Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Resistance of the Holy City

Given the increasingly disturbing news about what our sisters and brothers in Latin America are facing at our borders right now, I have come back to and am reposting the text of my sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, just a few weeks ago. The video of the sermon is also available online.

A Reading from the Revelation to John (21:10, 22-22:5) 
In the spirit the angel carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day-- and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb's book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

In moments of grief or pain, there are some scriptural texts that always seem to come to mind. Texts from the Bible, for example, that you hear most often at funerals. This is why people love the 23rd Psalm with its image of a shepherd who leads us even when we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Or Isaiah 25, where we hear the promise that, in the end, God will prepare a feast for all people and destroy death forever, wiping the tears from all faces. In John's Gospel, there is the story of Jesus telling a grieving Martha who is struggling with the death of her brother Lazarus that he—Jesus—is the resurrection and the life. And in the Revelation to John, we see promises of our eternal home where we are reunited with those who have gone before, where the God who sometimes seems distant or hard-to-find dwells right here in the midst of us. These are powerful and comforting texts.

And though it is true that the Revelation to John, with its hopeful vision of the end of our existence, is indeed a comforting text when you are struggling with the painful reality of death, the truth is that this book was written to be a very different sort of comfort in the late first century. For a long time, people thought this book was written to comfort Christians who were suffering under the despotic reign of Emperor Domitian. In this line of thinking, the book of Revelation was written to give hope to Christians who were being imprisoned and killed because of their beliefs. It envisioned a picture of an empire-wide persecution of the Christian faith.

But modern scholarship would actually urge us to tone down that understanding of the first century, this idea of widespread persecution of Christians at that time. Because, truth be told, there simply is not any strong evidence of any empire-wide persecution which singled out Christians for imprisonment in the late first century. Don't get me wrong, there were indeed martyrs in this time and place. There was persecution. There were Christians who died because of their belief in Jesus Christ. But these were exceptions in the imperial life. They were not the norm. Persecution, when it occurred, was sporadic and limited to specific localities under Domitian’s reign.

Modern scholars, instead, believe that this book was written in the context of a significant conflict among Christians themselves in Asia minor. The key question in the book of Revelation is whether you participate and remain complicit in the Empire of Rome, symbolized by Babylon in Revelation, or whether you resist imperial power. Because there were Christians who did not view the Empire as a dangerous force, one that advanced the aims of darkness and the devil. For these Christians it didn't matter if you sacrificed incense to the image of the Emperor or called him Lord, you could do all of that still believe that Jesus was the supreme Lord.

The book of Revelation was written as a polemic against that view, insisting throughout that you cannot call Jesus and Caesar Lord at the same time. There can be only one Lord. Those Christians who thought that you could compromise with the Empire are criticized in Revelation for being lukewarm in their faith, for not fully committed to the new reality which has been brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And it may be easy for us in the 21st century to look back 2,000 years at all of this and find it somewhat interesting, but probably foreign to our existence. But that is, I think, a misunderstanding a well. Because I think Revelation raises some very interesting questions for Christians today, particularly those of us who live in the United States. Because there are significant arguments to be made that the power of United States in our own time far surpasses whatever power Rome had at the height of its imperial rule. We don't talk about the American Empire, generally, but if you look at the amount of territory which is under the control of our country, if you consider how many armed forces we have stationed in continents and countries all over the world, and if you think how other countries respond to what our country does or doesn't do… (when the United States sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold, right?) If you think of all of this, it becomes clear pretty quickly that the United States is a country that wields significant power in this world, almost an imperial level of power, perhaps.

And so I think that when we read the book of Revelation we must ask ourselves some very hard questions about our allegiances, our citizenship, and our patriotism. We must ask ourselves whether our citizenship and patriotism has ever crossed a line somewhere or sometime, whether our love for our country has ever risen above our love for the risen Christ—and the Body of Christ for whom he died

Today’s reading from the 21st chapter of Revelation helps frame this question in a very helpful way, I think. Because one of the most significant realities of the Roman Empire was that the whole world existed in two separate groups. There were Roman citizens who were treated a very specific way and there was everyone else. Paul even took advantage of this when he was arrested and brought before the courts, saying, “Hey, I’m a Roman citizen. You can’t do this to me!” By the late first century, the early Christian church, though, was a tremendously mixed community. The church began as a sect within Judaism but quickly grew to include Gentiles. The church included those who were rich and those who were poor, those who were slave and those who were free, and people from many nations and ethnicities and citizenships. And in the Christian church all of those people were placed on equal footing around the Eucharistic table.

