Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Seer of Patmos

This map tells a lot. It reminds us that the Book of Revelation has a real cultural and historical context, whatever else we may wish to say about it.

When I was a child, my grandfather was very interested in the end of the world, especially through the lens of Hal Lindsay's The Late Great Planet Earth. Of course, my grandfather had lived his life and was retired, but my life was just beginning; so we had very different perspectives on this. Also, he was an independent Baptist and I was a United Methodist. We didn't talk much (read: at all) about the Book of Revelation in my church but I got the sense that they talked about it a lot in his.

To be clear: I loved my grandfather. But I was skeptical of his reading of the Book of Revelation. And my instincts were to not trust the not-so-great Hal Lindsay. So I began reading John's Revelation on my own in my early teen-aged years. I remember getting to verse 3:7, which is addressed to the angel of the church in Philadelphia. And since I was a Pennsylvania boy without a guide to read this book I thought for sure I was on to something and about to "crack the code!" Clearly this sacred text was speaking directly to Pennsylvanians in the 1970s!

One might think that my New Testament classes in seminary would help me to do what I was unable to do in my youth and on my own, but that would be a mistake. I had wonderful professors at Drew but their focus was on whatever quest for the historical Jesus was popular at the time and particularly on the Synoptic Gospels, which were way more popular than the Fourth Gospel. And of course on Paul as well, although again with a bias toward the real, historical Paul and not his lackey pretenders. It all left little time for the seer of Patmos.

Seer is a good word that I've been pondering since rereading Walter Wink this week. A seer literally sees. It's a reminder that listening to this revelation (singular, by the way, not plural!)  is not palm-reading about a distant future. Like all Biblical texts there may be implications for readers in the 1970s or the early years of the twenty-first century but the text itself was written from an Island in the Aegean Sea to first-century Christians in Asia Minor, what we would call Turkey today. John writes to seven congregations - or more accurately to the aggelos (i.e. angel) of those seven congregations. He tells us that plainly. The map above grounds us in that reality; it's not a map of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

The word "apocalypse" (in Greek this is the apocalypse of John) literally means "an uncovering." It's about removing a veil or cover over something hidden. Again, then, with the seeing. It's not about predicting something but helping the reader to see what was previously hidden.

Unfortunately, this last book of the New Testament has essentially been ignored by mainline Christians and therefore "handed over" to fundamentalists. In fact, Revelation is mostly ignored by the Revised Common Lectionary. The only time a preacher even has the option of preaching on it is in the Easter Season of Year "C" - the third year of the three-year lectionary cycle. And then it's up against Acts and John's Gospel! Not to mention that seventeen chapters are completely ignored, so the texts are completely wrenched from the narrative itself. But for those interested preacher-planners who happen to read this blog; it might be helpful to consider a preaching series from April 28 - June 2, 2019. I suspect most congregations would be grateful.

What to do in the meantime? I'm going to take Revelation with me next week, Holy Week, on a quiet monastic retreat. It's not like I've ignored this book completely in my ordained life; in fact at least twice while I was in Holden I taught a class on it using The Kerygma Series. It was alright but as a lectionary preacher, I've not really had the occasion to dive in deeply. So this is my chance. My hunch is that it may be helpful in making sense of our current realities; that there is a "Word of the Lord" here that may help the Church to be the Church in these difficult times. Not because "The End" is coming, but because signs of endings and of new beginnings are all around us.

Unlike when I went as a child, I'm taking some trustworthy guides with me. First, I'm taking my copy of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, which includes the NRSV translation and some helpful commentary that reminds the reader of that first-century context and also helps the twenty-first century reader avoid the pitfalls of anti-Semitic readings. I'm also planning to follow the outline used there which divides the book into sixteen manageable parts (Revelation is 22 chapters long but the logical breaks don't follow chapter by chapter.) My plan is to blog on these sixteen sections piece by piece during this Easter Season if you are interested in coming along.

I'm taking two other guides along with me to Cambridge. One is an older but recently re-edited commentary by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment and the other is a brand new commentary by Michael Battle, Heaven on Earth: God's Call to Community in the Book of Revelation.

I don't know yet what I'll find, but I trust my guides. My prayer is for open eyes and  to pay attention to what I see along the way by not getting too bogged down with polemics. If you want to come along and have not checked out my previous four posts on Walter Wink, I encourage you to do so - as a kind of "orientation" to the landscape ahead.

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