Grace Presbyterian Church
May 29, 2022, Easter 7C
At last, the end of the book. Not just of Revelation, but of our whole canonical corpus of scripture.
For those of you familiar with scholarly or professional writing, there are a few traits of this conclusion that will be familiar. There is definitely some recapitulation going on, especially in verses 13 and 14. First we hear again the “Alpha and Omega” reference that first appeared way back in chapter 1. In this case, though, there is a different “I” speaking this phrase. Back in 1:8, the speaker was “the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” However, here in chapter 22, at some point we’ve switched speakers (John isn’t always great at keeping track of who is saying what), but by verse 16 it has been made clear that it is Jesus pronouncing these final words. While this may be an interesting rhetorical device, to bring back the same identification in a different “character,” for those of us with a functional understanding of the Trinity, it should not be particularly bothersome.
Verse 14 brings the other noteworthy recapitulation, in this case referring back to chapter 7. You might remember that the reading from three weeks ago came from an interlude in the narrative about the breaking of the seven seals on a scroll, the breaking of which unleashed particular plagues or terrors upon the unrepentant world.
After the breaking of the sixth seal, John detours in his vision to a scene yet to come, his own “skipping to the end of the book” sequence in which we are introduced in 7:9 to “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” who we are told later are “they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Numerous biblical scholars and commentators remind us that this image is John’s coded way of referring to who have kept the faith in their times of persecution, continuing to bear witness to God and against the empire that persecutes them. Some of you might remember this image from an old gospel hymn:
Are you washed in the blood,
in the soul-cleansing blood of the Lamb?
Are your garments spotless? Are they white as snow?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
While the image is rather grotesque especially when divorced from its scriptural context, it does serve here to remind us that, for all of the dragons and monsters and plagues and terrors that populate this book, this call keep faith and keep bearing witness is the whole point of this vision and this book. All of this fantastic vison of the new Jerusalem coming down in glory and the springs of living water and the tree of life, from these last two chapters? Guess who is invited into the gates of that city?
While the organizers of the Revised Common Lectionary would prefer that we didn’t, understanding this passage most completely requires that we acknowledge and deal with the verses that got skipped in this reading. While the seeming threats of verses 18-19 sound rough, such language is frankly commonplace in literature of this type; in an age with no such thing as copyright protection altering such a text wouldn’t have been uncommon, and had the book been intercepted by, say, someone allied with the imperial power structure who understood John’s codes and metaphors, altering the book into an empire-supporting treatise wouldn’t have been difficult. Such warnings as in these two verses were so common as to be virtually boilerplate, ugly as they might seem.
Verse 15 is the harder one to stomach. It is worth remembering that, like 21:27 and 22:3, this verse serves as something of a reassurance to John’s readers and hearers; those who persecute you will not be able to get to you there. Still, though, the language isn’t good, especially referring to people as “dogs.” For one thing, that term was a common derogatory slur against Jews in much literature over the course of many centuries, and John does himself no good resorting to it here. Second, John here goes needlessly beyond the language of those earlier warning verses, which concentrated on the purveyors of falsehood who helped bring down official oppression on John’s readers and hearers. In this brief between words from Jesus, John goes a bit off-the-beam in his own human frustration. That happens; even the most divinely inspired scribe is still a human being, subject to all of the frailties caught up in that description.
At the same time, though, such digression also reminds us of our own inability and frankly unworthiness to make such judgments – “don’t do what John did.” . As much as we can take some comfort in that image of garments being washed and its reminder of faithful witness, it’s not a pass for us to judge who is and isn’t being sufficiently faithful in their witness. The Lord God and the Lamb are the ones who know the names in that Book of Life, not us, and we’d best remember that.
What we are charged with is that business of bearing faithful witness. To borrow an old expression attributed to various old saints at different times, we are charged to keep proclaiming the gospel, even using words at times when necessary. That leaves us charged to examine just how we, as a people of God and one part of the body of Christ, are bearing witness.
There are ways in which we do well. In cooperation with others in our town we provide aid to populations in need here, through meals or other provision. We’re a welcoming church. We provide, through the art studios in the next building over, a place for the community to gather and find a respite from the world’s garbage; this past Friday evening was such an example. For a church our size, we don’t do badly at all.
Is there more that we could do, though? In an age where a young white man feels entitled to go into a supermarket in Buffalo patronized mostly by black shoppers and shoot them dead for the “crime” of being black, are we bearing witness against such rank racism as an abomination against God? In the wake of a major scandal of sexual abuse and dehumanization in one of the largest church denominations in this country, are we bearing witness to the God-given worth and dignity of women and children set upon by predators in positions of power?
And how would we, as a small congregation, do that? These are questions we are called to consider as this book comes to a close. We do, frankly, bear good witness, if rather quiet witness in some ways. What else can we do? How can we bear witness against the various empires that put forth various idols and false prophets to distract us and claim our attention and allegiance? What role do we play?
Our work here is not done, not by a long shot. Headlines remind us daily that this world is not recognizing the kingdom of God’s reign on earth. And yet that’s the kingdom we’re called to serve. Otherwise, forget that new Jerusalem.
So, now that we’ve skipped to the end of the book and seen the good stuff that awaits those who keep faith, how do we go forward?
For the end of the book, and the questions it leads us to ask, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #630, Fairest Lord Jesus; #485, We Know That Christ Is Raised; #81, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken