Third Sunday of Easter
Prayer of the Day: Eternal and all-merciful God, with all the angels and all the saints we laud your majesty and might. By the resurrection of your Son, show yourself to us and inspire us to follow Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
This week we have heard a lot of troubling news about developments on the Korean peninsula. The possibility of war, however remote it might be, is enough to send chills down anyone’s spine. But for some folks there is an even darker significance in these events. I am speaking of that particular brand of American Protestantism obsessed with the end of the world and convinced that the Book of Revelation holds the key to figuring out when and how the end will occur. Already I am hearing speculation that North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un might be “the beast” spoken of in Revelation. I have heard similar speculation in the recent past concerning Saddam Hussein, Vladimir Putin and even Barak Obama. For the benefit of all you folks who may never have come into contact with this “end times” theology, the “beast” is a figure described in Revelation 13. It is an amalgam of fierce animals symbolizing a tyrant who rules over all peoples in a reign of terror and oppression. This ruler is particularly hostile toward the saints, imprisoning, torturing and killing them. Worst of all, the beast requires its subjects to worship it as “Lord.”
So, is Kim Jong-un the long awaited “beast”? In the most literal sense, my answer is “no.” The world dominating beast of which John of Patmos speaks in Revelation was an emperor of Rome. The most likely candidate is Domitian (81 C.E. to 96 C.E.), though some scholars maintain that the “beast” refers rather to a future emperor expected to emerge from the chaos and civil war convulsing the Roman Empire following the death of Nero in 68 C.E. John’s lurid images of cruelty, oppression and destruction of the earth set forth in Revelation accurately depict life under Roman occupation and more particularly, life for the churches in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) at the end of the first century. Governmental persecution of the church, though not wide spread or focused at this time, was not an infrequent occurrence for disciples of Jesus who refused to acknowledge Caesar as “Lord,” a title they reserved for Christ alone. Exclusion from economic and professional opportunities was often the price of worshiping Christ alone. Christians were not the only ones to experience Rome’s oppression. It is not only for the death of the prophets and saints, but for “all who have been slain on the earth” that Rome (code named “Babylon”) and the beast come to judgment in Revelation Chapter 18. Significantly, all those who profited socially, politically and commercially from Rome’s unjust reign share in its judgment. In sum, it is safe to say that John of Patmos was writing about the imperial rulers of his day, not our present day rulers, however beastly they might be.
But that does not exhaust the subject. Rome may be long gone, but imperial oppression is very much alive and well. This point is made by Jorge Rieger in his book, Christ and Empire, (AugsburgFortress, c. 2007).
“Empire, in sum, has to do with massive concentrations of power that permeate all aspects of life and that cannot be controlled by any one actor alone. This is one of the basic marks of empire throughout history. Empire seeks to extend its control as far as possible; not only geographically, politically, and economically-these factors are commonly recognized-but also intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, culturally and religiously.” Pp. 2-3.
The beast of empire is alive and well today exercising its murderous power through dictators that starve their people to feed their military machines; corporations that exploit labor, corrupt governments and destroy the environment for the sake of profit; governments that value balanced budgets over a balanced diet for their poorest citizens; and religious movements that encourage violence, prejudice and hate. The victims of the beast live in squalid refugee camps having fled the carnage of conflicts they wanted no part of. They are children employed at near starvation wages by manufacturers whose CEOs have made the cold (and heartless) determination that such “out sourcing” best serves the bottom line. They are the wounded men, grieving mothers and dead children who had the misfortune to be in the way of a drone attack-the folks we speak of in unfeeling clinical terms as “collateral damage.” We need to be careful not to define the beast too narrowly. Kim Jong-un is a mean hombre, no doubt about it. But he did not crawl out of the bowels of hell. He is the product of a tense political five decade standoff between two halves of a small nation long divided by cold war interests of the superpowers. The war that gave birth to his nation was a proxy fight between much bigger players with stakes much higher than the welfare of the Korean people. Those of you old enough to remember the comic strip Pogo may also recall the lead character’s immortal line: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” So also I think we can say that we have met “the beast” and he is us. Today’s nation states, military alliances and commercial entities (all of them) share in some measure the toxic nature of the beast.
