After the Sermon: The Revelation Investigation

I’m a word nerd. Not quite as accomplished as my dear friend Claire Monserrat Jackson, who is a writer that you should be reading if you are not already. But nonetheless, a word nerd. So it brings me great joy to say that Revelation 4 and 5 are a diptych.

You can’t understand one without the other. We talked last week about chapter four, and we were left perhaps a bit confused as to what was transpiring. Chapter five is itself odd on the surface, but when understood in tandem, the gatekeeper and the key-master are walking hand-in-hand.

The first sight in Revelation 5 is that of a right hand, a sign of power and authority in the biblical tradition. The hand holds a scroll that has writing on both sides; the Greek word βιβλίον (biblion) provides the root for our English word bible. However, βιβλίον does not refer to a codex, what we call a book. There are numerous theories regarding the significance, but two presented in Dr. Ian Boxall’s Black’s New Testament Commentary are worth noting.

  1.  The scroll is a legal document, like a will or testament fashioned in the Roman tradition. Legally, valid wills had to be witnessed and sealed by seven persons, each with a distinctive wax seal. It could only be opened after the testator died. The commentary is palpable: in Rome’s kingdom, a person unwillingly dies and the seals are opened by those greedy for their allotment. In God’s economy, Christ willingly dies and in so doing, offers a path to salvation that can only unfold with the Lamb of God opening the seals. 
  2. Another possibility is that the scroll represents the Tanakh and the New Testament being sealed in perfection, signified by the use of seven. I like this one, as too much of Christian history has involved telling our Jewish siblings that they are God-killers and calling their sacred texts “old.” 

Then the text takes a curious turn. An angel–many exegetes believe one of the so-called archangels, like Michael or Metatron–declares that the entire cosmogony has been searched and been found wanting for one worthy to open the scroll.

Like, not even God? Y’all went to the reaches of heaven and not even God was worthy?

Here we see evidence of what I call in my upcoming book, Mark as Manifesto, a Pauline Christology. The emphasis is upon the salvific death of Jesus. Later, Augustine and then Anselm will use passages from Revelation to develop the doctrine of original sin and the blood atonement theory, respectively. But we should be wary of projecting those ideas onto the text of Revelation.

The imagery continues and brings into focus the purpose of the two chapters, to contrast and compare the Roman notions of power with the power of God. As John bitterly weeps, like Peter at the well, an elder proclaims the victory of the Lion of Judah.  This potent symbol is paired with the root of David, alluding to the stump of Jesse mentioned in Isaiah 11. “Both titles would evoke in the Judaeo-Christian mind an image of the Davidic Messiah, God’s anointed king who would act on his behalf in the last days.”*

Drying his eyes, John of Patmos sees the Lamb of God, slaughtered, yet standing. Perfect, yet bloodied. Again, the number seven is key; what is being presented as perfect does not meet the legal requirements for a paschal lamb. Yet, take the scroll the lamb does and sings himself a new song. Soon a celestial choir–no doubt sounding almost as good as the World House Choir–joins in. Harps were the traditional instrument of worship at the time, and gold bowls filled with incense were traditional offerings in sacred spaces; what we have here is a heavenly worship. What happens in the heavenly realm that John witnesses are to be brought back to the people as a model for how to acknowledge the Lamb of God. Early Christian iconography, including cruciforms, emphasized Jesus as the Lamb of God.

What does God’s power look like? A slaughtered lamb so perfect that even saints throw away their crowns and bend the knee. Honor and glory are not to be found in earthly power and worship of the temporary, but rather through love, sacrifice, compassion, and rightful worship. Let us not get bogged down in thinking of worship as something we do only in buildings and solely through mindless blathering. Proper worship is how we center God in our lives, how we follow the directives of Jesus, so eloquently summarized with the Shema and “love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

I fear those powerful words have been robbed of their sting through some of the aforementioned mindless blather that comes from so much of Christianity. We’re to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our strength. Think of Jewish prayer with phylacteries or tefillin.

Women-of-the-Wall .jpg Pictured: The amazing Women of the Wall who have been physically attacked by men for daring to proclaim that the נָ֫פֶשׁ (nephesh or soul) has no gender. Interestingly, nephesh is a feminine noun.  

