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Sermon Easter 7
For the most part I am committed to following the lectionary cycle of readings. For a preacher, it can take you into water into which you might not otherwise have waded, and it can also keep you from constantly returning to favourite texts and biblical books. It kind of disciplines a church community in that way, challenging us all to consider texts that might even make us squirm.
Yet a lectionary will inevitably come with its own problems, because it has been designed by people; people who have made decisions as to what should be read. Over the three-year cycle you cover a lot of ground, but it hardly does justice to the whole of the bible. You get a good bit of Isaiah, but very little of Ezekiel. Genesis and Exodus for sure, but Leviticus and Numbers? Not so much. Revelation doesn’t appear all that often, and in fact this three week stretch during which we read from that book is one of the few times that it is really featured. Which is part of why I’ve decided to really focus on Revelation during these three Sundays; the other part being that I think it is a really important and ultimately hope and grace filled book. Thing is, even when the lectionary takes us into Revelation, it still would have us leave out some of the verses we actually read tonight. Which ones? The difficult ones; the ones that speak of some being left outside of the gates of God’s city, and the ones that speak about what awaits those who add to, or take away from, the words of this book. If you omit those select three verses, you get a much rosier ending to Revelation, but that’s not what John the Divine intended. Here’s N.T. Wright’s take on it:
Omitting a paragraph because of length is one thing. Snipping out three verses because they warn that some styles of behaviour have no place in God’s holy city is something else. Or do we want to avoid the scandal of the gospel, not only in the world but also in the church? It is particularly galling to omit 22:19: cutting out the verse that tells you not to cut out verses is the ultimate in Bible-reading chutzpah.
I’m with Bishop Wright, so I put the three difficult verses back in. Not, mind you, because I like being difficult or because I want us to end Eastertide in a minor key. But you do have to actually contend with what John experienced, heard, wrote.
And so this evening we consider the ending of John’s letter—and do remember, it is from the beginning framed as a letter written to the seven churches of Asia Minor, intended to be read aloud when those communities assembled. All through the letter John has been keenly aware of the chaos and persecutions faced by those churches; keenly aware of the murderous power of the Roman Empire with its iron-fisted version of peace, the pax romana. All through this visionary letter filled with strange beasts, fierce angels, blood and fire, he has insisted the churches had reason to hope; that the final peace was not in the hands of empire, but instead in the hands of God and the Lamb.
And through much of the letter there has run what seems to be a real tension between judgment and grace. In last Sunday’s sermon I addressed this tension when I spoke of the image of the kings and the nations streaming into the New Jerusalem; the very kings and nations who earlier in the letter had stood under condemnation for their opposition to the people of God. The kings of the earth were under judgment for having assembled against the Lord (19:19) and committed fornication with the [so-called] whore of Babylon (18:3), yet they came strangely under grace… so long as when they came into that new city they were prepared to leave their lies and what John calls their “abominations” at the door.
We see that tension again in tonight’s reading, specifically in one of the very verses the lectionary would have had us omit. “Blessed are those who wash their robes,” John proclaims, “so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.” There’s the image of grace, with those robes being washed clean—somewhat paradoxically—in the blood of the Lamb. All the stains, the grime, and messes of life are graciously cleaned out… gone. But then he continues, “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” The list starts with “the dogs,” which might make the dog-owners among us a bit perplexed. For Jews dogs were considered an unclean animal, and it was not uncommon to call Gentiles “dogs”. John is actually spinning the image around, not using it to slam Gentiles but rather—much as Paul uses it in Philippians 3.1—as an image of falsehood. You see that as the list rolls on, right? Sorcerers, fornicators, murderers, idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. I think the crucial phrase here is “everyone who loves falsehood”. People love the falsehood and the lies they practice so much that it comes to define them. They can’t let go, they won’t have it washed away, because, tragically, it has become them.
I believe that John wished it were otherwise. I believe God wishes it were otherwise. This is why the letter quickly rolls forward into a most expansive invitation.
The Spirit and the bride (that’s the church) say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
Don’t clutch to lesser loves and idolatries… drop them and just come! But human freedom is a fierce and curious thing, and God will not deprive us of our will. God will not strong-arm anyone through those open gates. And they are open; that’s one of the points on which John is most insistent: “Its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there.” (21:5) Always open.
Then we hit the other two verses that the lectionary would have had us skip past, the ones about not adding to or taking away from any of the words of this book. There’s a similar warning in the Book of Deuteronomy (4:2), which John was surely aware of, and his point is the same. He understands this all to be God’s message, not his own. He believes strongly that it should neither be pared down to make it all more palatable, nor enhanced to make it something it isn’t intended to be. I believe John knows full well that it his visionary writings are not always easy to hear and digest, and so he was concerned that they’d either get watered down—be made lukewarm, to use his own imagery from earlier in the letter (3:16)—or be so ramped up as to miss his message altogether; something that apocalyptic speculators over the ages have so often done. Yes, he’s tough edged here, but only because he believes that the churches to which he writes really must contend with what he’s seen and heard and written.
And then one last time his toughness rolls toward grace. The Revelation ends with a closing salutation, which again reminds us that it is a letter. In the best and most ancient manuscripts that closing salutation is simply, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.” Later manuscripts read, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints,” and that is how it appears in a good number of English translations. Isn’t that interesting, given John’s tough words about not adding anything to his letter!
“The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.” Listen once more to the insight of N.T. Wright: “[T]his greeting carries the freight of the entire book. [Revelation] is dense with a thousand images of ‘grace,’ pregnant with the power of the word ‘Lord’ when spoken under the nose of Caesar, sparkling in the still-open invitation to ‘you all’…” For all of its strangeness, John’s Revelation really does sparkle with that still very much open invitation to all. And so with John, I close by saying, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.”