I’ve made it no secret that the Book of Revelation has a whole lot to offer us as people of faith, especially in the shifting ground of society that we find ourselves in today. However, it is not in the way that the book has been used and abused in some circles, proclaiming the imminent end of the world. All that does is encourage complacency, despair, and disengagement from the world around us… the world, the universe, as we need to be reminded that is God’s own beloved creation. A world that God calls us to be engaged in and a part of, no matter how good or how bad things can get.
It is true that Revelation was written in a dark and uncertain time. Christians were a tiny fragment of a minority within the Roman Empire… making up less than a tenth of a percent of the Population. Their presence in the Empire was increasingly met with apathy or even hostility. It is into this that John of Patmos wrote his work, pulling back the veil, and reminding those early Christians that ultimately God is in charge… and more than that, God at God’s most vulnerable was more powerful than anything the powers-that-be could throw at them. He does this with all kinds of contrasting images and language, including the subverting the powerful image of a lion, with the vulnerability of the lamb. God, at God’s most vulnerable, represented by the image of the lamb, was more powerful than the beasts and the dragons of Empire that threatened to consume them.
For the early church trying to survive in some extraordinarily dark times, Revelation offered powerful words of encouragement.
It also sets things into perspective for us. We now live in a time where the church no longer enjoys the position of power and privilege it once had. In fact, as a church we are still coming to terms with how we abused that power and privilege, and are living with the consequence of becoming less relevant in western society. If anything Revelation is a reminder of how corrupting being in the midst of power and privilege can be… and we have learned that the desire to take it all back can be even worse.
But as dark as that may seem, this is the season of Easter. This is a time of new life, new hope, and resurrection.
In practical terms, Revelation is actually a call for optimism and encouragement when everyone else sees doom and gloom. For us in the 21st Century North American mainline church, we tend to look at aging congregations and dwindling numbers, and we are panicking. We suddenly start looking around for a quick-fix solution that will suddenly restore our churches to the glory days that some of us might remember when we were children, where churches played a much more central role. We blame sports… we blame a permissive society, we blame lots of things… but we don’t take responsibility for the one thing that we can… how we respond to these changing circumstances in faith and trust that ultimately God is the one who is in control.
This panic is entirely misplaced… because we are worrying about something we should not be worried about: the preservation of the institutional church. Our faith is not about institutional preservation. …which unfortunately power and privilege engenders. Our faith is about celebrating the power of God in life, and that no earthly power, not even death itself is capable of destroying that. If we can let go of this institutional preservation neurosis, we then free ourselves to let ourselves be the people that Christ is calling us to be.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro wrote this, as a reflection inspired from both Micah and the Talmud:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
We shouldn’t be about what will help us “survive” as a church but what we can do to actually live out our lives in hope and faith. Oddly enough, if we become less concerned about our own survival and more about living, reflecting and celebrating God in life, we become what Christ calls us to be. We become people unafraid of death, and ready to embrace and live out our lives as they truly are: a gift of God.
We are in the midst of the Easter season… and I think the danger for us is that we’ve taken it all in stride, as we always do every spring… It has become routine, and it really shouldn’t be. Maybe it’s time for us to embrace this season for how truly revolutionary it really is. Even though it is something that all of us will face, Easter proclaims that death does not have the final say over who we are, and who we can be. But it is one thing to talk abstractly about resurrection, and quite another to live it out. Part of living out resurrection is to not be afraid of what the future holds, but to trust that God is very much in control of that. When we get into institutional survival mode, we lose sight of that.
But here’s something to consider: Of all the churches and congregations that Paul helped found as part of the early church, how many of them are still around? Do we actually have a congregation somewhere in Greece or Turkey that still worships in the same building that Paul or John of Patmos once did? Do those congregations still exist? If you were wondering… no they don’t… earthquakes, natural disasters, and invasions by marauding Visigoths, Huns, and Vandals made sure of that. Yet what lives on is not the individual congregations, but the ongoing gospel message of hope. It’s not the institution where the reality of the resurrection lives, but in the hearts and minds of the people who follow Christ… who try to make the world a better place in his name… and remains a message as relevant today as when it echoed in the hearts of that first handful of followers.
And that’s where the hope of resurrection really lives.