When we keep God in our hearts, on our minds (signified by the box of the forehead), and as the source of our strength (the wrap around the right arm and Scripture box in the palm), we can become an integrated whole. When we remember that we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, knowing that we only know how to love ourselves through loving God, we have all that we need. We need not fear death, for in the loving of God, ourselves, and others as exemplified by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we have eternal life.

Yeah, I get that this can seem like hibbity-jibbity on the surface. A lot of nice words that are overly generic and do not address things like little kids getting cancer. But those are not the questions Revelation seeks to answer, at least in my view.

We began this journey with me admitting my concerns about Revelation and presenting ideas from scholars about how to properly contextualize the text. Revelation is fantastical for a variety of reasons, but one of the biggest ones is to throw us into a world that cannot be reasoned and can only be experienced. I used to think such talk was obfuscation, an intellectual dishonesty owed to being unable to present good arguments. So I now use a phrase I used to detest: when you have faith, you can understand certain things for which reason cannot account.

I honestly don’t know if Christianity is the “right way” to spiritual enlightenment, but it is the path that works for me. I have had moments in which I have acutely felt both eternity and decay within myself. I, like you, carry within myself the inherent contradictions of being capable of immense love for others and of destructive hatred of myself. I’ve found that by continually deconstructing a sense of self that is derived from titles and accomplishments, I’m able to connect with nearly everyone I meet on a significant level. At times I become overwhelmed with love for others. As someone with bipolar disorder, this spiritual gift is a great blessing and a great curse. Jesus tells us to love in balance, always returning to the source of it all.

Our investigation continues next week. Stay tuned.

 

*Boxall, I. (2006). The Revelation of Saint John (p. 97). London: Continuum.

 

Like Billy Dee, but, you know, a mental illness

Bipolar has me by the balls right now. One moment I am hungry, the next moment I am stopping myself from cooking because I need to watch an episode of House of Cards I have seen over thirty times. No joke. When I finally fall asleep, I wake up and must move from the couch to the bed, or vice-versa, even though the effort zaps any energy I’ve mustered. No rational explanation to myself from myself will work. The need wins.

It is a most inconvenient week for BD to visit.That’s what I call it. BD. So as to not fall off the cliff, I make jokes with myself. It helps me cope. I often imitate Mama Klump when it’s really bad, like today.

billy dee 2

Bee-Dee, Bee-Dee, Bee-Dee!!

See, my doctoral cohort is here and I tried to make it on both Tuesday and Wednesday. I was there but had to leave. Today I couldn’t make it at all, and tomorrow doesn’t look any better. I’m supposed to speak at an anti-white supremacy rally tomorrow night but now I don’t think it will be possible. This could be a humdinger.

I’m writing because it helps me to feel less guilty if I produce something; in-between naps that are more like hallucinations, I’m writing surveys for the upcoming project and sending emails. That can be dangerous, too. Emails get me in trouble sometimes, so I am not sending anything sensitive or potentially confrontational. Now I’m writing about writing, so that’s my meta moment for the day.

That’s my time, folks. Thank you so much for coming out, be sure to tip your servers and bartenders. I’m Meta-Moment, reminding you that the next show is completely different from this show. 

Except it’s not. Not really. Details alter, but the broad strokes are painted in the same ink. There comes a time in which a mental illness is like that friend you love but exhausts the shit out of you. I had one of those and after years of abusing one another, I said enough. We haven’t spoken in 9 years. I still think about them, remembering the positives but also the depths of pain and anger. BD is like that, but we can’t get rid of one another. I take pills everyday, and I often quote one of my favorite films as I do so.

Shut your mouth, Bee-Dee. You’re embarrassing yourself.

BD bides time, building energy like XP to level-up and attack me like a Dungeon Master rolling simultaneous 20s. I’ve got chain-mail on over here and no one in my party has anything more potent than Arya Stark’s Pencil. I know, mixed genres but what are you going to do? Regardless, BD is like a horde of orcs trying to take Hogwarts while Voldemort battles with Yoda in Narnia. There. That should sufficiently confuse and upset my fellow dorks 😉

Because that’s what BD does. It takes the things in your life and confuses them. But not all the time. Yes, I want to break up with BD right now. Very strongly so. But there are positives. Last week I was called a “genius” by three separate people in three separate contexts. And not the, “You’re a genius!” because I figured out how to get the chips to fall in a vending machine. I shy away from this language; I’m uncomfortable with it, but I understand that people mean it sincerely and I try to accept it without believing it. What I do believe, though, is that a not insignificant amount of what people like about me is owed to my BD. I don’t know how to exist without it.

