Revelation 7:9-17—The Great Multitude in White Robes
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12—The Beatitudes
These are familiar passages. I have worked with them often enough before, and I am sometimes tempted to think that I know what they are saying. But in fact in every new reading we hear God speaking in new ways, so we walk through the passages together in order to see where they take us.
Revelation 7 is one my favourite chapters. As the angel shows John the truth behind the daily events he knows in the world around him, we get a glimpse of where history is going. In Genesis we see the way that God scatters the nations and then begins to work in one people (Abraham and his children) on behalf of all peoples (Genesis 11-12). Pentecost shows the grace that was present in the destruction of Babel, gathering people together and revealing the gospel to them each in their own language. But it is left for John to portray the full glory of Babel restored:
9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
This is a wonderful picture, although the elder’s explanation of the vision reminds us of the suffering they experienced in their lives:
These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16 Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
We have here both the glory that waits for us, and the pain within which we live. For John’s audience, this was the torment of bitter persecution. Christians were led into the arena and given a choice: Sacrifice to Caesar and say, “Caesar is Lord”, or die. One such was an old man named Polycarp. On account of his advanced age, the officials did not want to kill him and pleaded with him to renounce his allegiance to Jesus. He replied with these words (as told by F.F. Bruce), “The old man made his noble confession: ‘Eighty-six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my Saviour and King?’” He was burned at the stake.
We do not suffer this kind of persecution. Indeed, there is a general feeling in our culture that no one should ever suffer. Often we hear someone who has walked through great loss say something like this: “We need to take steps so that no one ever has to face what we have experienced again.” I appreciate the compassion of such people, and they have done great good in our lives. But there is a basic problem in what they say: Life is such that we will always suffer pain and loss. Indeed, pain and loss are vehicles through which God brings us grace and strength.
1 John 3Turn to John’s letters. You know that these letters are concerned to show that true Christian faith is fully in Jesus, the Son of God. The way that John begins the first letter, deliberately echoing John 1, shows his concern to lift up Jesus. The way that he does so focusses especially on God’s love, so that the verse, “God is love” is found in John’s letters. The verses we read express John’s thoughts well.
In these verses, John lifts up a series of ideas that lead to glory.
· God’s incredible love for us is visible in our identity: “children of God.”
· This identity places us at odds with the world. This recalls John’s consistent position that “the world” means “whatever in this world is opposed to God”. Because it is in continued opposition to God, the world—seen also in the cultures in which we live—also is against us.
· Being children of God means that we become like God.
· We are not always like him now because “we see in a mirror darkly”, but when he appears we will be like him fully, because we will see him clearly.
· This hope leads us to seek purification, cleansing now, to be like him.
Purification requires pain. It is hard to take the impurities out of metal, and requires great heat and purification. It is hard to train the athlete to reach the highest levels, and requires great stress and the pain of strict training. It is hard to purify our very selves, and requires the presence of Christ leading us through the training grounds of this life.
So we come to the beatitudes.
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.
12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
We will not go into these in any depth, except to note the inversion of all that we might expect. The source of power is weakness. The place we find joy is mourning. The righteous are those who know their spiritual poverty. Most importantly, the source of peace and joy and greatest blessing is the experience of persecution. We come closest to God when we are forced to hold this world lightly and accept our inevitable movement beyond this world. In short, the path to experience the power and glory and greatness of God is to embrace the weakness and fragility of the cross.
The Myth of Redemptive Violence
A Christian Peacemakers’ Team member recently was present near the battlefront, as American air power drove back the forces of IS(IS) from the Azridis and Christians huddled together in the mountains near Kurdistan. He observed his own internal conflict at rejoicing over the success of a military response to the devastating fighting in Iraq and Syria. It is deeply ingrained in us that violence in the right cause is good. We respond to pain by fighting.
But even in this situation, where violence is most easily justified as response to evil on a scale we rarely see, even in this case we see the limits of our ability to fix what is wrong in our world by fighting it. Consider the actions of the Islamic State. In the years following Desert Storm, the forerunner of the present Islamic State had trouble gaining traction in Iraq, especially as many of its leaders were killed in continued fighting. One result was an influx of new leaders in about 2010, so that now the primary people who have led the current fighting are old officers from the Iraq military. In a sense they are secular Muslims who are using a militant movement to pursue their own agenda of revenge against the West.