The problem with getting very comfortable with the Empire in the late first century was that not everyone could do that. Members of the church who were Roman citizens could indeed enjoy their much greater freedom, but they could only do that while also acknowledging that other people—other people right in their church—did not have the freedom they had. And that is why the author of Revelation urges resistance instead of complicity, insisting that the power of the Empire is always a diabolical power precisely because of the way that the Empire (no matter the era in which it exists) seeks to carve up and divide humanity so that the power of the Empire may grow, so that the wealth of the State may increase. And that power is absolutely contrary to the power of love which raised Jesus from the dead, the power that seeks to reconcile a divided humanity.

And so, when John of Patmos sees the New Jerusalem in today’s epistle reading, he says, “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.” In saying this, what he is doing is painting a picture which is a stark contrast to the picture of Rome—the other city where, supposedly, the other nations will come, but only in order to be subservient to the power of the State.

No, the power of the New Jerusalem is very different, and the nations don’t come to be slaves, they come to be set free. The only thing kept out of this city, according to John, is that which refuses to be made clean by the blood of the slain Lamb and to those who practice abomination—which defined in Revelation as those were willing to sacrifice much at the altar of the state, no matter the cost to their fellow Christians. That is the abomination.

And you and I, we live in a world which is also divided into two groups, those are American citizens and to those who are not. And I think we are meant to feel uncomfortable when we read this text. We should feel uncomfortable at the reality that some of our sisters and brothers in Christ have markedly different freedoms than we have—and not only our sisters and brothers in other countries of the world, but our sisters and brothers right here in the United States who don’t have all the same benefits we have because they are not citizens of the State.

I talked a couple weeks ago when I was preaching on Revelation about how sometimes we are willing to sacrifice relationships with friends and fellow Christians at the altar of our preferred political party, that we will angrily insist that our party is right—right no matter what—even if it burns a friendship to the ground, and how that is a form of idolatry to the State.

But there are all kinds of idolatry out there, all kinds of ways of sacrificing to the State at the expense of your fellow Christian. And if we truly believe that the vision of the end of human existence described in Revelation 21 is a city that quite literally leaves its doors open all the time, that in the end of human existence there are no checkpoints, but everyone is welcome to come in, everyone is treated as a person, then we have to ask whether or not those of us who are citizens are complicit in another sacrifice, one that is willing two let the State place the personhood and humanity of our fellow Christians to the side, one that that refuses to allow the gates to be open but insists they must be closed, one that that sends people back to countries filled with poverty and violence and a death, all in the name of keeping us supposedly more secure and wealthy.

Because, God forbid we lose our jobs or our comfort.

There are all kinds of sacrifices the State invites us to make every single day to the power of our empire. And there is cost which is mammoth.

Because, believe it or not, the Revelation to John was written not to comfort people like you and me. The Revelation to John was written to comfort people who don't have the right citizenship, people who have been told they do not have the same rights for reasons that were very legitimate and legal in Rome. The Revelation to John was written, instead, to provoke those who do have power, to provoke those who are comfortable, to say that if you are comfortable you are complicit. To provoke people like you and me, and to force us to ask, “At what cost does our desire power and comfort come?” Revelation invites us to ask which citizenship matters most to us, citizenship in this country or citizenship in the new Jerusalem that Jesus Christ is trying to bring about… the new Jerusalem that the State killed Jesus for trying to bring about.

And Revelation urges us to resist the Empire anytime the Empire seeks to oppress or exclude any person, particularly people who stand at the closed gates of our own country, people who have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, people who are wondering why… wondering why their sisters and brothers who live on the other side of those gates have not spoken up and demanded change. Amen.

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