Mimi and I are in the process of watching Gone With the Wind together. We’ve obviously seen it numerous times individually. When I was 5 I made my Grandma Hilda call me Rhett and she was Aunt Pitty-Pat. Watching it this time, Mimi and I cannot go two or three minutes without commenting on how racist and damaging the film has been in many regards. But Vivien Leigh. Oh, Vivien Leigh. Mimi and I are both huge fans of her work. Scarlett is a simply atrocious human being and while the role is what made Leigh a star, she spent her whole life playing parts that could elicit great emotion. From Shakespeare to Tennessee Williams, she was mistress of the theater. Her film career was notable, but she was a lady who trod the boards. She felt hampered by her beauty because she was, above all things, an actor.

And she had bipolar disorder. Her ability to play mercurial characters and to tap into the emotions of others with the simple raise of an eyebrow was most certainly born of the illness. When I awoke on Wednesday, I knew that things were about to get worse. I tried to push through but BD was a roaring dragon. I used that in my portrayal of Caesar this past summer. You never know when you’re going to get struck, and you never know how you might respond.

Bee-Dee is making demands again, so I must log off and tend to the ridiculous quirks that sometimes feel like the only thing keeping me from the hospital. I’ll write again from the fires of Mordor, waiting for Spock to throw the Elder Wand into the Sarlacc pit and win the heart of the Mother of Dragons.

The Fabled Eclipse

eclipse.jpeg

Brother Sun has been seeking Sister Moon since before the arrival of the First Ones.

He sends out ceaseless light, stretching extensions of himself to the outer reaches of Creation.

Sister Moon takes in his light, which she feels as love. She reflects it back to him, hoping to infuse the children of the First Ones with that which they cultivate effortlessly.

The powers of the underworld fall each day, according to the crude reckonings of those who depend on Brother Sun and Sister Moon. But to them, merely seconds transpire before they catch glimpse of one another again.

Sister moon runs to him, runs to him, runs to him.

And on auspicious days she catches him. What others see as darkness they see only as splendid light.

Brother Son shines only so that he will be seen by Sister Moon.

So in the brief shadows cast and glimpsed, cultivate the light of love. And shine forth with Brother Son and Sister Moon, transformed by love into timeless beings who chase only the source of all light.

The Revelation Usurpation

revelation-4-5.jpg

The Bible contains some really odd stuff, which becomes downright outlandish when a literal reading is demanded. As I’ve written before, people tend to avoid the text for a variety of reasons, and too often those attracted to it claim a special understanding they wield as to whack asunder all those who dare question. Revelation 4 is Exhibit A.

A running motif of popular Revelation exegesis is the notion that God is intending to destroy the created order. Last week we looked at the various meanings of the word ἀποκάλυψις, apocalypsis. As a literature type, apocalypses often contain a scene in which an individual is given presence–generally through a vision or being filled with the Spirit, as is the case in Revelation 4–to the heavenly council. The earliest canonical appearance of such an event is Isaiah 6, then Ezekiel 1, and then Daniel 7. Like in Revelation, there is a door to heaven that is opened, enabling each realm to see the other. Or, more specifically germane, allowing the one chosen, in this case, John of Patmos, to behold the celestial council.

We’re likely familiar with the stairway to heaven and the highway to hell, but this doorway to heaven might throw us a bit. Yet, the idea begins in paganism and stretches into our own day. The notion of portals begins not with science but with mythology and mysticism. In the New Testament, at Jesus’ baptism the heavens open and there is an axis mundi created, a place in which the earthly and the heavenly conjoin. We see this in Judaism with the theophany on Mt. Sinai, with attendant thunder and lightning, in Islam with the Dome of the Rock, and in Buddhism with the Bodhi Tree. Christianity has yet one more with Golgotha, again with an accompanying earthquake and darkness. In Orthodox Judaism, women lighting the shabbos candles are believed to have the heavens opened for them as a direct pipeline to God.

