Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
The Book of the Revelation to John has to be one of the most difficult books in the Bible. It is also called the Apocalypse of John. Now, apocolypticism is, according to the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, “a type of religious thought which apparently originated in Zoroastrianism [from Persia] and taken over by Judaism in the exilic and postexilic periods.”
One of its primary characteristics is that it depicts a cosmic battle – which, in Christianity, is between God and Satan. It proclaims that though Satan may appear to be winning, God will ultimately prevail. The future – God’s future – will be perfect and eternal and the righteous will be blessed.
This book of the Revelation to John has been interpreted in many ways, through the years and even today. Sometimes, it is seen as an accurate description of how the world will end. There will be a cosmic battle of sorts.
A second way of looking at the book acknowledges the context in which the book was written. Therefore, to understand the book, we need to get into the head and understand what was going on in the author’s world.
A third approach has been to see the images in the book as an “account of the struggles facing the journey to the soul of God.” (New Interpreter’s Bible) A fourth way of interpreting the book – similar to the first – is to see it as a “gateway to a greater understanding of reality, both divine and human, spiritual and political.”
This book cannot be read with an idea that it needs to be decoded. Years ago, I talked with a couple who were convinced that the new UPC codes – you know, the barcodes on everything – were a sign that the world was about to end. “Those codes are going to be tattooed on peoples’ foreheads,” they told me, “so that the government can track us. They are Satan’s sign. When that happens, the world will be about to end!” It is this approach reading of the book that has supported all those stories of a cosmic battle that will take place.
Instead of seeing it as a book to be decoded, we are asked to use a variety of interpretive skills. The book startles, it questions, and it challenges us to look at the world around us in a new way. It is not meant to be taken and interpreted literally. The language is metaphorical and poetic, inviting us to new insights. We might think of the way we look at dreams. I think it was a Dear Abby column recently where someone wrote about having dreams about an ex-boyfriend. “I don’t understand,” she said, “I love my new partner. Why am I dreaming about this former partner?” Dear Abby responded that the dreams were not to be taken as outright truth, but as indicative of something deeper.
Today’s verses are taken from the final chapter – which is also the final chapter in the entire Bible as we know it.
Biblical scholar Paul Johnson wrote about the familiarity of the words. Such familiarity can connect us with deep emotions. But he also notes that within these verses there are instructions. “Blessed re those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city.” Johnson reflected, “It points us away from sky gazing and orients us toward the everyday work of the faithful in ways that can be interpreted both practically and metaphorically. Doing laundry is not glamorous or exciting. It can be mundane and tedious labor. Yet it is necessary.” He presents that as a corrective on the recurring desire to “predict” the end of the world. That emphasis often distracts the faithful from the work of being God’s people. We are all called to ministry – to participating in the life of the community as it bears witness to God in the world. We’re not called to a spectator sport.
Joseph Britton reflected on the invitation that shines through this passage – the invitation to dwell in the place of holiness that is the meeting between the human and divine. The book ends with the invitation to be in that place, to “participate in this divine/human exchange.” It is learning to live in a way that Jewish theologian Heschel describes as compatible with God’s presence. We live as those who recognize that the Divine breaks into ordinary circumstances.
I can hear, in that reflection, parts of the gospel lesson for today. Jesus, in his prayer, points to that place of holiness where there is a meeting of the human and divine. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Perhaps he is saying, “Come, enter into that place of holiness where God is present in the ordinary.”
Now, Jesus’ prayer also spoke of unity. “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” I find that one of the hardest passages to hear. We know that God’s people are fractured. We are divided by our theologies, by our traditions, by race, by class, by culture – even by politics. Churches strive for oneness by excluding those that don’t fit into their understanding of truth. Our own presbytery is facing the departure of quite a few congregations who feel that remaining in communion with the denomination would be sinful. We unite – and then we divide.
Contrast the way we behave with these ending words in Revelation. “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…” Johnson points out the universality of these words. It is a corrective to our tendency to make God’s chosen, God’s elect, God’s welcome particular and narrow. Johnson suggests that when there is talk of washing our robes we are being invited to cleanse ourselves of our own “prejudices and assumptions.” The unity for which Jesus prayed was not something we accomplish on our own. It is something into which we live because it is part of what it means to be compatible with God.
I read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” which explores this very notion. The central character is a woman who is convinced of her own favored standing with God. She spends a lot of time mentally placing people in categories. During a trip to the doctor’s office where she was forced to encounter many whom she judged to be unworthy, she was accused by a young woman (that she had deemed ugly) of being “an old wart hog from hell.” This accusation shook her. She saw herself as a fully good and righteous, Christian woman – one approved by Jesus! As she wrestled with this soul shattering accusation, she had a vision. She saw the purple streak of sunset as a bridge heading to heaven. And on that bridge were all the people she had dismissed as trash. This multitude was singing and clapping and leaping for joy. There followed a group that resembled her. They were marching with dignity. But, she could see that everything they had valued was being burned away. God’s oneness, God’s grace, God’s invitation dwarfed every expectation, every prejudice, every assumption she had made.
This book of the Revelation to John mattered so much to the early church that it became the final words of the Bible. We are to wrestle with its beauty, its challenges, its glorious language and metaphors. It holds the promise that God is present and active in this world – that heaven is not remote. When Jesus prayed that those who believed in him might be where he was, to see his glory, maybe he wasn’t speaking of the world to come, but of his presence in this world. His life was testimony to the reality that the Divine has entered the human realm. Revelation challenges us to live in that holy place where the divine touches the ordinary. It calls us to work in this world, attending to our own faith that we may shed the assumptions and the prejudices that prevent us from seeing the magnitude of God’s grace and redemption. It calls us to work in this world, sharing the good news of that grace and redemption with all. The book speaks of realities deeper than words, of truths that cannot be contained by written words. Yet it invites us to witness to God’s presence as revealed through those words, in the life of Jesus, and in the witness of the saints of yesterday and today.