In a recent post I wrote that mainline "progressive" churches have mostly ignored the last book of the Bible as a resource for teaching and preaching, That's mostly true, but I want to qualify that statement: Episcopalians (and other liturgical Christians) may notice (if you come on this journey with me through John's Revelation) that there is quite a bit of poetry and imagery and language that has made its way into our common prayer. That starts right in chapter one, which is why I invite you to sing along with Charles Wesley's famous hymn linked above, "Lo, he comes with clouds descending." (And see Revelation 1:7)
It's also a good place to begin because it reminds us that this book (like all of the Bible) needs to be translated and interpreted. We don't live in a three-tiered universe. We don't need to ignore what Copernicus and Galileo and Einstein have taught us about the universe in order to read the Bible. We can sing the hymn and still not spend our days looking up, up in the sky, for Jesus to come back "riding" a cloud.
Rather than heaven being "above" the earth, Battle offers this image as a way into John's Revelation; hence also the title of the book, heaven on earth. He says Revelation is about that place where heaven and earth intersect - what the Celtic Christians might call a "thin place." This language is both cosmic and mystical and those are good words to help prepare us to journey into John's Vision.The lens we need is not to be literal detectives, but rather to see with the eye of the heart. In fact I'll come back to that again and again in these reflections and ask: what do you see? Or more accurately: what is John telling us that he saw in his vision? And how does that impact you, in a way similar to seeing a piece of art or watching the ebb and flow of the ocean?
At my ordination to the priesthood, I declared to the bishop and the gathered congregation that I believe "the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation." (BCP 538) I wasn't crossing my fingers and internally saying, "except for the Book of Revelation." And yet, The Episcopal Church (as well as other denominations that use the Revised Common Lectionary to "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" this material) has essentially done just that by writing it out of the canon. It only comes up during the Easter Season in "Year C" (which next comes two years from now) and on the Feast of All Saints. We have, essentially, ceded this "Word of the Lord" to the fundamentalists.
This sixteen-part series is an opportunity to rectify that somewhat and I invite you as a reader of this blog along for the ride, to see what we can see together. Here is an online link to Chapter One of the Revelation of St. John. I prefer the NRSV translation, but there are plenty of options here you can change to if that's your preference. Over the course of these next two weeks or so, I want to reflect on John's Revelation because my intuition is telling me that there is something really important here for us to receive if we mean to be faithful witnesses in this time and place.
I want to be very clear about something, however. My interest in Revelation is not because I am trying "to crack the code" on when and how the world is going to end or that I think this is imminent. That hermeneutic, I think, is the wrong way to read this literature. It's simply not about predicting the end of the world. Rather, it is written in a time and place (that I would argue is not so different as our own) when it feels as if the world is already coming apart at the seams. It's about how Christian communities are formed in that socio-political context. It's about, as Michael Battle puts it, opening our eyes to see heaven on earth even in the midst of challenging times..There is perhaps no better time to think about these things than during this Easter season, this season of new life.
Notice that John is pretty sure this is going to "take place soon." (1:1) If we take that literally and we anticipate this book to be about the literal end of the world, then we have to say two thousand years later that maybe he was wrong. I know, a millennia in God's eye is but an instant, and all that. But still. Maybe, "these things" are always taking place. Maybe there are signs of endings all around us, and some times more than others. But always those ending are, for an Easter people, signs of new beginnings as well, signs of the reign of God breaking in.
The writer (not the same John who gave us the Fourth Gospel) tells us he is a brother who is going through some tough times. The scholars aren't sure exactly when to date this book but a few emperors come to mind: Nero or Domitian have been the most popular choices, but most now agree it was the latter. This means the historical context of this book is some time late in the first century of the common era. (Although keep in mind it wasn't called that until centuries later.)
Here are a couple of things I notice in this first chapter: first, in the Greek the very first word is "acocalypse." We translate that as "the revelation" (singular, not plural) of Jesus Christ. If you are looking for synonyms you might say, "the uncovering" or "unveiling" or even "vision" of Jesus Christ. John has the vision; he is the see-er or seer. But the vision is focused on the victorious, risen Christ.
The second thing to notice, particularly relevant to this vision, is how many times that verb "to see" appears in just this first chapter alone; I count seven. (An interesting number.) John sees and then he is told to tell the seven congregations in Asia Minor what he has seen. And then John tells us what he saw. Hearing is also involved in this mystical experience, but not quite as much as seeing. Like so many others in the Bible who have this sort of experience, he is told to "be not afraid." (verse seventeen) which seems necessary given what he has seen.
Although this letter will soon get different, it's worth noting the parallels between Paul's epistles and this opening chapter which is quite similar in many ways to Paul's letter to the early Christians in Corinth or Rome or Galatia. It's an odd letter, but it is a letter from someone on Patmos and addressed to seven congregations in what we would call Turkey. More about them in the next post, but it's worth thinking about how we read Paul's letters, to the Christians in Rome or Corinth or Galatia. We may well claim there is a "Word of the Lord" there for us, but we begin by paying attention to those real congregations - and what they were experiencing at the time. We "overhear" the good news as we listen in. I think a similar approach makes sense here.