If we attempt to understand this only with our rational minds, we will miss the mark, the literal meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words for sin. John looks into the heavens and he hears a voice like a trumpet; the text is attempting to engage our senses. The biblical usage of the trumpet is nuanced, but here it is utilized as a simile to describe the voice of the one speaking. This, of course, is Christ on the throne; but we should not think of the corporeal Jesus, but rather of the spiritual logos. The word of God sounds forth a warning, a blast that will bring down the walls of human evil much like those of Jericho.

Notice that when John describes what he sees upon the throne, he does not give tell of a Zeus or an Appollo. There is no anthropomorphism here. Instead, once he’s in the spirit–that is, existing with the use of his senses, not of his capacity for reason–he sees one like jasper (in biblical times, this was a translucent gem) and carnelian (of a fiery red color) that tells him of what is happening and what will happen in the future. John is being given insight into God’s plans for humanity and is to return and tell others. This, dearly beloved, is the very definition of a prophet, literally “mouthpiece for God.” Surrounding the throne is a rainbow, a sign of covenant since the time of Noah.

God is to be sensed, to be experienced; the texts that feature God’s heavenly court gave genesis to Merkaba mysticism, those who gathered around these stories as instruction manuals for how to themselves gain access to the divine. The use of numbers is deliberate: seven signifies completeness; four, the corners of the earth and the four winds (in Greek, Ἄνεμοι). Each of the creatures comprises a corner of the throne–a similar image was on the Ark of the Covenant–and in turn represent the completion of creation: a wild lion, a domesticated ox, a human being, and a bird of the air. If we go back to the image of the throne, we will recall the smooth crystal that may likely be meant to remind us of how God calmed the chaotic waters with breath (ר֫וּחַ, ruach). The Word of God, the logos,  once again seeks to bring order out of pandemonium. 

All of creation gives honor to God, as do the twenty-four robe-clad figures. There have been a great number of interpretations of this, but the one I greatly appreciate put forth by Ian Boxall, is that the twelve patriarchs and the twelve apostles are together in the holy chamber. We cannot have one without the other, it seems to say. While I would not deliver such a message to my Jewish siblings in Abraham, I do think it is an important message to Christians: we are only here because of God’s work with the Chosen People.

Here is where the text gets a bit subversive. All of these figures, accorded honors and respect in heaven and on earth, throw asunder their crowns and worship the one true God. Imagine reading this amidst the brutal rule of Rome, especially in the Year of the Four Emperors. As human leaders come and go, leaving in their wake suffering and destruction, the wise person will remain ever-fixed upon God.

I totally get when people roll their eyes over stuff like this; it can, without question, come across as trite, empty rhetoric that does little to nothing to address the real problems of people here and now. But let us recall that God’s message to us is pretty simple. We have the charge of how to love in Deuteronomy 6:4. We have Micah’s call to justice, kindness, and humbleness. And we have Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors, to pray for those who persecute us, and to avoid the altar of God when we have animosity in our hearts and on our lips.

The world gives us false promises that happiness will come with the right body shape or the biggest bank account. We chase after the procurement of things, trying to fill holes that require spiritual answers, not materialism and mendacity. This enigmatic text, like the ones before and after it, let us know that true perfection cannot be found here. It cannot even be approached except through understanding that God has given us all we need in order to live authentic lives. We need not believe the culture that tells us we need a new car or a smaller waist.

Yes, there is suffering. Egreigious suffering that makes little to no sense. In my town, an incandescently brilliant philosopher died suddenly, in front of the love of his life, at the age of 47. An aneurysm cut him down in a matter of seconds. There are no comforting words or platitudes to speak, except to say that God has given us what we need in order to cope.

Surprise! It’s us.

 

The Revelation Equation: Is God a Hater?

revelation.jpgRead Revelation 1:9-2:7

A Troubling History

The Book of Revelation tends to bring out the worst in people. Hucksters with collars and racists with badges are disposed to like the enigmatic text because it is intimidating. The Eastern Orthodox do away with it completely in liturgy;* the pre-Vatican II, Tridentine Catholic Church required laity to have a family Bible, but only to record vital statistics and to be regarded with awed reverence. Revelation inspires terror of a coming, violent judgment, something religious art and literature has captured for centuries. Revelation was like a loaded gun left in an infant’s crib.

