what?!

preachinga sermon, based on Revelation 7.9-17 and John 10.22-30, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Easter, April 17, 2016

Whenever I read the Book of Revelation, I oft have an immediate one-word reaction: What? It’s not because all of Revelation’s symbols are beyond the grasp of my comprehension or the reach of my imagination. Some are. At first and literal glance, it’s hard for me to conceive how a robe bathed in blood can come out white. But the primary image in today’s passage, “a great multitude…from every nation…all tribes and peoples and languages” enthralled in worship, is familiar in the realm of human experience.

The National Mall in Washington, DC, where I lived for nearly thirty years, is the site of countless gatherings of countless people from countless cultures, races, and creeds engaged in countless demonstrations of regard for some cause or issue, in praise or protest, or of respect for some notable person, whether while living or posthumously…

The various stadiums, whether there or anywhere are coliseums, cathedrals for multitudes across the human social spectrum to gather for the religion of sport; the cheering of the crowds, a human expression of Revelation’s angelic chorus of praise…

Closer in context and content, recalling the South African leg of my sabbatical journey some years ago, I bear an image in mind of vast crowds of Christians gathering on Sunday mornings to worship God in Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit; their impassioned songs of praise reaching, raising the rafters.

Revelation is distinctive, but not entirely strange, especially when we can find earthly, ordinary examples that reflect its rich imagery. And that’s the problem with Revelation. Its symbols, as symbols, point beyond themselves to a truth that is wholly otherworldly, which our commonplace examples, at best, only partially, imperfectly reflect.

For Revelation is a vision of existence after the end of time, following the calamitous culmination of human history. When the eternal “not yet” is now. When our creedal hope that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end”, is fulfilled. When, in the words of the Beatitudes, all who hunger and thirst for righteousness, right relationship with God, are satisfied,[1] for they hunger and thirst no more. When the prophetic word, promising life eternal with the Lamb who also is our shepherd guiding us to springs of living water, is accomplished. When the eschatological gift of white-robed salvation through the sin-cleansing blood of the death and resurrection of Jesus is realized.

The Adoration of the Lamb (“at the center of the throne”, The Revelation of St. John, chapter 7.17), woodcut by Albrecht Dürer (c. 16th century), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This truth, this reality is beyond our experience, perhaps our imagination; leading me to ask not “What?”, but rather how does this happen for me, for you, for us so that Easter’s promise is a not yet fully realized, but a no less truly now reality?

In asking this question, I thank God for Jesus the Good Shepherd who leads us and guides us, who tells us how to follow him in this life and throughout eternity.

The good shepherd, Luca Giordano (1634-1705)

There are countless voices in the church and in the world that claim to speak in God’s Name, telling us how to be in relationship with God…

Some testify to the significance of religious experience; beholding heavenly visions, hearing angelic voices or, in the language of Rudolph Otto,[2] encountering God’s mysterium tremendum, God’s awesome mystery and overwhelming majesty…

Others require belief in right doctrine; holding with unquestioning certainty every assertion of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds…

Still others urge constant study and prayer to gain greater knowledge of God so to fulfill that exhortation of Ephesians that we “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God”[3] (that is, that we know more about Jesus who is one with God[4] and we know what Jesus knows about God!)…

Still some others insist on the necessity of morality, where Christian belief is expressed in ethically virtuous behavior (or according to the song: “…your walk talks, and your talk talks, but your walk talks better than your talk talks”[5] or as my dear mentor Verna Dozier oft said, “Paul, do not tell me what you believe. Show me the difference it makes, the difference you make because you believe”[6]).

All of it, mystical experience, orthodoxy, knowledge, and orthopraxy, is important. Secondarily. For Jesus, only one thing is primary. That he is our Good Shepherd, meaning we are his sheep, meaning we belong to him, meaning we know who we are for we know whose we are.

In other words, our relationship with God doesn’t depend on our having the right experience, right belief, right knowledge, or right behavior. Yes, these things are important, but not first and foremost. Our relationship with God depends on what Jesus already has done in his life and ministry, death and resurrection. Because of that, we call it salvation, he is our Good Shepherd. Because of that, we belong to him. Because of that, he can assure us that “no one (not even we ourselves in our sins) will snatch (us) out of (his) hand.” Therefore, secure in his life and love, we are liberated from everything (our past failures and present fears, our self-righteous pretensions and stubborn prejudices) to live and love as he is and does, now and forever.

 

Illustrations: The Adoration of the Lamb (“at the center of the throne”, The Revelation of St. John, chapter 7.17), woodcut by Albrecht Dürer (c. 16th century), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The good shepherd, Luca Giordano (1634-1705)

Footnotes:

[1] Matthew 5.6

[2] Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), German Lutheran theologian, described God’s mysterium tremendum in The Idea of the Holy (1917).

[3] Ephesians 4.13

[4] See John 10.30

[5] From “Your Walk Talks” (altered), Mark Trammell Quartet (2014)

[6] Dr. Verna Josephine Dozier (1917-2006), a noted Episcopal religious educator who focused on Bible study and claiming the authority of the laity, was one of my finest, fondest mentors.

 

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “what?!

  1. Thank you Paul!! I finally found a quiet moment to read your sermon. I printed this out and put your final paragraph in my cell phone case to carry with me daily.

    All I need to continuously remind myself of is in this paragraph! Because you’re so right!! So many voices to listen to in the world and how do we know which one is the right one? Some of the voices are just scary, damning us to Hell.

    It feels amazing to “belong” to God and to be liberated from all things we wish we could do over. I’m pretty secure in most things but it sure feels great to be secure in God’s life and love without ever having to question it!

    With gratitude and love!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Loretta. That last paragraph was formed and bore fruit via a conversation with a parishioner the week before. As we talked or, more truly, I listened, I heard the voice of one who struggles, as we all do, seeking to find the balance between the divine initiative of love manifested in Jesus and the human labor to accept, embrace, or otherwise receive that blessing. So often, I think, we all fall into the practice (if not also the belief) that “it”, our salvation, depends on us. Through the grace of that conversation and the person’s honest, heartfelt sharing, I reaffirmed that, yes, what we do in response to God’s wondrous love is important, but it’s not and never can be the primary thing. For without the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, on which all depends, what we do, however honorable and well-intentioned, doesn’t matter in terms of manufacturing our salvation because nothing we do can accomplish that. Love and gratitude back to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • What an amazing conversation Paul! I’ve never totally bought into the belief that my salvation was based on what I did or didn’t do. I’ve hoped that trying to “force” our own salvation wasn’t the way to go!

      Like

      • Yes, my dear, dear sister, during that conversation I had the strongest, clearest awareness that we were enveloped in a holy moment of God’s near and dear presence. As many words as I have, it’s difficult for me to articulate what I was sensing. I suppose at best I can say that I had a revelation of God’s grace and goodness, which evolved into that sermon point – that it all depends on God in Christ. As much as I think I have learned and have to believe about who and how God is, I fall into the trap of acting as if everything depends on me (and, thus, often feeling awful in my awareness of how far I fall short of God’s goodness). This person, in sharing the depths of personal struggle, preached the gospel to me.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s