If you have been paying attention during this season of Easter, you know that the Epistle readings have all been from the Revelation to St. John, which might seem a strange to read when we are celebrating the salvation of the world in the Resurrection of Jesus. Let’s talk about that, because the Book of Revelation is one of those parts of the Christian faith that lots of people get all wrong. We perhaps think of the Book of Revelation as very mysterious and very frightening, or in the very least not a terribly cheerful read for beautiful spring mornings like this one.
As a result of that, we tend not to talk about it a lot in the Episcopal Church, since we don’t tend to want to think of God as raining doom and hellfire on the world. Believe it or not, however, until the 19th century, no one thought the Book of Revelation was all that mysterious, and St. John was actually writing to comfort the Christians of his day, and indeed Christians today—not terrify them.
The end of the world has always fascinated the human race, and every age, back to the very earliest written texts, has been fairly certain that things are getting so bad, and people are getting so wicked, that the end of all things must be right around the corner. I looked it up on Professor Wikipedia. There have been 10 movies that treat the edifying subject of an Ape-based end of the world. 5 documentaries, I mean movies, have explored the possibility of an Arnold Schwarzenegger based apocalypse. Which is nothing really, because our society has a runaway favorite end of the world scenario in mind. I counted 444 movies about a zombie apocalypse, and keep in mind that is only the movies that someone felt called to write a Wikipedia page about!
Such is our delight in seeing CGI versions of our major landmarks topple to tidal waves, alien invasions, and nuclear blasts, one begins to suspect that, on some sub-conscious level, we actually yearn for the end of the world. And we Christians are no different. Probably the most lurid example of this is the Left Behind series of novels, which relies on the concept of the Rapture. The theory of the Rapture supposes that, as the End of Days arrives, the Lord will snatch all true believers out of the world so that they do not have to suffer horrors of the apocalypse. Of course, planes that have their Christian pilots vanish are shown dramatically plummeting from the sky as their unbelieving passengers realize they have been LEFT BEHIND. Then, the saints of God get to sit in heaven delighting in the just wrath the Lord pours out on all the atheists, the Muslims, the United Nations for some reason, the loose women, and of course all those sneering liberal Ivy League professors. No wonder more mild hearted Christians wish that the apocalypse might be postponed as long as possible.
First of all, absolutely no Christian anywhere had any concept of the Rapture until 1827, when the idea was cooked up by a failed scripture scholar by the name of John Nelson Darby. As much as the idea is circulated today in the United States, the Church went nearly 2,000 years without it. Second of all any theory proposing that white, suburban church-goers are persecuted by the United Nations is doubly suspect.
Third of all—there a lots of problems with this theory—this theory proposes that the Temple in Jerusalem has to be rebuilt and most of the nation of Israel has to convert to Christianity for the Kingdom of God to arrive. This belief is so popular that it informs American foreign policy in the Middle East. It assumes that the Israel of the Bible can be identified with the nation state of Israel today, which of course justifies on some level its treatment of Palestinians. BUT the continual teaching of the whole Bible, all the way back to the Old Testament, is that the safety of the nation of Israel, and the arrival of God’s Kingdom of justice and righteousness, is the free gift of God. The prophets insist that people of Israel should trust God, not the military and not foreign alliances, despite the policy of Israeli leaders. The idea that the arrival of God’s Kingdom depends on the military and human actions like rebuilding the temple is anti-Biblical.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this theory, however, is that it imagines the Church being on the side of God against a fallen world. It assumes that Christians are good and God wouldn’t let bad things happen to them, and non-believers are evil sinners who are going to get what they deserve in the form of plagues, disasters, and honest to goodness monster attacks. Which flies in the face of the whole Gospel, which says that salvation is the free gift of God that doesn’t depend on our ability holiness. The grace of the Church, the grace that will be offered in our Communion today, is unconditional, and unmerited. It’s a gift from a God who is infinitely generous and merciful. Which means we Christians are not necessarily better than anyone else. In fact, we can all probably think of non-Christians who are better people than we will ever be. The Church is not on the side of God against a fallen world. The Church is part of a fallen world, part of all the joy and virtue the world has to offer, but also has its share in the pain, loss, and even the sin of the world. The Church waits for the salvation of the whole world, and calls the whole world to put their trust in its one salvation—Jesus, who comes to redeem the world, not condemn it.
That’s what Revelation is actually about, and why Christians for the first 1794 years of the Church’s existence have found comfort in the second coming of Jesus. First and century apocalypses—there are actually lots of them from that period—use visions of what is going in heaven and what will happen in the future to talk about what is happening today. Revelation is more about the here and now than the future. St. John was not predicting that God would pour disaster and plagues on a guilty world that has it coming. Just like today, people back then sometimes believed that tragedy meant God had forsaken them. He was talking about a world already filled with disasters, and death, and loss, and showing how the Kingdom of God was still coming in some mysterious way, that for all its suffering the Church was still God’s chosen people.
In our reading today, we see that Kingdom finally arriving, after all the suffering and waiting the Church has gone through. It’s not, as is commonly supposed, a matter of the saints sitting on clouds in white togas plucking harps, rather it envisions the mercy of God being so abundant that even the dead will live again, and we all will enter the Kingdom body and soul, as complete human beings. Which means Revelation is about we fallen and broken human beings being made whole, not people getting what they have coming. Heaven is not the end game either. We are not trying to escape this world for the clouds, instead the whole heaven and earth are made new by God’s love. Revelation is about the redemption of the world, not its destruction.
Rather than us zooming up into the sky in the Rapture to ascend to the Holy City, the New Jerusalem comes down from God to us, and God dwells with us. That is in the future—we believe that Jesus will come again and restore the whole earth. And where God dwells, there is not death, or mourning, or crying. May all of us rise to that Kingdom on the Last Day. Come quickly, Lord Jesus, Amen.