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Saturday, April 13, 2013

Exile, distress, and the kingdom - why Revelation at Easter?

I, John, your brother, who share with you
the distress, the kingdom, and the endurance we have in Jesus,
found myself on the island called Patmos
because I proclaimed God’s word and gave testimony to Jesus.

Detail of Triptych at St. Anne's, Barrington.
Book is Is 25:6 "On this mountain the Lord of hosts will prepare
a banquet of rich fare for all the peoples." (Isaiah 25:6).
I love the book of Revelation. When I was younger in this work, though, I admit that I struggled both with the 6 weeks of Revelation and with the same number of readings from 1 John through the Easter season in a different year. What on earth does the book of Revelation have to do with the celebration of paschal mystery, with Easter joy, and with the mission of the church?

The birth of the church in the Roman empire was not an easy time at all. Paul's ministry in Greece and Asia Minor, which had some success among Diaspora Jews, was apparently more successful with Jewish sympathizers, that is, with Greeks who were not Jews, but who were attracted to the Jewish ethos, their lifestyle, possibly their monotheism and piety, but who were not "converts" as such from paganism to Judaism. Paul, and those who study Paul, call these people "God-fearers." The trouble with them was, the Jews wanted them too. They contributed to the well-being and success of the Jewish enclaves in the cities of Greece and Asia Minor, and Paul was bringing them into the fold of his new Christian churches.

If this wasn't bad enough, there was jealousy in the synagogues themselves, where Christians continued to worship as long as they could, before being "excommunicated" as it were from these communities. We certainly can't blame Jewish Christians for wanting to continue to worship as they always had, since Jesus himself was a Jew, lived and died a Jew, and as far as any of us knows, always will be a Jew. And we can't blame Jews for wanting to keep their religion pure from this new sect that saw in one of many claimants the messiah of God. Not that we have any of this kind of infighting in 21st century religious groups.

And if that wasn't bad enough, in 70 CE, responding to series of uprisings in Jerusalem, the Emperor Vespasian sent his son Titus with four legions to lay siege to and destroy the city. After six months, and more than a million casualties, Jerusalem was leveled, the temple was (accidentally) burned to the ground, and thousands of residents were taken prisoner or reduced to slavery. As Christians became less and less associated with the Jews, seen less as a sect than a new "superstition," and one, to boot, which did not pay tribute taxes to Rome as the Jews did, the opportunity arose for local governors and other leaders to paint Christians as outsiders not to be trusted and then as scapegoats in the civil religion when things went badly. Thus, the Roman empire, whose emperor was also god, for nearly three hundred years persecuted the Christian church with official sanction, using imprisonment, torture, and humiliating death in the Circus under a general charge of treason against the emperor and disturbing the Pax Romana.

Less than one hundred years into this history, the author of the Book of Revelation, who identifies himself as John, writes from exile on the island of Patmos, a tiny island in the Dodecanese off the west coast of Turkey. The book of Revelation purports to be a series of visions that John is told to record, visions of a time of great tribulation in the world, told in the vivid symbolic style of apocalyptic literature. There are passages of great consolation, and passages of terrible wrath and war, war in fact between the armies of heaven and the armies of earth, led by anti-Christ. What's going on with all this?

Well, apocalyptic literature has precedents in Jewish literature, some of which even appears in the modern bible. The book of Daniel in the Jewish bible is just this kind of literature, and looking at what it has in common with Revelation can help us listen with new ears to the later book. Daniel was written in the aftermath of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid dynasty under Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Antiochus desecrated the temple by bringing forbidden objects and offerings to Zeus into the temple, which had to be rededicated after the Maccabean revolt. Tens of thousands of Jews were killed in the attack on Jerusalem by Antiochus in the latter part of the 2nd century BCE.

