of the Jewish people, and the Baptism of our Lord. Eucharist calls our attention to the presence of Christ in ordinary items, bread and wine. In the prayer for consecration we are brought to that night where he broke bread and poured the cup before he was handed over to suffering and death.
Taken together, these sacraments serve as connecting points to a long-standing tradition of Christian fellowship.
Taken together, Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist, both root us in God’s changelessness and propel us forward into God’s mystery.
Taken together, Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist reveal the abundant grace of God – a God willing to come and find us and to help us rediscover our original goodness; a God who not only sends us out in mission, but who meets us and walks with us every single step of the way.
Baptism and Eucharist have been the normative entry points into the Church since the very beginning. When the Apostles went around spreading the message of the Resurrection, the people who heard the message were often so compelled by what they heard, that they gave up everything to follow Jesus. There are stories of whole families entering into the baptized community of God, relinquishing titles and wealth to follow the Way, and becoming saints in their own right.
Saints are not merely saints because we knew and loved them, nor are they saints because they did great deeds. A dear friend of mine and fellow priest, the Rev. Chris Arnold, says it this way:
What makes somebody a Saint is only this: that God’s work in them is as complete as can be for them, that they have run the race set for them, that they have put on the Lord Jesus Christ, that they are truly able to say, with Paul, that it is no longer they who live, but Christ who lives in them.
It is God’s grace that makes saints, not our will or power alone. It is grace – God’s love for us, unearned and undeserved – that seeps through our fortifications to saturate us with God’s lovingkindness. In the Sacraments, we practice receiving this grace. We practice seeing God’s ability to use the worst of us to display the God’s best of God; God’s power to take our insecurities, our doubts, or skepticism, our laziness, and our fear and to transfigure them into something wonderful, something lovely, something inspiring.
That saints were not always the most diligent in prayer, the most fierce in courage, the most bold in their witness, nor the most compassionate in their giving. They were ordinary and human, just as you and I are. What makes them saints is that, over the course of their lives, they were molded more and more into the image of Christ.
And now that they have gone from this earth, they have achieved the goal many of us still strive for – to perfectly reflect the love of Christ who is himself the very reflection of the Father. They shine brightly, not because they have any light in-and-of themselves, but because they are so filled with the light of Christ. This is the Great Cloud of Witnesses. “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal,” says John the Revelator. “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” These are they who are made closer to us, and us them, whenever we rehearse God’s grace in Baptism and Eucharist. These are they who have run the race that is set before us. These are they who lean over the grandstands of Glory to cheer us on as we run. “Walk together children, don’t you get weary; there’s a great camp meeting in the Promised Land.”
I don’t know about you, but I could use all the help I can get. This journey can get a little weary sometimes. There is so much that can weigh us down, so much can discourage us from taking the next step in faith. But we are not on this journey alone. We travel the path pioneered by Christ and walked by countless saints who have come before us and we can trust that they pray for us. In the words of Ray Charles and Gladys Knight (words later taken up by Stevie Wonder):
Now I lay me down before I go to sleep.
In a troubled world, I pray the Lord to keep,
keep hatred from the mighty,
And the mighty, from the small,
Heaven help us all.
That simple prayer makes one thing abundantly clear: we all stand in need of God’s help. In response to our plea, God says: “step through the water and come to the table; for here you will find strength for the journey. Here, you will find the community you need.”