Today is the Fourth Sunday of Easter. It’s referred to informally as Good Shepherd Sunday, because each year on this day we hear similar readings. The gospel reading always comes from the 10th chapter of John which is Jesus’ discourse on the Good Shepherd. The Psalm appointed for the day is always Psalm 23, the best-known and most-loved of all of the Psalms. The image of the good shepherd is an important one historically, and in spite of the fact that we have come very far from the pastoral setting of subsistence agriculture in ancient Palestine, the notion of God as a good shepherd who cares for us as a shepherd cares for his flock, continues to resonate.
But instead of exploring the image of the Good Shepherd, I thought it might be helpful to examine more closely another set of texts that we are reading this Easter season. In this year, our second reading for the six Sundays after Easter is taken from the Book of Revelation. It’s the only time in the three-year lectionary cycle that we encounter this important, difficult, and often mis-interpreted text. Preachers in main-line churches tend to ignore it, even as more fundamentalist Christians find it fascinating. And indeed, in our larger culture, Revelation continues to have enormous influence. It provides fodder for speculation about the end times, and our media will often fixate on the predictions of mis-guided interpreters of the text.
Unfortunately, our lectionary readings are not taken from the most difficult, dramatic, and violent sections of the text. We won’t read about the number 666, the anti-christ, a term by the way, that doesn’t actually appear anywhere in Revelation, nor the seven seals or the seven trumpets, or the 144000 remnant. Our readings have been taken from less dramatic, but equally interesting portions of the book. Last week, we heard John’s vision of heavenly worship, angels surrounding God’s throne singing. This week, we hear a similar vision, although this time it is not angels but martyrs, those who have witnessed to the faith with their lives, who are singing. In the next two Sundays, we will hear parts of John’s vision of the New Jerusalem, and it’s likely that I will have more to say about that then, so stay tuned.
Before I turn to today’s reading, I would like to say a few more things about how to approach Revelation. But first, hands up—have any of you read the whole text? Did it make any sense to you?
If it did, you and I need to talk.
The book of Revelation is meant to be mysterious, confusing. It is an example of what we call apocalyptic, a word that derives from the book’s title in Greek, and means, literally, revelation. I’m always reminded of Martin Luther’s quip about the book, that he preferred his revelations to be revealing. Apocalyptic is both a type of literature and a world view. It posits the universe as a mysterious place in which ordinary things and events have deeper, symbolic significance. There is a cosmic battle between God and evil, and what really matters is not taking place before our eyes, but in the spiritual realm. And we need help to discern what is really happening and what really matters. Hence the presence in such literature of heavenly messengers who help to interpret the visions and scenes.
In fact, apocalyptic is not really focused on the future; it doesn’t provide a map to what will happen next or at the end of time. Rather, it is offering a coded interpretation of history and current events in the writer’s day. We know this because the author will often signal who he means by a specific figure or image in the text. Thus it’s clear that Revelation is written about Rome, a city with seven hills, and that the figure meant by 666 is the Emperor Nero.
In spite of the historical context for such writings as Revelation, they are of more than merely historical significance. John was writing in a particular moment and with a particular perspective. He was worried about persecution. He himself had suffered for his faith, and he anticipated that the little Christian communities to whom he was writing would soon undergo significant suffering. He wanted to encourage them, to give them hope in this difficult moment. And, more importantly, he wanted them to recognize the Roman Empire for what he thought it was, evil, blood-thirsty, inherently opposed to the Kingdom of God.
This message, John’s perspective, may seem far removed from our own day and time, but I think it’s helpful to reflect on how this perspective might help us make sense of our own lives and the world. We might, for example, explore how the imagery John uses to describe the Roman Empire might help us think clearly about our own, the American Empire, with its desire for global hegemony, its endless warmongering and lawless use of drones and other technology in its pursuit of its enemies. We might take it another step and reflect on how victims of US imperial power might perceive us in ways similar to how John perceived Rome, even at a time when for many Rome offered unimaginable peace and prosperity.
We might also reflect on John’s image of heavenly worship and how it challenges contemporary nationalism and political rhetoric:
“I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” How different is that vision from the vision of America being articulated in our current political season!
And we might think about John’s concern for perseverance in the face of persecution. In the last few weeks, as state legislators across the country have passed religious freedom laws in response to perceived persecution at the hands of the federal government and secular society, we have heard a great deal about many Christians’ fears for the free expression of their faith. It’s ironic indeed, that many of those who speak loudest about the need for religious freedom are more than willing to restrict the religious freedom of others, including Muslims.
The persecution of Christians is a real, and horrible thing. Christians are losing their lives for their faith in many places across the world. They’ve been driven from cities and communities where Christians have been a continuing presence for nearly 2000 years. There are forced conversions, martyrdoms, horrific persecution. But none of that is taking place here in the US. Christianity continues to be privileged above other religions. And the work of organizations like our neighbors down the street will do little to eliminate that privilege. We should recognize that evening the playing field for other religions, or no religion, in this country might not be a bad thing.
We should also recognize that whatever power and fascination the book of Revelation may hold in our society, that for Christians throughout history and in the present, who are facing persecution, John’s vision offers hope, that ultimately God will triumph over the forces of evil, that God will make all things right. It may only be partial consolation, but the hope and faith expressed in the final verses of today’s reading—that God will protect them, give them food and drink, and wipe away every tear, can sustain people in the midst of suffering, whether they are facing persecution from an enemy of the faith, or if their suffering is a result of homelessness or hunger, and they live in constant exposure to the elements.
That faith must sustain as well. The work we do to help those in need, to provide shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, cannot solve our city’s problems, or end the suffering of all. But the work we do is a sign and symbol of faith in the God who will triumph and make things right, and it will sustain the faith of those who struggle day by day. To that God, let us sing:
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever!