May 26, 2019 - Rev'd Kevin Corbin Smith
SERMON FOR THE 26THT OF MAY 2019 THE SIXTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
DELIVERED BY THE REVEREND KEVIN CORBIN SMITH RECTOR, ST. CLEMENT’S CHURCH, SEATTLE
Over the last several weeks, the Lectionary has assigned to us lessons from the Book of Revelation, or as it’s also known, The Apocalypse of John. The Book of Revelation is a strange book with all sorts of symbolism and beastly characters. It’s also the most misunderstood book in the New Testament if not the entire Bible itself.
It wasn’t until the fifth or sixth Century that the Church decided which Gospels and Epistles would be included as sacred Scripture. Until then, different bishops drew up lists for their dioceses of which they considered to be Scripture. Most of these lists are very similar with the exception of the inclusion of Revelation. Seems that about half of them thought that the book was Scripture and the other half thought that St. John – who is not actually the author – had found the magic mushrooms on the Island of Patmos where the book is purported to have been written. When the bishops finally got around to convening several local councils to deal with the whole issue, in each case, Revelation got in by the skin of its teeth. Even at such early dates, the book itself was highly controversial.
The controversies stemmed from the fact that since the book is filled with symbolism and beasts and wars and such, and nobody really knew what they meant that the interpretations ran the whole gamut from soup to nuts and, at times, heavy on the nuts. The Protestant Reformers made things worse by identifying the Antichrist with the Bishop of Rome and the Roman Church as the Whore of Babylon. Luther had a field day with all that though I must admit that Archbishop Cranmer wasn’t far behind him.
Fast forward four hundred years from the Reformation and our evangelical and fundamentalist brethren and sistren come along and claim to take the book literally, a claim which is just plain silly since at that time no one had a clue what the text was really all about. And these brethren and sistren assigned all sorts of identities to the various characters in the book and even tried to nail down the exact date of Christ’s return.
The advances in science and archeology have actually been very helpful in uncovering the mysteries of the Book of Revelation. What has been discovered are texts and antiquities that reveal much of the symbolism of the book. What we have in this rather odd piece of literature is a text written in code that everyone who read it at the time of its writing would’ve understood. Many of the main characters were understood culturally by their nicknames. If I say, “the Big Orange Man,” you understand who I’m talking about. When the author of Revelation talks about the Beast, everyone at that time would’ve understood that he was referring to either the Emperor Diocletian or Nero. Among non-Romans, the Whore of
Babylon was a reference to the Roman Empire. The list goes on but there’ only so much time. In other words, in essence, we’re reading someone else’s mail not understanding the common lingo between the writer and the recipient.
The other thing we now know is that the Book of Revelation is not a book of prophecies about the future but an expose of the then present problems and dangers facing those who followed Jesus. We know that the Whore of Babylon was not the Soviet Union. And the title of The Antichrist has been ascribed to a whole host of people throughout the millennia besides popes, Hitler, Stalin and Napoleon Bonaparte among the big winners. We also know that the Woman pursued by the Great Dragon in Chapter 12 who gave birth to a son who was snatched up into the heavens is indeed symbolically the Virgin Mary who symbolizes the Church which was being persecuted in various places of the Roman Empire by the state itself, the Dragon.
But here’s the clincher: The Book of Revelation ends with a vision of a new heaven and new earth, for the former heaven and earth have passed away. Those who have endured the great tribulation are healed and made new. And God makes his dwelling among those who dwell upon the earth in the New Jerusalem. And he shall be their God and they shall be his people. Evil will have been conquered. The devil has been defeated. God reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
What the writer of the Book of Revelation writes is a graphic story written with rich symbolism and metaphor to Christian communities across the vast Roman Empire who are undergoing persecution. The common misconception is that from the day of Pentecost to the establishment of the Church as the official religion of the Roman Empire the Church was under constant persecution. And while Christians were essentially social pariah in many parts of the Empire, actual persecution was sporadic at best. About 10% of these 400 years were actually filled with state sponsored persecution of the Christian Church. Regional and city persecutions occurred here and there with some regularity. But in general, the Church was left alone though its members were not at all popular and thought of as nut jobs.
