May 9, 2010
A few weeks ago, the prominent New Testament scholar Elaine Pagels gave a lecture at the University on the cultural impact of the Book of Revelation. Pagels came to prominence for her work on the Gnostic gospels. More recently, she has published a fascinating memoir/reflection entitled Beyond Belief. I attended the lecture largely out of curiosity, because I had no idea that she had turned her scholarly attention to the Book of Revelation. It was an interesting lecture in some respects; certainly I did learn a few things, but it was also misleading.
Revelation may be the most complex and difficult to understand book of the bible. It is also among the most important, as Pagels points out, in shaping the imagination of Western culture. It has affected our religion, and not just Christianity. It affects our politics and foreign policy; it affects popular culture. There would probably be no sci-fi or fantasy literature or film, if not for the Book of Revelation and other early apocalyptic texts.
In fact, Revelation is not an apt name; for as Martin Luther pointed out five centuries ago, the book of Revelation is hardly revealing. It is obscure, dense, and confusing. Indeed Pagels tried to provide a coherent story line for the book and that’s where I think she went wrong. It lacks a plot, no matter what the fundamentalists may claim. As I read it, I keep thinking that we are simply going over the same territory, with slightly different imagery.
These last weeks of Easter we hear from the last two chapters of Revelation, John’s last vision, of the new Jerusalem. To understand the full impact of that vision, one must know, not just the book of Revelation, but the whole Bible. This imagery, coming at the end of the Bible, takes us back to the very beginning of the bible to Genesis. Through the middle of the city flows the river of life, and on either side of the river stand the two trees of life. The geography of the New Jerusalem recalls the geography of the garden of Eden, from which flowed four rivers representing the four cardinal directions. In the middle of the Garden stood the tree of life.
There are continuities and discontinuities between these two images. A river, a tree, God. As I mentioned last Sunday; the new Jerusalem is a city; the Bible begins in a garden. One could draw out that particular juxtaposition in some detail, for the biblical tradition moves back and forth from garden, or unsettled land, to the city. The people of Israel wander for forty years in the wilderness. John the Baptist and Jesus both go into the wilderness. The city seen in Revelation is both evil, and redemptive.
But there is something else that strikes me here; and that is the symmetry of the story. Beginning and end look similar in some significant ways, for all that happens in between. Eden is situated quite precisely geographically. The four rivers that flow from it are named—two of those names were well known in the ancient world, and remain known to us—the Tigris and the Euphrates. The other two rivers are unknown and indeed the point seems to be to place Eden in the familiar yet strange.
That may be precisely the point of this symmetry, to help us place ourselves in this story, this biblical story that invites us in and helps us orient ourselves. That role it takes in our lives may not always be obvious, but I think if you reflect on it, you will see that the way we read scripture in the Episcopal Church, over a three-year cycle which draws on all four gospels, and adds to those gospel readings regular readings from both Hebrew Scripture and the letters of Paul and other early Christians. That story of scripture is reinforced by our hymnody and the story we hear in the liturgy. It is a story of God’s creating us, redeeming us, loving us. It is a story too of human beings who have not been who God meant them to be, have sinned or fallen short of full and true humanity.
We tend to like our stories neat and tidy. That’s why many of us like mystery stories. Mysteries have a clear plot, and by the end, everyone is supposed to know who did the evil deed and why. The detective ties everything into a tidy package. But along the way, mysteries, like life itself, are full of twists and turns, false clues, dead ends, red herrings. Sometimes they are constructed in such a way that the reader could not know everything necessary to puzzle out the murderer. Usually though everything is in front of us, though we don’t see it until we come to the very end.
We want the stories of our lives to be that way—neat and tidy, with meaning and purpose, and usually with a clear path, detectible to all, or at the very least, to ourselves. That is one of the appeals of the book of Revelation to many people. It seems to offer a clear path to the future—and if you want to know what that path might be, you only need to attend one of those Biblical Prophecy workshops that are offered from time to time. Just in case you are wondering—I don’t think the Book of Revelation helps us know what’s going to happen in the future and I don’t think anyone can predict what’s going to happen next.
I don’t even expect many of us get the kind of direct help that Paul received, the clear word, in a vision, that he should go to Macedonia. In addition to the readings from Revelation, each Easter season we also read from the Acts of the Apostles, which is in fact a continuation of the gospel of Luke, and tells the story of the development of the early Christian community as it expands from Jerusalem to Rome.
In the course of Acts, there are several key turning points. One was the encounter of Peter and the centurion Cornelius, as Peter, and the whole community of followers of Jesus, came to see that the good news of Jesus Christ extended to Gentiles as well as Jews and that Gentiles need not follow Jewish laws in order to join the followers of the Way, as it was called.
We see another key turning point in today’s reading. To this point, the early followers of Jesus have spread the gospel in Jerusalem and the surrounding area, to Damascus, into Asia Minor, what we know as Turkey, and probably down through Egypt and into Africa. They have not taken it further. They have not gone west, crossed the Hellespont into Greece and Europe.
This vision to Paul propels them in that direction. It is significant for that reason. But there are other details that heighten its significance. For one, it is Macedonia, not Greece to which Paul and his companions travel. Macedonia for the ancient world meant above all Alexander the Great, who not only conquered much of the known world, but also precipitated remarkable cultural and religious fusion, throughout the Mediterranean and as far as what we now know as India and Afghanistan.
Paul doesn’t go first to Athens, which in our mind was the center of Greek civilization. Rather he goes to Philippi, a Roman colony. In other words, he goes to one of those places where Roman culture is most firmly ensconced—a place where Roman soldiers have retired, a place that is set up and organized very much like Rome itself. And there he encounters a woman—Lydia—a seller of purple, purple being the color of the imperial family. There’s another important detail that Luke mentions—Lydia is from the city of Thyatira; which means she is a native, not of Macedonia or Rome, but of Asia Minor where Paul has just been.
All of these geographical details are important for Luke, not primarily because we are seeing a move of the gospel from Asia to Europe, but rather because the sheer richness of this detail points the rich diversity of the early Christian community.
Luke calls these early Christians followers of the Way, and by presenting them and especially Paul as an itinerant missionary, he stresses the mobility of this new community. They do not stay in one place, either geographically or theologically. They are on the move.
It’s a message we need to hear repeatedly. It’s a message we need to take to heart. It’s easy for us as individuals and as a congregation to rest on our laurels, to become comfortable in the place where we are. That’s true of our own spiritual journeys. That’s also true of the journeys of parishes and congregations. It’s also true that when things begin to look bleak, when we run into a rough patch we say to ourselves, if only we could get back to where we were, five years ago, ten years ago. Congregations especially tell stories about themselves, stories about how it was in the good old days.
Well, my friends, I’ve said it to you before, and I will repeat it again and again. Those days are not coming back. We can’t look back and hope to regain what we’ve lost. Rather, like Paul, we need to look forward, move ahead into the future. We need to let ourselves be guided not by what once was, but by a vision of what might be.
To discern that vision is our shared task in the coming months. It will require, not a careful study of the book of Revelation, but a close examination of ourselves and of our community. We have begun this work, but it will intensify. A clear vision for the future will help us set priorities for our mission and ministry, our finances and stewardship, and will also take a close look at our programs. It will also require change.
All of this is spiritually and emotionally difficult. There are things we will have to let go—old assumptions, patterns, ways of doing things. But if we do this well, we will make Grace a better place, and equip our parish and ourselves to be the faithful people of God in the years to come.