Sermon for Easter 2 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Looking back at sermons from previous years, I discovered that on the second Sunday of Easter in years past I invariably preached about “doubting Thomas.” So, this year I thought I’d do something a bit different. For the next six weeks, the second lesson is from the Revelation of St. John the Divine, so I’m going to try to preach on those lessons this Eastertide.

If there’s one book of the bible which has created more consternation and controversy than any other, it is Revelation. We’ll get more into the meat of the book in the upcoming weeks, and I’ll try to convince you that it’s not a frightening tale of things to come, but a hopeful, symbolic exploration of the victory of Christ over the powers of death as early Christians in the Roman Empire were experiencing intense persecution.

More on that in the coming weeks. As for this morning’s lesson, there are two points on which I want to concentrate- namely, the genre of the book and its protagonist.

First, the genre of the book is what biblical scholars call apocalyptic. Now, when we hear the word “apocalypse” we tend to think it denotes destruction- the end of the world and such. This isn’t what the term means, though, and it’s not what the book of Revelation is about. The word “apocalypse” is taken from the Greek words apo and kalupto, which literally means uncovering or revealing (hence the common, English title of the book Revelation). The first verse of the book signals that this is what it’s aiming to do:

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants what must soon take place; and he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.

John is claiming that the words he writes were given him by God.

We often refer to the whole of the bible as revelation, as being somehow given or inspired by God, but this is the only New Testament text which explicitly claims to be revealed. One might make the argument that it’s the only book in the New Testament whose author knew he was writing scripture while he was writing it.

This brings up an interesting question. How do we test a document or a prophecy to determine whether it’s genuinely revealed, whether or not God actually inspired it? Anyone could claim to be speaking on God’s behalf, and such a claim could just as easily be used to justify horrible things. Hate groups like the Westboro Baptist Church and the Family Research Council claim to speak on God’s behalf.

One way orthodox Christian groups have safeguarded against this is by claiming that direct revelation simply ceased with the end of the apostolic era, that God stopped speaking directly to people after the first generation of Christians died and now the Church is left to protect and proliferate the early revelations alone. I’m not so certain about this argument, as it places a limit on God. If God wants to reveal something to us, God is perfectly well-entitled to do so.

I think a more moderate approach is more helpful, an approach based on prayerful discernment and consensus. In this approach, the Church does not serve to silence God, but rather to carefully determine what is and isn’t of God. Many have had compelling experiences of the divine, and it is left to the whole community to confirm or dis-confirm those experiences in the light of the Gospel.

And that brings us to the second point, the protagonist of this revelation:

Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden girdle round his breast; his head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters; in his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth issued a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand upon me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. 

Here Christ is identified with God the Father who a few verses earlier had claimed to be “Alpha and Omega.” Jesus claims to be “the first and the last, and the living one.” For this reason he says “fear not.”

In this book which many have seen as a terrifying vision of coming gloom, Jesus reminds us not to fear, because the whole sweep of history is in his hands and proceeds according to his plan. The reassuring hand of the risen Lord fell upon John, and falls upon us, to gently console us and make us know that all will be well.

Perhaps this is the best test of a prophet, the best way to determine the difference between revelation and a made-up story. Does it place power in the so-called prophet or in the hands of our gentle Lord? Is it a message of judgment or of hope? Is some charismatic leader the source or is it he who is alpha and omega? Next week we’ll get four beasts and a creepy dead lamb and some mysterious elders. Stay tuned for that. For now, remember that all will be revealed by him who has suffered and risen triumphantly for our salvation and freedom.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.