MARTYRS’ SUNDAY (ALL SAINTS DAY)
(REMEMBERING SLAIN HEROES AND HEROINES)
Remember I Believe
By Bernice Johnson Reagon
Sunday, November 1, 2009
Lewis Brogdon, Jr., Guest Lectionary Commentator
Ph.D. Student in Renewal Studies at Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA
Lection - Revelation 7:13-17 (New Revised Standard Version)
(v. 13) Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robbed in
white, and where have they come from?” (v. 14) I said to him, “Sir you are the
one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the
great ordeal; and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood
of the Lamb. (v. 15) For this reason, they are before the throne of God: and
they worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on
the throne will shelter them. (v. 16) They will hunger no more, and thirst no
more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; (v. 17) 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
I. Description of the Liturgical Moment
Martyrs’ Sunday is a time that commemorates those whose lives have been lost for
the cause of justice and righteousness. In the New Testament, a martyr was one
who, in life, bore witness to their faith in Christ and was celebrated once
they died. In early Christian history, martyrs were those who lost their lives
during imperial persecution because of their devotion to Jesus Christ.
In the African American religious tradition, Martyrs’ Sunday is a special day
that celebrates the fine line that our people have walked between life and
death and how meaning has been carved out of experiences that were meant to
destroy our people. This liturgical moment, like many special days in the life
of the African American faith community, is a somber and yet celebrative time;
because, through the years, there have been so many painful goodbyes—but, this
text testifies to what so many of our foreparents knew, in spite of the
goodbyes here, on the other side, all martyrs for the faith will receive a
triumphant welcome, because they have overcome the world.
II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: Revelation 7:13-17
Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter
Though there was, is, and always will be cause for celebration for the
accomplishments and achievements that blacks have made in America, the 400 year
sojourn of blacks in America has been overwhelmingly painful. Slavery,
characterized by dehumanization and economic exploitation, as well as decades
of segregation and legalized oppression, has left the black community
permanently scarred. In the midst of this painful history, countless lives have
been lost, especially the lives of my black brothers—many whose blood has paved
the way for African American advancement. My brothers have been whipped,
gagged, hunted with dogs, lynched, harassed, beaten, miseducated, and
incarcerated, during “the great tribulation.”
In my life, I have said goodbye to a father and grandfather, in their early 50s.
I spent my formative years in the projects in Virginia and have seen my friends
from those projects either arrested or dead before age 30. Being a black male
in America, from the 1600s to the present, has included far too much
familiarity with trouble or in the words of our text, “the great tribulation.”
Part Two: Biblical Commentary
The book of Revelation represents the culmination and consummation of God’s
redemptive work in the world through the work of Jesus Christ. It was written
sometime between 92-96 CE by John, who was exiled on the isle of Patmos during
the reign of Emperor Domitian. Interestingly, the book combines apocalyptic
literature with epistolary and prophetic segments woven throughout the text. As
an apocalyptic text, it represents a genre that employs symbols, numbers, and
figurative language to conceal its message to its enemies, as well as to
authentically reveal the truth of God’s victory over oppression and all forms
of evil. As a prophetic text, it includes sections that contain references to
prophetic figures, oracles, messages of judgment for oppressors, and hope for
the oppressed. Theologically, the book of Revelation addresses human suffering
in the world, the mystery of divine providence, judgment of evil, and victory.
In other words, this apocalyptic text speaks a word about tribulation (trouble)
in the world.
The heavenly scene described in Revelation 7 is a dramatic and powerful
depiction of the central truth of the apocalypse of Jesus Christ. A great
multitude stands before John, as a witness that trouble does not always last.
In Revelation 7:9, John sees a multitude “that no one could count from every
nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” As a result, he asks two
questions: who are these people and where did they come from? This week’s
passage also contains images of victory: coming out of tribulation, having
one’s robe washed in the blood of the lamb (v. 7:14), and a multitude before
the throne of God serving God continually (v. 7:15). In addition, there are
heavenly images that tell us that the righteous will abide under the tabernacle
of God (vv. 7:15-16) and experience the Lamb of God as shepherd (v. 7:17).
The Social Situation
Aspects of apocalyptic literature reflect and resonate with the black
experience. Like John on the island of Patmos, we know what it is like to
experience exile and imperial oppression. Africans of the Diaspora have faced
unjust political, social, and religious power over the course of our 400 year
sojourn in America. Revelation’s message of facing darkness with hope, because
of eschatological realities, is meaningful in the black religious tradition. In
the black Pentecostal-Holiness tradition of my formative years, we used to sing
a song that says, “I Am So Glad That Trouble Don’t Last Always.” This song
seems to strike at the heart of the message of the book of Revelation. Trouble
in this world happens, just as Jesus said it would. In fact, in the Johannine
literature tribulation or overcoming tribulation in the world is often
mentioned (John 16:33; 1 John 5:5; 2 John 7; 3 John 10-11; Revelation 2:9-10,
3:10). In this tradition, faith in Christ is not an exemption from adversity.