Finally, I feel compelled to point out that the Book of Revelation is not all about “the beast.” It is about the “Lamb who was slain.” It is not about the destruction of the earth, but its salvation and renewal. Most importantly, Revelation is not a war movie or a spaghetti western in which the forces of good out gun the forces of evil. Understand that the final victory of God over evil does not come through an exercise of divine violence. Throughout the Book of Revelation, the powers of the empire are portrayed as fearsome beasts, dragons and warriors. But God’s son and God’s people are always portrayed as peaceful, vulnerable and weak. Israel is portrayed as a woman giving birth under the watch of a fearsome dragon waiting to devour her child. Revelation 12:1-6. The conqueror, the lion of Judah, God’s Messiah turns out to be, of all things, a lamb. Revelation 5:1-5. Not only so, but a lamb that was slain! When Christ returns to claim his kingdom, his title is “the Word of God,” and he slays his enemies with the sword that “comes out of his mouth.” Revelation 19:11-16. Just as the world began with God speaking it into existence, so by that same life giving (not death dealing) Word the world will be brought under God’s gentle reign. God triumphs through winning hearts, not battles. Thus, the churches in Asia Minor are comforted with the knowledge that by their faithful obedience to Jesus’ commands, their love for one another, their forgiveness of their enemies and their peaceful witness they are waging God’s battle against the powers of empire. This battle is fought not with weapons of war, but with the weapons of prayer, forgiveness and love for the neighbor-even the hostile one. The struggling churches are assured that the suffering love of God is mightier and more enduring than the violence of empire. Caesar and his legions might look impressive today, but the smart money is on the Lamb.
This story fascinates me. It seems that Saul (later to be called Paul) has just made a U Turn in his fundamental beliefs and self understanding. From this day forward, he takes his orders from Jesus-a man he presumed dead and whose followers he has been busy exterminating. I am captivated by this story because I cannot say that I have ever had such an experience. My mind changes slowly. It changes direction like an aircraft carrier: in small increments that seem inconsequential at the time but ultimately alter my direction in significant ways. When I read my journal entries of thirty years ago I can see that I have changed my mind about a great many things, though I would be hard put to say exactly when that happened. I am not even sure there ever was a conscious turning point. I expect that conversations with family and friends, reading and study along with my life experiences have worked together in gradually shaping and re-shaping my outlook over the years. I hope that worship, preaching and prayer have also played a significant role. That seems to be the way most of us are formed most of the time.
But not always. There are “Damascus Road” moments that can turn you around. Perhaps one contemporary example is Senator Robert Portman, a conservative legislator representing Ohio who recently embraced marriage equality upon learning that his son was gay. I suppose there is reason to question the sincerity of the senator’s conversion, which many have dismissed as a classic political “flip-flop.” It is a little suspicious that this politician should experience his change of heart just following the release of poll numbers showing a clear majority of Americans favoring marriage equality. Still, I tend to believe that Portman’s turnabout was genuine. Discovering that your own son is among the folks you have been trying to exclude as inherently immoral cannot be too different from Paul’s discovery that the Jesus he was striving to destroy was actually the God he worshipped.
In approaching this text it might be helpful to begin listing some of the strongest convictions you hold. Then ask yourself what it would take to change your mind. What could make you see things differently? If you are convinced that your beliefs and opinions are so solidly based that nothing could change them, I would caution you with my mother’s oft repeated dictum: “There is no mind as weak as that mind which is too strong to change.” We will come up against this question of conversion again in next week’s lesson from Acts where Peter is confronted with what he probably assumed was not possible: faith among pagans.
The title of this psalm is a little confusing. It reads: “A Psalm of David. A Song at the dedication of the Temple.” In the first place, the Temple was built by Solomon after David had died. If David wrote this psalm, it would not likely have been for the dedication of a building constructed well after his death. I should add, though, that Davidic authorship is not altogether impossible. According to the book of I Chronicles, David was heavily involved in planning for the erection of the Temple even though he took no part in actually building it. Thus, he could conceivably have composed psalms in anticipation of its dedication. This seems unlikely, however. A further difficulty is that the psalm itself is a personal prayer of thanksgiving for salvation. It does not even mention the Temple. One commentator suggests that the psalm, though composed much earlier, might have been used at the re-dedication of the Temple following its cleansing by Judas Maccabaeus in 164 B.C.E. (celebrated today as Hanukkah). J.W. Rogerson and J.W. McKay, The Cambridge Bible Commentary, Psalms 1-50 (Cambridge University Press, c. 1977), p. 133. That would explain the title linking the psalm to the Temple. The attribution of the psalm to David was likely a separate and much older title. It should be noted that the Hebrew preposition le translated as “by” in the Davidic title can also mean “to” or “in the manner of” or perhaps “in the tradition of.” Thus, actual Davidic authorship is not necessarily implied.
