+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We reënter the narrative of John’s Apocalypse this week a chapter-and-a-half past where we left off last week, and once again we are sadly deprived of some context by the lectionary. This is probably unavoidable, since we’d be in church an awful lot longer if we read several chapters instead of several verses in our Sunday lections (I wouldn’t mind this as I’m all for longer church services, but I recognize I’m in the minority), but it is nonetheless unfortunate.
In all events, after last week’s lesson describing the glory of God and the Lamb being worshiped by the beasts and elders–which I interpreted as encompassing human experience of secular and religious authority as well as the dichotomy of human potential and human limitations–and the presentation of a scroll to the Lamb, understood as Jesus himself. In the chapter preceding this morning’s lesson, Christ opens six of the seven seals, revealing the nature of the tribulation which would be faced by early Christians: first four horsemen symbolizing the conquering power of the state, warfare and bloodshed, famine, and pestilence; then martyrdom and social upheaval symbolized by images of cosmic disaster.
There have been various views throughout the Church’s two thousand year history on what these images signify and (most controversially) when they did or will happen, and I’ve already given away my view if you were paying close attention, but it bears repeating that this is not the only view which an orthodox Christian can hold. In very broad terms, there are four competing schools of thought. First, there are those which hold that most or all of the things described in Revelation have yet to take place, a particularly popular view among fundamentalist evangelicals, and this view is unsurprising called futurism. There are those who believe most or all of them took place in the first century, and this view is called preterism. There are those who believe that many of the events described took place between late antiquity and the early modern period, the view held almost universally by the Protestant reformers for reasons that may be obvious if you understand how skeptical they were of practices in the medieval church, and this view is called historicism. Finally, there are those who hold that the images in revelation are entirely symbolic and refer to ongoing struggles between justice and injustice in the world, unsurprisingly a view held by nineteenth century liberal theologians and those who have inherited their mantle, and this view is called idealism.
If you haven’t guessed already, your rector’s view is what is usually called “partial preterism” or somewhat contentiously “orthodox preterism.” So, I believe, that there are still some things which have not taken place– namely, the Second Coming of Christ, the Resurrection of the Dead, and the establishment of the Kingdom of God in its fullness–because I believe the scripture and creeds bind one to a literal understanding of those events. Thus, I cannot be a full preterist (or an idealist, for that matter), but I do believe that much of the apocalyptic material, including the tribulation described in Revelation 6, took place in the first century, contra the futurists and historicists.
This sets the stage for chapter seven, the second half of which is the reading you heard a few minutes ago. In its footnotes, the study bible I use (the Oxford Annotated Bible), employs a rather underwhelming title for this chapter: “An Interlude.” It is rather more interesting than that title suggests, though, else it probably wouldn’t have been assigned for a Sunday morning. There is something critical we miss out on in skipping the first eight verses of the chapter, however. Before the great, uncountable multitude appears at the beginning of the lesson we heard, we are shown “four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth,” and God demands that before they permit any further destruction to be unleashed they mark with a seal of protection 144,000 people, 12,000 from each of the tribes of Israel. This is not, I would contend (along with the teaching of the church throughout its history), to be taken as a literal number of those spared, but as a symbol of comprehensiveness. All whom God has been given in his Covenant with the children of Israel, are reckoned among the elect. While John’s contributions to the New Testament (including Revelation) have sometimes been charged with antisemitism, and while, sadly, it has often been interpreted in antisemitic ways, the text itself does not fall victim to this charge, but in fact explicitly requires the opposite reading.
Only after a clear affirmation that God remains faithful to his covenant with the Jews, do we hear the glorious news of the expansion of that same amazing grace to all humanity: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”
Note here that we have images of victory in the midst of defeat, of life and death concurrently. The palm branches are an image we associate with both Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his death shortly thereafter (we do read the Passion story on Palm Sunday, after all). The robes are white, the symbol of purity and light and new life, but we are reminded later in the reading that they have been made white by being washed in the blood of the Lamb.
These connections between–Jew and Gentile, victorious and defeated, living and dead–is made even more explicit later in the lesson, though it is easily lost in translation. Where in our translation we are told that the one who is seated on the throne will “shelter” the faithful, the Greek σκηνώσει literally means “will spread his tabernacle,” calling to mind the tent in which the children of Israel made their sacrifices while wandering in the wilderness and into which only the priests of that nation were permitted entry. Now all are encompassed within the walls of the tent, and the sacrificial lamb is no longer slain but enthroned.
