by Pastor Sarah Stadler
Of all the books in the Bible, the historical context and literary expectations of the book of Revelation are probably the least understood of all biblical books by the average Bible-reader. Revelation embodies the literary form of Apocalypse, a genre of 1st and 2nd century literature most closely mirrored in the 21st century genre of science fiction. In the world of science fiction, authors can freely critique or question or eliminate governments or institutions or cultural norms without fear of reprimand or marginalization. That is Revelation.
In the book of Revelation, John of Patmos, a different John, not the disciple John, records a vision. He envisions mythical beasts and dragons, angels and a Lamb that was slain, all of them over-the-top metaphors common to Apocalyptic literature. John’s vision does not tell a story of some literal, future event. The story of beasts and dragons, angels and Lamb is coded language, meant to describe the then-present reality: the beast, the Roman Empire, the dragon, the emperor. The angels and living creatures and elders, the faithful followers of Jesus. The Lamb who was slain, of course, Jesus. The one sitting on the throne, God. Instead of telling a literal story, John’s vision allows readers to imagine a world where the whole cosmos worships not the beast but the Lamb who was slain. John thereby critiques the then-present world order where all people were expected to bow down to the emperor.
In today’s section of Revelation, angels and living creatures and elders surround the throne and sing in full voice: Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! John continues: Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!
To us, this hymn sung in full voice might remind us of the Hymn of Praise we sing in a highly liturgical Lutheran service: Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God. Power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and blessing and glory are his. It might remind us of the words spoken before communion during the Proper Preface, again, during a highly liturgical Lutheran service: with earth and sea and all its creatures, angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, we praise your name and join their unending hymn. For us, these words of praise of Jesus don’t cause us to bat an eye. Of course, we sing praise to God.
But to the Christians of the first and second centuries, these words—in public, by threat of death—were meant only for the emperor. Anyone who dared sing these words in praise of someone or something else should be prepared for the lion’s den, the cross, or stoning. And so, John of Patmos shares a vision using mythical language, a vision where the whole cosmos bows down to the Lamb who was slain, never saying the name Jesus until the very last chapter. Though John’s language may not be clear to us, it would have been to early Christians, and the message was this: may your worship of God move you to political resistance.
Which, of course, thrills me to no end. May our worship of God move us to political resistance, to resistance of all that deals death, resistance of all that destroys God’s creation, resistance of power run amok. The praise of Revelation proclaims resistance to, in particular, the worship of anything besides God, the careless destruction of creation, and the ways we devalue certain people. Two thousand years have gone by, and still, these words of Revelation are fresh as dew. For we easily succumb to the worship of the almighty dollar, basing our decisions not on what is most loving or most just but on financial ramifications. For the actions of humanity are now more than ever decimating the creatures of Earth and our ability to live on this planet. For we continue to count some lives more valuable than others, a truth so deep and wide that I need not name names.
May our worship of God move us to political resistance.
It’s tricky, this resistance, because while John of Patmos could scarcely conceive of a world where Christians would outnumber and out-power any group in any nation, John and other early Jesus followers would not have wanted Christianity to gain power in the way of the Roman Empire. The death-dealing ways of the empire are not the ways of Jesus. The ways of the beast are not the ways of the slaughtered Lamb. We sing praise to the vulnerable lamb, made more vulnerable by its death. Resistance means not violence, not might, but love, radical love.
And so, this resistance looks less like bullhorns and angry cries and more like patient, tender listening and care for the one in front of us.
I occasionally participate in advocacy days with various non-profits at the Arizona state legislature, advocating for particular bills that I believe would benefit the common good in our state. A couple months ago, the non-profit Sonoran Prevention Works organized an advocacy day with the hope of passing a bill that would decriminalize needle exchange in the state of Arizona. If you’re unfamiliar, at a needle exchange, people who use drugs can bring their used needles to dispose of them safely and to get new needles. I’m not in favor of drug use because, obviously, drug use is harmful, but a needle exchange reduces the risk of infection of HIV and Hepatitis C from people sharing needles and even the risk of infection for police and sanitation workers who often come into contact with used needles in the course of their work. The research on needle exchange has also shown that people who use drugs who interface with needle exchange workers are more likely to reduce and even end their drug use because of the compassionate, non-judgmental care they receive. Along with another volunteer participating in the advocacy day, a nursing student, we sat in the offices of state legislators and spoke about how we thought the decriminalization of these programs would benefit our community. A month ago, I attended the first ever conference on harm reduction in the state of Arizona, listening to people who benefit from needle exchange…which, really, is all of us. And tomorrow evening, I will be co-leading a book group with a staff member of Sonoran Prevention Works on the book Chasing the Scream about the drug war. For me, this is resistance: advocating for laws that benefit the common good, getting educated about issues that affect the community at large, and engaging in relationships and spending time with people as we, together, try to do the most loving thing.
Even being part of Grace is an act of resistance. We are not the most shiny, the most perfect, the most well-funded place of worship in the city of Phoenix. But our love for God and the love of God for us made tangible in this place, this is a radical love, a patient, tender listening and care for one another and even the stranger, a way of love that honors the slaughtered Lamb. And so, with the angels and living creatures and elders, we sing in full voice: Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! Alleluia! Amen.