The truth is that you can never bring lasting peace by crushing someone. The seeds of World War 2 were sown by World War 1. The second war in Iraq (Desert Storm) grew out of the first invasion of Iraq more than 20 years ago. Repeatedly we experience the way that violence gives birth to violence.
The same pattern is true on a personal level. You know the pattern that people have often observed: the boss at work shouts at an employee; the employee goes home and argues with his/her spouse; the spouse turns the bad feelings into excessive discipline of a child; the child kicks the family dog; and so it goes. Similarly we notice the way that abused children grow into adults who abuse others. Violence gives birth to violence. As a beekeeper in a story I’m reading puts it, “Bees won’t stay by a house where there’s hating.”
We want peace and harmony. We like the song:
I’d like to build a world a home and furnish it with love.
Grow apple trees and honey bees and snow white turtle doves.
I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.
I’d like to hold it in my arms, and keep it company.
I’d like to see the world for once all standing hand in hand,
And hear them echo through the hills for peace throughout the land.
It’s somewhat clichéd, but we want peace and harmony. The passages we read show us the way. The way to peace and harmony, the way to the world that we want is following Jesus on a path of persecution and hardship. The way to peace is to accept violence without returning it or passing it on. This is hard to do!
The Path of Peace
In Revelation 7, those who stand before God in victory are those who accepted the violence of this world into themselves. In 1 John 3, those who become like God are those who keep their eyes firmly fixed on Jesus and imitate him. In Matthew 5, God’s blessing comes to those who embrace the peace and love of Christ, even when the world is against them.
Even those who are committed to peace can be surprisingly militant. Recently I wrote a review of a book in which an OT scholar named Eric Seibert works with OT passages that embrace violence. He argues that we need to read such passages resistantly and not accept their call to violence. While affirming his basic thoughts, I wondered what grounds we use to evaluate these problem passages. This past week I received a response to my review. The responder basically questioned my own commitment to peace so vigorously that I felt attacked. Even we who are committed to peace can sometimes be combative.
I want to be careful in my response to follow the path of peace. I want to curb my own tendency to fight or run away. I want to engage in a lifestyle that embraces the way of Jesus. I know myself well enough to be quite sure that I do not and cannot live this way consistently. So I look back to the passages.
Revelation 7 encourages me to embrace conflict in my life with the presence of Christ, whether it goes well or not.
1 John 3 reminds me that I can live with God’s love when others speak or act against me only by keeping my heart and mind fixed firmly on Jesus.
Matthew 5 makes clear that the life God blesses flows out of engagement with God.
Even more than I want to follow the way of peace, I want to follow Christ. Only as I am filled with the Spirit of Christ, am I able to walk in the way of Christ.
Today is All Saints’ Day. I think of the saints throughout time and around the world. I think of my bishop (Dan) from the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe. In the 1980s Zimbabwe went through a time of real trouble. It was after their Liberation Struggle, to gain their freedom as a country, had ended; but the new government chose to inflict violence on those who had not voted for them. As part of this crackdown soldiers were posted in the area where Dan’s parents lived. His father owned a store there, but a curfew made it impossible for him to restock his shelves. Then one day some soldiers came by and demanded beer from him. He had none. So they filled his mouth with bottle caps and beat him around the mouth with their rifle butts. Because of the curfew his family was not able to take him from their home to the hospital for several weeks. By the time they were able to move him, gangrenous sores were eating away his mouth, and in fact he died in the hospital from the results of his injuries. Dan was finally able to visit his father in the hospital, and he told me that he was filled with rage against the soldiers who had beaten his father so badly. “I imagined myself standing with a machine gun and lining their children up against a wall and gunning them all down.” His father could hardly speak, but saw the anger in his son’s eyes and recognized the revenge he wanted to take. He spoke his last words to his son: “Don’t, Dan. Don’t”
Don’t hate. Love.
Don’t kill. Give life.
Don’t return violence for violence, but accept even other people’s pain into yourself, seeking the peace of Christ for them and for yourself.
I know that this counsel is idealistic, and the experience of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria shows how difficult it is to live a life of peace. I do not try to reconcile these problems, but simply affirm my desire to embrace the triumph of suffering we find in Jesus. At the end of all things I want to be in that wonderful multicultural crowd singing before the throne of God.