After the Sermon: The Revelation Abomination

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In grad school, I took a course called “Women and Sacred Language.” We visited various houses of worship. I remember being in a mosque with someone who went on to become one of my closest friends. We were washing our feet, and I was being a tad obnoxious. A broken engagement has followed too quickly on the heels of a divorce and an ill-advised, reckless relationship. I was at peak bipolar but was a good five years and fifty gallons of whiskey away from diagnosis.  I was dreadfully insecure. I couldn’t hack it at a premiere New Testament Ph.D. program, and after earning my second master’s degree I would also fail at another, not-so-prestigious doctoral program. I was trying to define myself as a scholar, and it sometimes made me a bit unbearable.

So there we were, washing our feet, and I made some quip about the seven horsemen of the apocalypse. My friend, who has a rapier wit and sarcasm like a cobra’s bite, said, “Did they add three? I thought this was your area, dude?” Everyone in the room began to laugh, even those who were not in our class. Peak bipolar means peak paranoia. I’ve got paranoid schizophrenia on both sides of the family, each one ending in suicide. I stammered out that I was a Markan scholar–which was and is true–and buried my shame. As I said, he and I are very good friends and I know that he did not mean anything by it. But ever since then, thinking about the four horsemen has elicited feelings of embarrassment.

A Horse of White

Last week we established that Revelation 4 and 5 are a diptych, meaning that they cannot be understood one outside the other. Today’s passage from Revelation 6 and 7 pick up where they left off, with the slaughtered Lamb standing upright, about to take the throne and open the seals of the scroll with writing on both sides. One of the four creatures that both comprise the throne and stand in guard of it speaks amidst thunder, a common accompaniment to God’s workings. “Come!” the voice bellows with the breaking of the first seal. A white horse appears.

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Some interpreters have argued that the rider of the first horse is Christ. The description is intriguing. White is a color of purity and is associated with Christ in both the Transfiguration (Mark 9) and his resurrection appearances in Matthew, Luke, and John. He is not so much wearing a crown as he is a wreath–in Greek, στέφανος, or Stephanos, from which we get the name Stephen–and in his hands is a bow.

These are potent symbols, and I will once again recommend in the highest possible terms the commentary written by Dr. Ian Boxall. The bow seems designed to elicit memories within the original audience. At the time scholars believe Revelation was written, late 1st/early 2nd centuries, the Romans were being challenged by the Parthians, who were known for their power and prowess with the bow. Further, Nero, who had died, was rumored by some to still be alive and collaborating with the Parthians to reclaim his empire. Perhaps even more potent is the similarity between this image and the god Apollo, who carried a bow and was known to be a seer of futures.

This image, Boxall argues, is a reference to Jesus’ words in Mark 13, known as the Little Apocalypse. The words are not Jesus’ and the apocalypse is not really an apocalypse. You know what to do.

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So what is being referenced here are the false prophets and messiahs that will come in Jesus’ name. The first horseman looks like Jesus and can be mistaken for God’s agent, but such is the nature of evil: it appears enticing even as it destroys everything around it.

A Horse of Red 

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The second horse is a fiery red, symbolizing the blood that soon will spill. There’s a curious line in 6:4, that the rider is permitted by the Lamb to remove peace from the earth. We must ask, can the possibility of God’s peace be absent, even for a moment, and God still be God? Paul especially links divine peace to human hope, so what seems to be at play here is the false peace that humans manufacture through agreements they know full well they do not plan to honor. Much like how the current occupier of the Oval Office is threatening to back out of myriad agreements. Human peace is disingenuous when it is brokered by charlatans and fools. Violence breaks out in the most unlikely of places, like schools or a Wal-Mart.

A Horse of Black 

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We often associate scales in iconography as representing justice, such as Lady Justice outside of the U.S. Supreme Court. Here they represent the opposite, the lack of justice will manifest itself in myriad ways, including outlandish prices for necessary goods. Kind of like charging $15 for a gallon of gas in the midst of devastating calamity.

What’s especially interesting, though, is the reminder that the Lamb is still in control. Notice that it is not the third living creature that calls out; nay, it comes from the throne itself. Olive oil and wine will not be touched, which can mean a variety of things. For now, let it suffice to say that both wine and olive oil take a great deal of time and patience to fashion and were vital to first-century life.

A Horse of Puke Green 

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The fourth rider is upon a steed of pale green; the Greek word for pale is χλωpός, chōros, from which we get our word chloroform. The rider provides the popular imagination the Grim Reaper. Death–in Greek, θάνατος–is accompanied by Hades, who we will remember is a deity before becoming a location name. Hades, or the underworld, was akin to the Jewish concept of Sheol.

This rider is given even more territory; as he rides, those not killed are made sickly, turning green from illness, malnutrition, and lack of compassionate responses.

A Horse of a Different Color 

Revelation 7:9-17 envisions something different. A great multitude has gathered before the Lam’s throne, and they are waving palm branches. This was a practice during Sukkoth, the last harvest festival of the year. What was harvested, you may ask? Grapes and olives. The wine and olive oil the Lamb decreed be untouched are now symbolized by a great multitude that has within it authentic diversity.

For too long the Book of Revelation has been used to frighten people into compliance with religious decrees and requirements that have nothing to do with the love of Christ. What Revelation actually offers us is a heavenly, unsettling glimpse of the relationship between God’s realm and our own. We are assured that the Lamb–slaughtered, yet standing–remains in control. Human beings will continue to slaughter and kill as long as selfishness and avarice are tolerated. When we revision our notions of love and power–again, the Lamb slaughtered, yet standing, who is animated by love, not the cravings of Caesar–we understand why our hearts should be directed toward God is we ever want to achieve peace.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.