So, the author of the Book of Revelation sets out to comfort those Churches that are finding life difficult, those Churches being persecuted by the state at times and by the locals among whom they lived. While these persecutions were sporadic, they could also be quite violent with significant loss of life. And living in an environment in which one was shunned by the majority has its emotional and psychological effects. So, the author weaves a tale using wild imagery and the jargon of the time to comfort those enduring their situations assuring them that in the end all will be well. He writes to encourage them in their faith and to not give up. He writes to assure them that what they are enduring is for a purpose and that purpose is the defeat of evil and the triumph of God.
The compilers of the Lectionary knew what they were doing by including this very strange text in the readings for the Liturgy during Eastertide. They understood that this wild tale is just as important for us as it was to the author’s original audiences. They understood that living the faith is not easy. It’s easily misunderstood by those outside it. They understood that there are still those who experience violence in many forms for following Jesus. They realize that there are times when the institutional Church Herself has played the role of that Babylonian Lady of the Evening making it difficult for those of us down in the trenches to get the Good News of Jesus out in any credible manner. And the compilers of the Lectionary knew that we in our own day need to hear words of encouragement and comfort as we try to bear witness to Jesus in our own day.
We may not think of ourselves as persecuted but let’ face it: in this country at the present time and in much of the world the only really safe population is straight, white men. While more than half of the population of this country including women, sexual minorities, people of color, the economically disadvantaged, immigrants and the like may - or may not - actually experience physical violence, the fact is that at least culturally their worth is seen as less than. I’m not asking that we all feel paranoid, but as the old saying goes: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. And thank God there is a big chunk of straight, white men who understand this phenomenon and actively support and stand in solidarity with those for whom life can be a bit strange at times.
Which is why the message of the Book of Revelation is just as poignant and profound today as it was two thousand years ago. It reminds us – not just as Christians – but as human beings that the powers and forces of darkness may seem strong and in charge and even winning.
I can only speak for myself, but there times where I just wanna pull up the covers and wait until it’s over. And while that may be an option, the truth of the matter is that in the end the powers of good and hope and charity and compassion will overcome those forces which might seem to be doing us in. Revelation tells us that in the end, God wins. Revelation tells us that God has already won. Revelation tells us that the darkness has never had a chance to begin with.
The Book of Revelation is a testament to the Resurrection which is why it made it into the New Testament and why it is read during Eastertide. It’s not a text to be taken literally but it is still true. Both Revelation and the Resurrection remind us that darkness and evil and corruption and poverty and injustice are not the last words; that in the end, even now, this very moment - none of those things have any real power, not even death itself. Both Revelation and the Resurrection remind us, compel us, to live in vibrant hope – hope for the present and hope for the future. And they remind us as Christians to hold that hope up high for those who still live in darkness and in the shadow of death. They remind us to take the risks of following Jesus – to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the
dignity of every living creature – for our robes too will be made white in the blood of the Lamb who now reigns for ever and ever. They remind us both corporately and in our own individual lives that when things seem wonky or life throws garbage at us that we don’t have to face it alone, that God stands with us to endure until the storm passes and then thrive into new and abundant life.
You have homework this week. Dust off your Bible and reread the Revelation to John. Read it as you would one of Aesop’s Fables or Tolkien or C. S. Lewis. We know Aslon is a fictional character, but we also know he speaks the truth. Read it as you would a great best-selling novel because while the words on the page may be fiction, they contain great truths: the story of what it means and costs to follow Jesus; the risks involved and the dangers we might encounter. But always be aware of how the story ends and how history itself unfolds: as it says on the rolling sign in AJHouse, “Love always wins!” Keep hope alive. Be hope for yourself and for those who live in darkness. For indeed, love always wins, that love we know deep in the core of our being; that love we know and live in Jesus Christ our Lord.