Now, there is a funny thing going on here, and it’s the one way in which the Oxford Annotated Bible‘s underwhelming footnote title for this passage, “an interlude” is quite right. It’s an interludium, literally a “between acts of play or of a play,” set on the stage of the play of human history or the playing field of the game of human striving. It is, in fact, an interlude which takes us outside the realm of chronology which we project on the world in order to make sense of it as temporal creatures, to that realm in which God dwells with the saints unbound by that earthly convention we call time.
So what I said earlier about the ordeal described in Revelation referring to events of the first century rather than the twenty-first should not take away from the fact that life in the twenty-first century can just as easily be reckoned an ordeal from which we are only saved by the source of our hope, which is in eternity. We are unlikely in Findlay, Ohio in the Year of our Lord 2019, to suffer as much or in the same way as Christians under Nero in A.D. 64 or the Jews under Vespasian and Titus in the A.D. 70s, or both the Jews and the Christians by Domitian in the A.D. 90s (which one John might have been thinking of and the precise date of Revelation’s composition is a debate we can have at another time).
Our struggles are quite different than those of the first century, but that doesn’t mean they should be minimized. Life can be a struggle, whether we’re talking about quotidian irritations or real tragedies. Life comes with moments of great joy, but because the world is fallen, life is also an ordeal. But at the last, just as those who came through it in the first century, we will also come through the ordeal and enter into the land in which the Good Shepherd will lead us to the springs of the water of life and wipe away the every tear from our eyes.
So it’s mother’s day, right, and I’m going to probably lose my liturgical-curmudgeon membership card for even mentioning it, since it’s a secular rather than a sacred holiday, but it can make for a good illustration. Motherhood (parenthood in general) can be the context for great joy. Now I don’t have children, so I cannot verify this, but I’ve heard it can be a great ordeal as well. This is the best case scenario, right? Your kids will turn out healthy and well-adjusted; it just might be a challenge getting them there sometimes. But then there are those estranged from their children. There are those whose children cannot seem to get their lives together. There are those who have had to bury a child. There are those who wanted to have children but were unable, and a day like Mother’s Day can be very difficult. Whatever the difficulty, whatever the ordeal, whatever the tragedy, we are assured today that in the end the tabernacle will be spread out over all of us who have been made clean in the blood of the Lamb.
I’ve held off for three weeks, cooled down a bit, so now I guess I’ll say something about that provoking (and not in a good way) interview Nicholas Kristof did with Union Seminary Dean and Disciples of Christ Pastor Serene Jones that was published in the New York Times on Easter Sunday. Jones denies bodily Resurrection, the omnipotence of God, the Virgin Birth, and the efficacy of prayer. It’s all the rather dull secular humanism wrapped in religious language–nineteenth century liberal Protestantism warmed over–that makes me wonder why anyone would bother going to church. There are plenty of Rotary and Kiwanis and Junior League meetings to attend. They cost more, I guess, but the food is better.
Anyway, of course Dr. Jones is asked about life-after-death, and of course she doesn’t say anything about the possibility of the existence of heaven (she does absolutely deny the possibility of the existence of hell, though that’s pretty standard fare in certain circles). She says that after we die, “I don’t know! There may be something, there may be nothing.” She then basically says that it doesn’t matter, because her faith isn’t based on that.
My response to this will probably not surprise any of you who knows anything about my own theology (or the theology of the Church, for that matter). It does matter. It matters a great deal. And my faith, for what it’s worth, is based on the belief that God’s justice and mercy win in the end and that we have a future with God more radiant than we can imagine.
I was reminded of this just last week at our annual clergy conference, when a group of my colleagues and I were talking about a new history of Anglicanism, which takes up again the old question of the degree to which our church was actually reformed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the degree to which it wasn’t. The volume suggests that even after the Restoration and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer there was still no clear resolution on that question, and so it remains. A colleague of mine said something like “well, this is the problem when we don’t have a confessional history like the rest of historic protestantism; thank goodness we don’t have to affirm everything in something like the Westminster Catechism, though I wish we could have just the first article of that document.” I proceeded to ask him the question to which he referred “What is the chief end of man?” to which he appropriately responded “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
Forever. That’s the vision we get in this interlude in Revelation. That’s the promise. Whatever the trials of this our current tribulation, whatever personal or communal ordeal besets us, we are in that uncountable company which John sees arrayed around the throne. Even now in the timeless region of God’s experience we are there robed in white, carrying the symbols of victory, being led and comforted by the Good Shepherded, and then, on that last, great day, our faith shall become sight. We will enjoy God forever. Thanks be to God who gives us this victory through our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit. Amen.