Protestantism scoffed at the Church keeping the Bible out of the hands of the laity; this has had mixed results. Scholarship has been an important part of Protestant traditions, and there is no doubting the impact this has had on religious literacy. But once the doctrine of sola scriptura mixed with anti-intellectualism, white supremacy culture, and the notion that anyone claiming to be anointed by the Spirit can call themselves pastor, Christianity found a new way to be hate-filled and violent.

I wrote earlier about my trepidation regarding Revelation. And once again, I feel like this month-long examination of the text via passages selected by Luther Seminary’s Narrative Lectionary Project was directed by the Holy Spirit. Why? This is the time in which all of us need to be confronting our fears and misconceptions, and determine who we are.

On ἀποκάλυψις 

The Greek word is ἀποκάλυψις, a combination of ἀπό (away) and καλύπτω (cover), is used in at least three distinctive ways that impact our study.

  1. An apocalypsis is a revealing or uncovering of something. In its simplest sense, it is a vision or a dream that reveals something previously hidden. The Hebrew Bible is filled with examples of dreams and interpretations of dreams. These are apocalypses, but the meaning is not to be found in a literal reading of the dream. Symbolism abounds.
  2.  The term can also refer to the revealing of the true natures of good and evil. This is generally tied to eschatological expectations, that is, the end of time as we know it and the uncovering of God’s eternal rule. This is the most common interpretation that Evangelicals offer for the Book of Revelation, but as Christopher Rowland points out in the New Interpreter’s Commentary, there is no definitive argument to be made that John of Patmos, the author of the text, was describing a vision from God portending a literal future event. While there is also no irrefutable evidence that the text is an account of a symbolic dream only, there is more of a case to be made for the latter.
  3. Which brings us to the third point: ἀποκάλυψις refers to a literature type. Clear-cut examples are the Book of Daniel and the Enoch cycle. Again, according to Rowland, the purpose of this literature type is to present contradictions and cognitive dissonance to shake us from our realms of comfort. These texts are made to be unsettling, for the message is about how to follow God in a world that is openly hostile to God’s call.

Working Interpretations

In Revelation 1:9-20, we are presented with a fantastical description of the Risen Christ. To argue that this, in any conceivable way, is a depiction of the historical Jesus is ludicrous. It is part of the problem with American Christianity. How could anyone think that Jesus literally had a sword for a tongue or furnace eyes? Frankly, I am sick of hearing that we must agree to disagree or to allow others to present opinions as fact. This is clearly symbolism.

Notice that this Christ whom John sees is surrounded by lampstands, but not lamps. Seven, a number that appears throughout the text, is symbolic for, among many things, completion. The seven churches do not provide a complete, detailed list of all in existence–there were certainly more by the time John wrote in the late first century. Rather, it symbolizes the unbroken and complete Body of Christ. The Risen Christ stands surrounded by the seven lampstands because he is the light of the world. The double-edged sword as a tongue might represent how having the gospel on your lips will help you defend yourself in an evil world. It’s two edges might mean that Christ’s call brings us both God’s comfort and God’s requirements.

In Revelation 2:1-7, we read of people who were zealous and eager when they first accepted Christ, and in their jubilant love, they performed good deeds. They fought off the temptations that lead to a life outside of gospel commands, but the world wore them down. No longer do they love as they once did; no longer do they act as divine agents. He calls them to remember the circumcised hearts they had before they became jaded.

But what about…

A parishioner waited until I had greeted everyone before pulling me aside after the sermon and he said, “All this information helps and I am feeling better about a month of this, but you didn’t talk about God hating people. I’m wrestling with that part. Aren’t we supposed to love everyone?” I told him I struggle with 2:6 as well, that I plan to approach it in subsequent weeks, which is true. What I didn’t say, but will now, is that I was afraid if I opened that can of worms, I might say something that I regret.

I have made no secret about my commitment to justice, specifically for trans persons, Muslims, and persons of color. I have been criticized for alienating others. I am not looking to relitigate these issues because I feel they have been settled to various degrees, but I am acutely aware of the weight my words can have, especially in worship. Given what has happened over the last 48 hours, my heart has been filled with anger, disgust, frustration, and even hatred. I’ve been drinking the poison of my own making. I think others have as well.

