Monday, May 6, 2019

A Great Multitude

I don't know much about the Book of Revelation. It's weird, of course, and highly symbolic. I've threatened to teach a Bible study on it a time or two, but I never have. It's one of the first books of the Bible that I read from start to finish, but, as a ten-year-old, I did not understand much. I may not understand much more, but the setting provided in this coming Sunday's lesson from Revelation 7 caught my attention: "I looked, and there 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." That's a pretty broad and far-reaching vision of the faithful gathered around the throne.

Revelation was written during a time of distress. Persecution was reality. Christians were being killed by the Roman authorities. The images of Babylon and the beast are stand-ins for Rome and the Emperor. The text is designed to give hope to early Christians. No matter how bad things get, it seems to say, Jesus will come and make them better. The mistake, of course, is reading the text as a clear and precise prediction of what will happen. I think John the Divine and those who knew and loved this text during the early centuries of the church would be astonished at those who think a New World Order with 666 as its sign will take over the world. They'd ask us to step back and see the big picture. "Where's your hope?" they would ask. "Why do you search God's Word for fear?"

These words from Sunday's lesson imagine the fulfillment of God's promises being demonstrated when people from every nation, language, tribe, and people gather together around God's throne. That feels so contrary to human instincts. When under threat, my instinct is to get smaller, think more exclusively, build walls, check IDs, and keep people out. But the church's vision for the end of the world is the opposite of that. It's a great multitude of people too big to be counted who have come from all over assembling together to worship God. The authorities of the world use ethnic, religious, and political differences to divide, but God overcomes those ungodly powers not by homogenizing the saints into a great, white, monolithic culture but by embracing all of the differences and bringing them all together. Even the first Christians understood that. They were not held together because of ethic identity but because of a shared faith that crossed all national, linguistic, and ethnic barriers.

That's not what Christianity feels like today. We argue across continents. We disagree within our communities. We primarily gather to worship in ethnically, politically, and economically homogeneous congregations that not only fail to reflect the true Body of Christ but that actually undermine our experience of it. We care more about being right than about being whole. As the tide of secularism continues to sweep from one post-Christian culture to another, the greatest threat comes not from a political entity but from ourselves. We have lost the enormity of God's hope for us. When we envision the fulfillment of God's promises, does that vision look like Revelation 7, or does it look like more and more and more of us? The Holy Spirit helped the first Christians see something bigger even when the powers of this world threatened to pull them apart. They trusted that the multitude of the faithful would always be bigger, more diverse, and more complicated than they could imagine. What about us? What sort of church are we hoping for?

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