Dominic Crossan speaks about the confusion and crisis of faith brought about by the political horror and assault on religion that Jerusalem and Judaism suffered under the Seleucids. The horrors of the Maccabean revolt, told vividly in the books of Maccabees at the end of the Old Testament, caused people to ask, as they always have, How can a just God allow the lives of the young, the brave, the pious be so ignominiously and swiftly extinguished by people who revile God? It was too much to assimilate. So gradually, Crossan postulates, in the late wisdom literature, some Jewish philosophers began to postulate a "son of man," that is, a human being, who would set things right in this world, and even allow for an afterlife for those who were wiped out unjustly. And that life would be a physical life, a physical resurrection, because it was a physical life of which they were deprived. This hero, this "son of man," would figure into the cluster of images that surround the self-awareness of Jesus of Nazareth as he came into his own ministry during the occupation by the Roman empire.

The book of Daniel, like Revelation, contains visions of deliverance from the unbearable evil of the "abomination of desolation" that was the aftermath of the Seleucid invasion. We can see apocalyptic literature as a kind of "underground newspaper," or like the cabarets and theater of Berlin and occupied nations during the Third Reich, using allegories, carefully worded parody, and even humor to buoy people up and undermine the authority of the occupiers. They are like some of the spirituals of slaves in America, that not only dreamed of freedom, but often carried coded messages about escape routes and safe houses. Apocalyptic literature is the language of a culture trying not just to survive but to thrive against overwhelming opposition. It is a way of saying, "Hold on, friends. This emperor, as fierce as he is, also has no clothes. This empire too will pass. Hold on. We are strong enough for this. God is with us, even in this horror." 

For all the Sundays of Easter this year, passages from Revelation make up the second reading in the liturgy of the word. The visions of John of Patmos buffer the stories from Acts, often as not also stories of the trials of the Twelve in the early days of church, and gospels from John with pericopes from before and after the death and resurrection of the Lord. (Of course, they're all after the resurrection of the Lord, but some are set in context of the discourse at the Last Supper.) 

Why? Well, it seems to me that to anyone who reflects on it, the resurrection is an event in progress, and the suffering and death of Christ go on as well in the world. The risen Christ still bears the wounds of the cross on his body. The gospel helps us to see that although the reign of God is unfolding the world, and its communal victory over death is accomplished, it is still playing out in our lives, and in the lives of those who are suffering everywhere. We may as well face that some suffering is because of us, because of our ignorance, or neglect, or greed. The book of Revelation reminds all who, in the Easter moment, are still in the midst of exile and distress, there is reason to keep going forward in endurance and hope because of Christ Jesus. 

It's good to keep that in mind, as a corrective against creeping triumphalism in Christianity, especially among those of us who think that things are pretty good right now, and that the fight is over. And it's a good corrective against the idea, for both oppressed and oppressor, that the empire of God is a future reality that has no bearing on life in this world, that it is all right, for instance, for our preaching and ritual to narcotize us into blissful unawareness of the suffering of others. The book of Revelation trumpets the reality that for all its destructive power, its roaring bluster, its secret police and drones and prisons, the empire of Caesar is destined for the bottom of the sea, like every other human civilization, for the dump of history. For all the glitter of its buildings and its endless glut of money, that empire is nothing by comparison to the city of God and the brilliance of the slain and risen Lamb that is its warmth and power grid. 

Nevertheless, the vision is given to sustain hope in this world, for everybody. All of us, oppressor and oppressed, are called to the share in the feast of the Lamb. Here at the Easter threshold of time, on the razor's edge between night and morning, there's the echo from Galilean wilderness in our ear: "Turn away from sin, and believe in the gospel." Today, Revelation's trumpet rings in our ears, but it's just a quiet morning by a lake. There's fish cooking on the fire. A familiar voice invites us again into an adventure that is both familiar and altogether new: "Do you love me? Feed the world. Follow me." Both John of Patmos and Peter and all who have gone before us know that the path to the empire of God passes through the cross, built by Caesar. The book of Revelation tells us to hold the course, because Caesar is dead, and Jesus is alive.

Only chain that a man can stand 
Is that chain of hand on hand 
Keep your eyes on the prize 
Hold on 

Ain't been to heaven 
But I been told 
Streets up there are 
Paved with gold

Hold on, Hold on 
Keep your eyes on the prize 
Hold on