But address it we must. John of Patmos writes that God hates the Nicolaists, a Gnostic group whose beliefs are not entirely known. Perhaps they followed a form of antinomianism, the notion that the Law is abolished completely by Christ. We are rightly wary of the notion that God hates anyone. This wariness is largely owed to the genocidal history of the Church. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors, yes, but he prioritized those who were most oppressed by both religion and the State. Jesus stood up to those who abused their power so as to victimize others. Jesus did not let his heart be filled with anger and vengeance, but he made it clear that there are requirements. To argue otherwise is to ignore why Jesus went to the cross to die. When we blithely say it was for the forgiveness of sins, but ignore Jesus going to the cross in solidarity with those whom God calls blessed, we turn the Gospel into something that supports the vile, ugly, pervasive, and violent prejudice that has been with this country since its founding.

I’m okay with God hating white supremacism. It is foolish of us to think that reason and listening with compassion will gain anything except people more people in harm’s way because we don’t have the courage to stand up and be of account. We should not let ourselves hate people–which is most difficult because white supremacists are not good people–but that does not mean we have to act like they have a reasonable position. In fact, there is no room at the table.

I have no doubt that detractors will go to the trope, “Here’s the so-called tolerance of the Left; they only tolerate what they agree with.” Bullshit. It is a pernicious lie that all worldviews must be given equal credence. And while those on the far Right will claim that it is “PC culture” that has descended us into a world of relativism and hostility to facts, that is not the case. I argue that it is directly related to anti-intellectualism, faux-patriotism, and two political parties that don’t care about anything except “winning.”

What’s It All About? 

What do we do in a world that is full of hatred, lies, corruption, and deception? We look to the light of Christ. And I am not talking about some pie-in-the-sky, abstract notion of Jesus. Rather, the Jesus who stepped between religious fanatics and a woman about to be stoned to death. The Jesus who hung on a cross and showed compassion for one hanging next to him. The Jesus who went to a man chained by villagers on the outskirts of town. The Jesus who walked into Gentile territory, let a perpetually menstruating woman touch him, spoke truth to power, stood up for God’s message and never descended into hatred. In a world in which there are lots of lampstands without lamps, the light of Christ can help us see.**
*Many thanks to Rev. Lathe Snider for this bit of information.

**Just a reminder, I am not an exclusivist. I acknowledge that there are infinite paths to God, the Spirit, Creator, the Truth. This is the one I choose and I write from within the tradition but do make claims that I am right and everyone else is wrong.

Jesus v. Trump: The Church Must Render a Verdict

jesus v trump.jpg

Sarah Pulliam Bailey has an article in today’s Post about yet another controversy around Robert Jeffress, about whom this blog has previously voiced disdain Alas, it appears that the time has come again in which I must I denounce, in the strongest possible terms, Jeffress’ public theology. Here is the latest from the megachurch pastor: “When it comes to how we should deal with evildoers, the Bible, in the book of Romans, is very clear: God has endowed rulers full power to use whatever means necessary — including war — to stop evil. In the case of North Korea, God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un.” Oy vey.

Jeffress has credentials that are undeniable. He has legitimate degrees from legitimate institutions, albeit ones within the Southern Baptist Convention and with emphases on dispensationalism. He is not one with only a passing understanding of the bible. That’s one of the reasons that he is particularly dangerous. And he is Trump’s go-to pastor for biblical justification of unbiblical things. This blog has featured many, many, many, many, manymany, many entries on Trump, many focusing on religion but not all. I object bigly to any claims that God has anointed Trump a holy instrument.

Jeffress came to prominence with Trump after the two dined on Wendy’s hamburgers. The pastor said that God was going to place Trump in the White House. Trump’s shocking victory gave the minister all the credence he needed; Jeffress–and other pastors, to be fair–is complicit in presenting as a true Christian the man who claims he has never needed to repent for anything. As a pastor myself, I try to steer well-clear of judging the sins of anyone else, which is one of the reasons I am so open about my own shortcomings. I still have an oak tree in my own eye, so there is no need to point out the splinter in someone else’s.

