Transcribed from the sermon preached May 1, 2016
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Psalm 67, John 14:23-29, Revelation 21:10-22:5
What are we to do with these wild images of Revelation? The Bible is our sacred text. This does not mean that we consider it infallible or inerrant, as if the authors were not human beings who lived in a particular socio-political and historical context which influenced who they were and what they wrote. But the scriptures are testament to the struggle of the people of God to listen and discern the word of God for their lives and the life of their community and nation. We trust that they were trying to be faithful and true, and that often they got it right. In particular, there was something unique and special about this guy Jesus of Nazareth… something so special that being exposed to his story, his love and grace, even 2,000 years later can change your life and bring you peace. And the Gospels are the early testimony on the Good News, so we hold them tight. They are special. The Bible is not just another book.
But sure enough there are many different and contrasting opinions within scripture itself, and to some degree there is an evolution of the faith. Jesus, for instance, disagrees with many on how important it is to follow the very letter of the law. In healing on the Sabbath, Jesus demonstrates that the law was made to do good, not harm – that context may change the exact application. So Jesus says the Holy Spirit will guide and teach you along the way. There is disagreement for instance, between Peter and Paul about whether new Christians are also new Jews. That is, do they have to follow the Law or not?
Paul argues strongly that we are saved by grace and grace alone, but that in gratitude for grace, we will want to be faithful, and obedient even unto death and that also meant following Jewish law. We will slip and fall from time to time, but if our intentions are right, if we repent and ask forgiveness, we are still assured a place in heaven.
Now Revelation is another perspective altogether. Our author John is pretty insistent that followers of Jesus, the lamb, remain radically faithful.
Now many rational, educated folk get nervous when the book of Revelation is mentioned. It seems that it is so often used to bludgeon or terrify people into belief. In fact, a lot of folks who want to consider themselves rational think they even have to toss out the idea of heaven too.
It is “pie in the sky”, or as Marx called it, “the opiate of the masses.” “The demand to give up the illusion about its condition,” says Marx, “is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.” https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm
But illusions are a dime a dozen, number one being the illusion that we can live without myth to give us meaning, and that scientific language captures all that is true and important about life.
Now we know that Marx exchanged the “illusion” of God and heaven for the illusion of materialism and the idolatry of the state. That has failed miserably. Others have exchanged the “illusion” of God and heaven for the idolatry of the individual and his or her selfish material desires. We use the relatively new terms of Capitalism and Communism but selfishness and group think are not new. And for our capitalist world, Huxley got it right – entertainment – actual opium and alcohol, reality TV and hand to hand combat, and video games, sex and shoes and cars and phones offer the distraction from our sense of meaninglessness, alienation and powerlessness – distraction from the hungry and excluded from the victims of war.
And while we understand the anthropologist’s point of view that values are contextual and relative, that does not mean each and every system of beliefs is of equal value. Some religions have more opium than others, and some are more conducive to peace while others are more conducive to war. In New Age circles, for instance, there is an idea that Native American religion offers great wisdom – but we act like it was one big homogeneous tribe and culture from Maine to Mexico; the Hopi religion and Comanche and Aztec were totally different. The Hopi religion is complex and peace oriented while the Comanche was a war tribe – their religion was simple and violent. That is how they survived. Meanwhile the Aztecs were complex and violent. And coming off of Passover last week, we are reminded that we worship a God who heard the cries of the oppressed, and liberated them. Our God has been a liberator from the beginning, and Revelation tells us God will be a liberator in the end. Hope in God’s presence in history gives us the courage to remain faithful and true in the present tense, no matter what the cost, because in the end, God and God’s people will prevail.
“Peace I leave with you. Peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says, “do not let them be afraid.”
God doesn’t promise us an easy life, but He does say even in the midst of this crazy life filled with disease, violence and hurt, our hearts can be at peace, even in the face of death, and fear need not be the primary force that drives us.
John in Revelation is doing the best he can to use images and symbols his audience would understand to describe a vision we have little capacity to understand. But the basic idea is simple. Even if evil and violence have power in this world, they will not have the last word. There is a beautiful force in the universe which bends toward justice and peace, and it will have the last word. And our efforts to stay true and honest, kind and loving, faithful and hard working cannot be in vain because each loving and righteous act is itself tapped into the heart of God which is eternal. Even the weakest act of love is powerful and significant and reflects a grand vision of the Lamb.
If God’s vision for humanity is even present and powerful nailed to a cross, then there is nowhere you can go from God’s presence. The very act of Christ’s love still vital as his blood drains from his body is the demonstration of the sovereignty of God. Note in particular today, still so close to the murky, poisonous wells of Flint, the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the Lamb. It is our vision of a future where violence is overcome with love, where pure water and food are plentiful and health is universal. It is our hope for the future which sets the tone for how we order our lives in the present.
The Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of the risen Christ is within us, enlightening us, teaching us, encouraging us, calming and empowering us to live peaceful and beautiful lives. It is a common vision that unites us, a common language that grants freedom regardless of the powers of the world. Yet it also gives us a vision toward which to work.
So Reinhold Niebuhr responds to Marx: “There must always be a religious element in the hope of a just society. Without the ultra-rational hopes and passions of religion no society will ever have the courage to conquer despair and attempt the impossible; for the vision of a just society is an impossible one, which can be approximated only by those who do not regard it as impossible. The truest visions of religion are illusions, which may be partially realized by being resolutely believed. For what religion believes to be true is not wholly true but ought to be true; and may become true if its truth is not doubted.” (Moral Man and Immoral Society. P. 81)
Basically, Niebuhr is saying that the crazy notion that love should and can prevail may be an illusion, but it should not be. It should be true. And without it we would be tempted to devolve into believing the materialist illusions like selfishness is actually not selfish, that violence and war actually lead to peace, that if we allow the rich to have all they want the poor will benefit, that there is no real lasting meaning or connection so we should just take what we can and enjoy it while we have it. Those too are illusions that we need to cast off, we need to be liberated from, and it is the Gospel of love that gives us the power to do it. The body and blood of Christ nourish and sustains, unites and empowers.