This psalm is one that Professor of Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann would probably classify as a “psalm of reorientation.” Brueggemann divides the psalms into three categories: Psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation and psalms of re-orientation. I believe that is a helpful distinction because at any given time in our lives we find ourselves orientated, disorientated or re-orientated. There are times when all seems well with the world. The job is exciting and filled with opportunities for advancement. Marriage is filled with intimacy, spontaneity and delight. The kids are getting good grades and behaving themselves. There is not a cloud in the sky. A psalm of orientation, of praise and thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness and goodness is appropriate.
Then tragedy strikes. The company you work for goes out of business. A spouse proves unfaithful. One of the kids gets sick-really sick. Or that routine X-ray exposes something very wrong going on under the skin. That picture perfect life is thrown into disarray. The darkness seems impenetrable. At times like these, psalms of disorientation give expression to our feelings of panic and abandonment. A good example is Psalm 39 which concludes with a prayer that God would “look away from me, that I may know gladness, before I depart and be no more.” Yet even though the psalmist seems to have given up on God, the psalmist is nonetheless still speaking to God!
Psalms of re-orientation, such as Psalm 30, are songs of those who have fallen from a secure and well oriented life into disorientation, but have experienced the salvation of a God who has led them out of the darkness and re-orientated their lives. The journey has not been easy, nor does it bring them back to where they were before. Re-orientated people have been changed forever by their trek through the darkness. They now know just how dark and terrifying life can be. But they also know just how faithful and steadfast is the God who continues to lead them even as they pass through the valley of the shadow. See The Message of the Psalms, Brueggemann, Walter (Augsburg Publishing House, c 1984).
It seems that the psalmist was experiencing threats from his enemies as well as sickness. This psalm does not explain what caused the psalmist’s suffering. Nor does it suggest that the psalmist is somehow at fault or that his or her suffering is part of some greater plan. Sometimes suffering just is. There is no explanation for it, but one thing is clear. The psalmist knows that God has not deserted him or her throughout the dark times. God has been present all along the difficult journey from darkness into light. It is important to understand that this journey does not take the psalmist back to “the way things were.” Often, there is no going back. The scars of surgery remain even after a full recovery. Life after divorce can be filled with love, life and hope-but it does not restore the relationship that was lost. The psalmist recognizes in resolution of his or her trials the saving hand of God. Thanksgiving is the only conceivable response.
In order to appreciate the full impact of this lesson, you need to read from the beginning of Chapter 4. See Revelation 4:1-5:10. John of Patmos is summoned to the throne room of God almighty. The throne of God is surrounded by 24 elders and four angelic creatures all singing praises to God. There is no description of God, but in God’s right hand is a scroll sealed with seven seals. An angel cries out, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” No one responds to this question and John is greatly distressed to learn that there is nobody in heaven or on earth able to open the scroll. But then one of the elders says to John, “Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Now comes the drum roll. What will he look like, this Lion, this Davidic King who dares to break the seals and open the scroll? We expect Arnold Schwarzenegger to strut out onto the stage, bulging with muscle, armed to the teeth. But when we look up we see-a lamb! A lamb that has been slain, no less. Seriously? This is the Lion of Judah? This is the Root of David?
At this point the angelic creatures and the elders break into their song: “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom people for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.” Vss 9-10. In the lurid imagery that follows, John pictures for us the war of the lamb. This matchup between a leopard like beast with seven heads, ten horns, feet like a bear and mouth like a lion on the one hand, and a lamb on the other seems terribly one sided. The lamb doesn’t appear to stand much of a chance. Yet John would have us know that God is on the side of the lamb whose suffering love for humanity braves even death.
This lesson is filled with images similar to many found in the Book of Daniel, another apocalyptic work. Daniel 7:9-10 relates the prophet’s vision of descending thrones upon which sat “one that was ancient of days.” “Ten thousand times ten thousands stood before him.” “The books were opened.” Dominion is given to “one like a son of man.” Some scholars suggest that John may have drawn his vision from that related in Daniel Chapter 7. Though possible, it seems unlikely to me. There is little in the way of actual textual similarity. There is virtually no correspondence between the two visions other than the assurance that the enemies of God’s people ultimately will be defeated by divine agency, a theme common to nearly all apocalyptic literature. John’s vision also bears similarity to divine appearances in Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1-2.