However, I do have the obligation as an Ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament to speak out when I feel that the bible is being used in irresponsible ways. Jeffress maintains that Romans 13 gives “the government … the authority to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un.” He then goes on to argue that objections raised by the previous contextual chapter (Romans 12) only refer to how Christians treat one another. That’s right. Christians only have to love other Christians. You see, the good reverend does not want a president who will follow the Sermon on the Mount. I’ll say it once again: oy vey.

Romans 13 has been written about a lot. I mean, a lot. I had heated, but respectful debates in seminary about the chapter. The definitive work was done by my fellow Finn, Vilho Riekkinen (I strongly recommend Romans: A Commentary by Robert Jewett, although it is very expensive, so thank God for Logos). These are the main sources of information, along with my not insignificant education. When Paul was writing Romans, Nero was in power. However, it was not yet the batshit crazy Nero, so things were peaceful. Paul was already receiving major pushback from Jews and Jesus-followers, so the last thing that he wanted to do was put another target on his back. Further, as Riekkinen argues in his doctoral dissertation, Paul was trying to negotiate incredibly complex power dynamics. More recent German scholars have argued that Romans 13 refers to Christian relationships with the Roman civic cult. This also helps to situate the whole Matthew 22 “render unto Caesar what is Caesar” advice. Recall that Jesus is holding a Roman coin with the image of Caesar. Said coin would not be allowed in the Temple, so Jesus is saying, the coin has Caesar’s picture, so give it back to him. But you belong to God. 

The notion that Paul was referring to the unholy, unrepentant, arrogant, sophomoric walking id that occupies the Oval Office in-between rounds of golf and bilking the American taxpayer is insulting to any person who takes the scripture seriously. Further, the argument is that Christians are to give respect to those offices and persons who are worthy of respect. The Tanakh is filled with examples of God raising up foreign powers to chasten the people. I can make the argument biblically that God could be using Kim Jong Un. I wouldn’t, though, because I know that is not how scripture works.

Jeffress maintains pastors like me are the problem. Again, according to the Post article,  “It’s antithetical to some of the mushy rhetoric you hear from some circles today. Frankly, it’s because they are not well taught in the scriptures.” Okay, pastor. I’m game.

How about Proverbs 29:2? “When the righteous increase, the people rejoice, But when a wicked man rules, people groan.” Or Proverbs 28:15? “Like a roaring lion and a rushing bear is a wicked ruler over a poor people.” The first verse of Isaiah 10, perhaps? “Woe to those who enact evil statutes And to those who constantly record unjust decisions.” The prophet Micah said a lot about the sort of financial malfeasance of the current president: “Concerning evil, both hands do it well The prince asks, also the judge, for a bribe, And a great man speaks the desire of his soul; So they weave it together” (7:3). I could go on.

Jeffress pastors a church that boasts nearly 4,000 in worship each week. This is not a place that allows for theological exploration or variety. What is even more frightening, is that Jeffress is filling delusional Trump with talk of being God’s agent, and I imagine there has been talk of ushering in an apocalypse. I’ll be covering that in a series of blogs over the next month. But let we in the Church who understand the damaging and errant words and work of Jeffress and his ilk not be complacent. These megachurches are all around us, luring people in with their coffee bars and promises of a guaranteed place in heaven. Churches that vest authority in the personalities and whims of the pastors, limiting who deserves love and expanding who deserves damnation.

If this is the Christianity that is to remain, the faith needs to die. It pains me deeply each time I say it, but the sort of Christianity that would cozy up to Trump and empower white supremacists has nothing to do with Jesus.

And I love me some Jesus.

 

Before the Sermon: The Revelation Evaluation

 

download (3)

I have long held that not resting an hour after binging on the Revelation buffet before diving into the world-pool gives the Body of Christ a cramp. I have never preached on the Book of Revelation and for the past eight years of my sermon-giving life, I’ve maintained that I never will. Said declaration can now join “I’ll never be a pastor,” “I’ll never work with youth,” “I’ll never take a pulpit in my hometown,” and “I’m not going to earn a D.Min. from United Theological Seminary” in the Oh, really now? section of God’s file on me. 

