I think it is safe to say that most Episcopalians, indeed most mainline Protestant Christians and Roman Catholics, are uncomfortable with the Book of Revelation, the last book in our Holy Scriptures. There are 22 chapters in the Book of Revelation with a total of 404 verses. Over the course of our three-year lectionary cycle for Sundays only 41 of the 404 verses are read aloud in church. We hear readings from the Book of Revelation on Christ the King Sunday, All Saints, and during the Season of Easter Year C, which for us is this year. For the next few weeks our second reading each Sunday will come from Revelation.
And this discomfort with the Book of Revelation is not new. Revelation only made it into the canon of Scripture by the skin of its teeth. Its weird imagery and pictures of violence and death have made many Christians uncomfortable since the time it was written. Added to the weird imagery is the fact that from the beginning this book has attracted the attention of those within Christianity who live on the fringes, embrace the weirdest ideas, and tend toward fanaticism and cultism. None of this has endeared this book to the average Christian. It seems to be much easier to ignore it and essentially de-canonize it by pretending it is not there.
But the thing is this, it is there. It is a part of our canon. It is a part of the sacred book that we consider to be a revelation of God. Our ancestors in faith may not have been comfortable with the Book but they did finally conclude that it had something to say about God that we needed to hear. And it is taken seriously, though grossly misinterpreted, by radicalized Christians in this country some of whom hold very high office in our government. If we abandon the book, we miss what it has to say to us about God and the world and leave it open to terrible misinterpretation and misuse by those who claim a Christian agenda but are following a path that has veered far from the path of Jesus. For these reasons I want to take a closer look at this challenging and controversial book of Scripture, that we all may have ears to hear what it has to say to us over the coming weeks of Easter.
First and foremost, we need to understand that this book was not written for us. It is prophetic in that it challenges the status quo but it is not a prophecy predicting the future. The author, a man named John, was writing in a particular time and place to a particular people who were practicing their Christian faith in particular circumstances. He was not a wizard who could read a crystal ball and see the world of 2000 years in the future. But this does not mean that what John wrote has no bearing on our world today. What he had to say also spoke to the larger human condition which is just as true today as it was 2000 years ago.
John wrote Revelation at the end of the 1st century at the end of the reign of the Emperor Domitian. There is no evidence that there were large scale persecutions of Christians at this time, but the Christian community did remember the persecutions that occurred during the reign of the Emperor Nero. They were aware that they could be persecuted as their religion was not popular in the Empire. Civil religion was powerful. Almost all activities had a religious character, even athletic events, trade guilds, and events in private homes. Not to participate in these events or to participate but not join in the pagan rituals was seen as unpatriotic and atheistic. You could be excluded, shunned, or possibly arrested for making this choice. It appears that John, the author of the Book of Revelation, had been exiled for exactly these reasons.
So, Christians had a choice. Accommodation and acceptance or dissociation, rejection and possible arrest and persecution. Some communities were choosing to refrain from pagan practices and were afraid and some were choosing not to make waves and were accommodating the practices of civil religion. John wrote this book as a letter to the seven churches in his area to encourage and give hope to those communities and individuals who were faithfully refraining from pagan practices and to admonish those communities and individuals who were supporting the status quo and engaging in civil religion.
Now you may be asking yourself, “Why does this matter? What harm was there in taking part in the civil religion? How did it harm anyone to eat some meat sacrificed to idols and take part in some sacred rituals performed at an athletic event? Couldn’t they follow Jesus and do these things? After all they knew that the rituals were meaningless.” These are exactly the questions John is trying to answer in his letter to the seven churches.
The imperial cult or the civil Roman religion was an elaborate “God and country” phenomenon. Rome and its emperors claimed that they were agents of the god’s rule, will, salvation and presence among human beings. Rome manifested the blessings of the gods—security, peace, justice, faithfulness, and fertility—among those who submited to Rome’s rule. Rome was chosen by the gods and the rule of the gods through Rome was accomplished by and manifested in violence, domination, and “pacification” that was hardly peaceful. The “pax Romana” was a violent and hard peace for anyone who didn’t submit to the will of the Empire, and the will of the Empire was power and control. The will of the Empire was to keep the wealthy in power and in wealth and everyone else working to maintain the status quo. The pax Romana was dependent on military conquest, enslavement, and violence.
John’s primary claim is that Rome, called Babylon in his letter, is claiming allegiance, power and loyalty that belongs only to God. When Empire claims this allegiance, power, and loyalty it always misuses this power. It is the responsibility of every follower of Christ, the prince of peace, restorer of justice, and ally of the oppressed, to give allegiance and loyalty only to God and to resist the misuse of power by Empire. Civil religion is one way that Empire maintains control.
John also wants to assure the faithful, those who give their allegiance to God alone and resist the temptations of Empire, that God is always working and will continue to work to restore and redeem all of creation. The faithful are called to create communities that witness to God’s restoring and redeeming work in the world. God is not seeking to bring about the end of the world, as many fringe groups have claimed, but instead is seeking to bring all of creation back to the divine. This is God’s dream for all of us.
So why the violent and weird imagery of Revelation. Well first of all, apocalyptic literature was a common genre of the time. So, this book wouldn’t have been so weird to those reading it. They would have understood the symbolism much more easily than we do. Revelation means “unveiling” or “revealing.” The strange imagery of Revelation is meant to make visible that which is often invisible—the true nature of the Empires of the world. Secondly, John wrote Revelation to wake up the complacent and accommodating. Sometimes when we are sound asleep, we need something powerful to wake us up. This is exactly what Revelation does. It shocks the reader or listener out of out their complacency with respect to Empire.
But what does this have to do with us today? The Roman Empire fell a long time ago, right? Well, yes. Rome has fallen, but Empire has not. Civil religion used for the benefit of those in power continued to exist long after Rome fell and continues to exist today. I distinctly remember when the United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq after September 11th, several members of congress referring to the entrance of the United States into the Middle East as the unfolding of the “Pax Americana.” Knowing what I know about the “Pax Romana” these statements chilled me to the bone. Much of the world perceives the United States as an imperial power whose power is harmful to them. Revelation is a critique of secular power wherever and however it expresses itself oppressively, and especially as a critique of such power that is deemed sacred and granted devotion and allegiance.
“God bless America.” “My country love it or leave it.” American Exceptionalism—the idea that the United States has a unique place in God’s plan. The idea that what the world needs most is the spread of American-style democracy. The thinking that America always operates in the world according to the highest principles of ethics and justice. The belief that to look honestly at our history or to hear the perspective of those not normally listened to about our history is unpatriotic. These are all examples of ways in which our nation has assumed allegiance and loyalty that only belongs to God. This is our civil religion. This is the work of Empire.
And this is why we need the Book of Revelation. The powers of Empire are always attractive. Empire offers security and comfort. Unfortunately, this security and comfort comes at a cost, particularly for those who find themselves at the bottom of this world. True peace and security come from God and God alone. Revelation reminds us of this eternal truth and challenges us, as followers of Jesus, to take a hard look at our own lives. Are we complicit with the powers of the world or are we witnesses to the reconciling, justice-seeking, non-violent, life-giving work of God? We cannot bring about the redemption of the world, only God can, but we can be a part of and witnesses to it, or not, the choice is ours. The Book of Revelation reminds us that we do have to choose. Amen.