As I pointed out in my introductory remarks, it is critical to understand what John of Patmos is trying to accomplish with his work. That begins with reading the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 1-2. Just as the lamb seems an unlikely champion against the beast, so the crucified Lamb of God and his beleaguered and persecuted followers’ struggle against the empire looks hopeless. John strives to assure the churches of Asia Minor that their struggles to remain faithful are not futile, but are of cosmic significance. The cross is mightier than the sword. Love is stronger than violence and will prevail in the end.
Of all the four gospels, I find the ending of John’s gospel to be the most satisfying. Unlike Luke, Jesus does not ascend into heaven and direct the disciples to wait for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Unlike Matthew, Jesus does not send his disciples out with a promise of his presence. We are not left wondering whether or how the disciples will ever hook up again with the resurrected Christ as in Mark. John’s ascension takes place at Golgotha where Jesus is “lifted up.” The outpouring of the Holy Spirit coincides with Jesus’ resurrection. Remarkably, the Gospel of John ends the way the other gospels begin: with the disciples leaving their fishing nets and boats behind to follow Jesus. Jesus’ last words in the gospel are, “follow me.”
John’s gospel challenges us to take seriously the presence of Jesus in the Church. I think this is the underpinning for our Lutheran insistence on the real presence of Christ which is not limited to the sacraments. We confess in the Nicene Creed our belief in the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.” If that only means that there exists an organization called the church, we would hardly need to include it as an article of faith anymore than we would need to confess that the sky is blue. But to say that the church is one just as Jesus is one with the Father; that the church is a holy people; that the church is catholic embracing all nations and true to the apostolic witness that birthed it-that is another thing altogether. It is not always evident that the church as we experience it is any of these things. Yet our confession is that the church, flesh and blood congregations with all of their shortcomings, failures and imperfections constitute the Body of the Resurrected Christ. That calls for a leap of faith! It also challenges us to think deeply about how we make our unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolic teaching more visible.
I think this appearance must have happened on a Monday. I don’t have an ounce of biblical support for that assertion, but it sure has the feel of going back to work at the beginning of another week. Commentators believe that this third appearance of Jesus to his disciples in John is a latter addition to the gospel. They suggest that this story comes from a different version of events similar to the sequence in Matthew. The disciples, scattered after Jesus’ crucifixion, flee to Galilee (or go there to meet him upon instructions from Jesus to the women) and there try to pick up their old lives. In so doing, they encounter the resurrected Christ who calls them back to a life of discipleship. However this might be, there is no question but that the disciples have turned their attention back to the more mundane yet urgent needs for survival. They turn back to what they know, namely, fishing. Yet they toil through the night taking nothing, echoing Jesus’ warning that “apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5. Not until Jesus instructs them to cast their net out on the right side of the boat do they find success, and that beyond expectation. It is at this point that the beloved disciple recognizes Jesus.
Meals occupy a significant place in the ministry of Jesus (and throughout the whole Bible for that matter). Jesus feeds five thousand hungry people; Jesus eats with outcasts and sinners-as well as wealthy religious leaders. Jesus’ last evening with his disciples was a meal and Jesus makes a point of sharing food with them after his resurrection. Jesus frequently uses the image of a banquet to describe the kingdom of God. So it is not surprising that he invites his disciples to breakfast on the shore and that it is within this context that Jesus reconciles himself to Peter.
The interchange between Jesus and Peter is moving and illustrative of Jesus’ way with his disciples. Ours is the Lord of the second chance-and the third and the fourth. But what I find remarkable here is Peter’s commission: “Feed my sheep.” There has been much debate over the centuries about what that means and what significance it has for how we understand apostolic succession. Without entering these treacherous waters, let me just say that what I find most intriguing is the content of the command. If Peter is being given a special task here, it does not seem to have anything to do with leading, oversight or primacy. His job is not to shepherd the sheep, but simply to feed them. At the recent ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans one of my young people elbowed me just as Bishop Mark Hanson was being introduced as “shepherd of the sheep.” “What happened to Jesus” she said. “Did he retire?” This clever if less than reverent comment reflects the basis for my discomfort with the term “pastor” which means shepherd. I am only too aware of the fact that I do not know where the green pastures or the still waters are. Like everyone else, I have to rely upon the Good Shepherd’s leading for that. At best, I am just the sheep dog that tries to keep the herd together or the farm hand in charge of seeing to it that the sheep are fed. Like my namesake, I can only lead by following.