First, let’s discuss why I have been so resistant to the Book of Revelation,* hereby referred to as Revelation. I have reasons three.

  1. Almost invariably, Revelation is ripped from its historical context, interpreted literally, and applied to situations that have literally–meant in the true sense of the word–nothing to do with a text written 2,000 years ago. The most painful part of this is the literal interpretation. As we’ll discuss in the next entry of the series, apocalyptic literature is a genre of which there can be some degree of divergence, but by definition utilizes simile, metaphor, cognitive dissonance, appositives, and wordplay lost in English translations. I had someone call me on 9/11 to say that the events were prophesied in Revelation. No, they were not. The writings might help us understand acts of violence and destruction, but we don’t often remember that God’s consistent word has been, “Bad s*** happens when you don’t take care of people around you.”    

  2. Revelation has been used inordinately by those wishing to control, persecute, torture, vilify, imprison, and judge others. Once the text has been ripped from its historical context, it most often is used as a cudgel and sword to strike into submission those seen as sinners. We joke about bible thumpers, but those blows turn into beatings. Revelation has been used to frighten people with the specter of a brutal judgment followed by eternal banishment to Hell’s brimstone bowels. I’ve never heard Revelation used in love by a Christian to a non-Christian. Just look at Westboro Baptist Church. 

  3. Revelation lends itself too easily to hucksterism. Because the text is enigmatic–as we’ll discuss, even early Christians were like WTF?–but filled with fantastical images that strike the fancy of pathos, much of Christendom has been witness to charlatans promising entry into heaven or protection from demons for the low, low price of just enough to keep you hungry and dependant upon the Church. To wit, Revelation is oft-quoted by pastors looking to get themselves a bigger jet. 

A stalwart member of the congregation has told me that one of the reasons she has felt so comfortable at the church is because I pledged to not preach from Revelation. So making this decision is not something I take lightly. I often say that our community is the last stop for some people before they give up on God or church entirely. I try to be acutely aware of problematic texts, hymns, liturgical language, etc., and to preside over a safe, inviting, affirming spiritual space. Revelation rightly makes many people want to head toward the door. 

So why the change of heart?

  1. One frequent criticism of Progressive Christians is that we “pick and choose” what to follow in Scripture. First, let’s admit that Progressive Christianity (PC) is a catch-all term for an incredibly diverse array of thoughts and hermeneutics. There is no single theology or interpretative lens through which we can look at PC. Second, let’s admit that everybody picks and chooses. Do you follow all 613 commandments in the Torah? No, you don’t, because many of them apply to the Temple and are unfulfillable. Wanna argue that Jesus has canceled the debt and the Law is no longer relevant? Then you can’t quote from Leviticus or Numbers to justify the prejudice de jour. But to the crux of the criticism: we must confront everything in our tradition honestly and with a heart that can accept the errors contained therein.

  2. I have feared that I am not intelligent enough, not educated sufficiently in the nuances of apocalyptic literature, or, more to the point, will be unable to situate the text appropriately and still hear an affirming word from God. I listed above many of the things I have said “never” about, only to end up doing them and learning a tremendous amount. I am not meant to be a youth pastor, but children’s sermons at First Presby are beloved by kids and parents alike. My tenure at the church has been rocky at times, but also one of the most significant and inspiring spiritual experiences of my life. It is where God has led me and I never want to serve anywhere else. And being in the original cohort for the MLK Beloved Community Scholars is a true honor. When I face my fears, God works mightily.

  3. I feel a responsibility to the congregation and to those who read my writing to lay bare my concerns, be honest about the challenges, and then walk publicly through a four-week series. I’ve mentioned before that writing is a compulsion for me. I process through the written word, so this will not just be a sermon series. It will be a journey together through a text that has lots of landmines, but we pray for God to show us that which might empower our walk with Christ.
  4. Finally, I feel a responsibility to non-Christians to help craft understandings of the text that can, at least for a moment or two, trip up those who wish to use the Scripture as a shillelagh. If Christians who are tired of being misrepresented want to affect change, we can’t hide from that which is difficult. 

My hope is that you will join me on this odyssey; it’ll be a lot shorter than Homer’s version, but not nearly as good. 

*Please note the singular. Let’s promote biblical literacy; there is no plural, only Zuul.