Why do you come to church? I have head many reasons over the years. What makes you part of that minority that chooses to come to church rather than do something else on Sunday morning? Today's reading from Revelation gives the most important reason, whether it actually informs our motives or not: practicing the presence of the future gives us the hope and courage we need to live in the world.
In the opening chapter of the Revelation, John describes the scene that led to the document we now call The Revelation to John: “I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the spirit on the Lord’s Day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write in a book what you see.’” (Rev. 1:9-11a) The Spirit invites us to see. More concretely, she invites us to notice connections, and to acknowledge and affirm the truth that is being revealed through and beyond the present moment.
It’s not coincidental that John was in the spirit on the Lord’s Day. “The Lord’s Day” is the way many Christians refer to Sunday worship. Worship is a key aspect of life in the Spirit. The entire scene described in today’s passage is a liturgy taking place in heaven in the midst of history; a visualization of the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”
John is showing what worship looks like in heaven so that Christians living as a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire could understand what was really going on behind the scenes of what they were going through on earth. The affirmation that “blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power & might belong to God” becomes a political statement when the emperor claims divinity and demands to be worshipped. It cost the martyrs something to affirm that in the midst of history.
To worship together in this space – singing songs of faith even as we confess our inconsistency in living out that faith – is also a political affirmation. It’s not a head-in-the-sand denial that we are not a fully united body yet. It doesn’t pretend that there are no conflicts among us. It’s an affirmation that despite those conflicts and divisions togetherness is true in a way that transcends temporary untruths. And rehearsing those affirmations week after week is designed to turn it into reality.
Every time we sing something that doesn’t describe our life yet, we acknowledge that there is a deeper reality than the one that seems most apparent in the midst of our life. To recognize that deeper reality requires that we stop to notice it. Participating regularly in worship equips us to do that, so that when the windows of heaven open up to us we will be awake enough to notice. If you need a reason to come to church on Sunday, try that one on.
What John “saw” when he looked was “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands, saying, Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, & to the Lamb!” This image invites us to live out the truth – however imperfectly – that our lives are inevitably intertwined with the lives of everyone else on the planet. More concretely, it invites us to live out our connection to others in this congregation, in our jobs, in our neighborhoods, and in our families, and through those connections to understand more profoundly the ways our lives are intertwined with those farther away.
Who is this multitude? And does it comprise a community, or is it simply a crowd? The answer given by the passage itself is revealing: The palm branches in the hands of the martyrs are signs of victory that they hadn’t been stained with the idolatry of the Empire. A multitude like that is necessarily more than a crowd; it is a community that John describes as made up of those who “have come out of the great ordeal” – who have been faithful in the face of many reasons not to be. Desmond Tutu uses the African term Ubuntu to describe and invite turning crowds into communities: All of our humanity is dependent on recognizing the humanity in others. In a real sense even the supporters of apartheid were victims of the vicious system which they implemented. This flows from our fundamental concept of ubuntu. Our humanity is intertwined. The humanity of the perpetrator of apartheid’s atrocities was caught up and bound up in that of his victim whether he liked it or not (p. 50). That is a counter-cultural view of human beings. People who see others like that will rarely succeed in the dominant culture of their day.
Did John have specific people in mind when he wrote this? I’m sure he was thinking of Bible characters like Steven, who was stoned, and Peter, who was crucified. But he was also surrounded by many courageous Christians who refused to deny their allegiance the Jesus as Lord when that was illegal in the Roman Empire. During our life time we consider people like Oscar Romero, with the Eucharistic prayer of thanks giving still issuing from his mouth; of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, triumphant over the Nazi gallows; and of Martin Luther King Jr. still praying that his dream will come true for humanity.
But we also need to imagine ways that we can be part of this multitude. What does it mean for us to avoid being stained with the idolatry of the Empire? Remember that an idol is anything or anyone we put above God or above the life of one of God’s creatures. What are the idolatries we need to avoid, especially during this election year, when candidates are saying what they think we want to hear? When we are really honest with ourselves, what do you and I put above God in our lives? Whom do we exclude from the blessings of life in God by our attitudes and actions? How do we fail to live up to our potential by denying or ignoring the gifts God has given us? These are important questions to ponder.
Finally, the multitude gathered around the throne of God received a promise: “the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; the lamb will be their shepherd and guide them to the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This image invites us to practice the truth that in God’s creation there is enough of everything for everyone. More concretely, it invites us to use the physical space of our church for things that lead to life, and to do so in ways that make people feel welcome. It invites us to share our resources in ways that begin now to fulfill God’s promise of shelter for those who are without; and the promise that none shall hunger or thirst; that people will be accompanied in their search for life’s resources and in their moments of grief. That’s why it makes sense to have a Food Bank, a Rainy Night Shelter and a Laundry Love ministry.
This is a high calling. The things we do on earth through our ministries are rooted in and have implications for the entire cosmos. They matter because of the people whose lives are directly affected by them. And they matter because they resonate with the very essence of what creation is about. The invitation is to weave all of this together to create Life in God.