However, the book of Revelation reinforces the message of this song: that
trouble does not have the final word, because Jesus has overcome the world.
Revelation serves as a fitting conclusion to the New Testament canon, because
it makes clear that trouble does have an ending date.
The Identity of the Martyrs
On Martyrs’ Sunday (All Saints Day), as we commemorate our heroes and heroines
whose lives were lost for the faith, it is good to know that among the
multitude stand a host of black ancestors who now don robes of glory. Who are
these people--these martyrs? They are the thousands upon thousands of captured
Africans who died in the mid-Atlantic, the African slaves who were mercilessly
killed at the hands of brutal slave masters, the thousands killed during the
Jim Crow years, the thousands who died and continue to die because of the
vicious cycles of poverty and violence that eat at our inner cities and rural
towns. Finally, and most importantly, they are those who have called on the
name of Jesus Christ, who is both the Lamb of God and king of the heavenly
host. John saw them standing before the Lord on that glorious day. In the
world, they were called “nobodies.” History does not even remember, nor record,
many of their names, but they are somebody in the eyes of God. In the eyes of
the Almighty, they are children of the Most High God. In this text, they are
clothed in robes of victory.
The Location and Legacy of the Martyrs
The second question, “Where did they come from?” is significant in this
apocalyptic text. In this text, both persecution and oppression are carried out
by corrupt officials of the Roman Empire. This multitude is unique, because
they have come out of the great tribulation. It is an interesting fact that
both the church of the first century and the black church faced imperial
persecution and oppression. What is even more significant about this connection
is that we know that the early Church was not crushed under the weight of
unjust and abusive political power. The witness of the first century church
serves as a source of encouragement to the black church whenever it faces
tribulation: the instruments of hell (economic oppression, unequal justice, and
“spiritual wickedness in high places”) will not prevail.
Revelation 7:14 describes the multitude in words that elicit a celebrative
response. The elder says, these are the ones who came out of the great
tribulation. A central part of the mystery and genius of black spirituality is
the ability to use celebration in a way that imparts strength for the journey
ahead. Black spirituality does not celebrate the fact that there is injustice
in the world. Instead, black spirituality accepts the fact that the great
tribulation will be faced by the faithful and boldly asserts that one is
neither defined by tribulation nor confined to tribulation. God’s people go
through and come out of tribulation. Why? Because trouble don’t last always.
The descriptive details in this passage include:
Elders - John turns to one of the elders and asks for
understanding about the great multitude. In the African and African American
cultures, elders are prominent figures who provide insight, wisdom, and
oversight. Elders remind us of the importance of the wisdom of the ancestors.
People clothed in white robes - Black martyrs clothed in white
robes is a particularly problematic image, because the color white has been
used in ways to reinforce white supremacy, while simultaneously demonizing the
color black. Great care needs to be taken when employing this image. For
example, it should be explained to listeners that the use of the term white, in
this context, does not in any way relate to race or ethnicity.
Washing robes - This evokes images of the days of slavery and
The blood of the Lamb - This is arguably the most important
image in the passage, because it reminds readers that coming out of the
tribulation is only possible because of the shed blood of Jesus Christ on the
cross. The great multitude overcame because they not only persevered in the
face of persecution and oppression, they believed in Jesus Christ. The efficacy
and the necessity of the shed blood of Jesus is a truth that must remain
central in black preaching.
Hunger no more/Thirst no more - This powerful image reminds
readers of the economic and social conditions of most blacks in America. Many
know about hunger and thirst, because African Americans are socially deprived
and inordinately experience poverty.
Scorching heat - (It reads “sun beat down” in the NAS version.)
This brings to mind another powerful image from the days of slavery when our
ancestors worked in the cotton, indigo, rice, and tobacco fields, under
heat-stroke causing temperatures.
III. Recommendations for the Study of Revelation
Commentaries on Revelation:
Blount, Brian K. Can I Get A Witness: Reading Revelation through African American
Culture. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005.
Mounce, Robert. New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of
Revelation. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1998.
Kistemaker, Simon J. New Testament Commentaries: Revelation. Grand
Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001.
Morris, Leon. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries: Revelation. Grand
Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1994.
*Bernice Johnson Reagon. “I Remember, I Believe.” Special thanks to Dr. Reagon
for the use of this song in print and audio.