Monthly Archives: October 2015

Living stones

The last two weeks we have pondered the New Jerusalem at the end of Revelation, and now my thoughts are turning toward present day Jerusalem.  In a week and a half – on Monday, Nov 9, I’ll be flying out to Tel Aviv with a group of 15 other Mennonite pastors from the Midwest.  We’ll be on a two week learning tour which will begin in Bethlehem, proceed to Galilee, and end up in Jerusalem.  I’m not sure if the organizers planned it this way, but someone has already observed that this itinerary traces the trajectory of Jesus’ life.

We’ll be doing some visiting of biblical sites and the ancient stones that remain, but our main purpose will be to encounter what Palestinian Christian leader Elias Chacour calls the “living stones,” borrowing from 1 Peter 2:4.  The living stones are the people inhabiting the geography we refer to as the Holy Land – trying to raise families, hold jobs, get an education – trying to survive in a conflicted place.  Encountering the living stones means we’ll be meeting with Palestinian and Israeli peacemaking groups that work at addressing the political, religious, agricultural, and social realities in the area.  We’ll meet Palestinians now having a multi-generational existence in refugee camps.  It also means we’ll be meeting with people like Bob Lang of the Efrat Settlement Council, to hear why he moved to this illegal Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

I’ve been preparing mentally through readings – My Promised Land by Ari Shavit, and Blood Brothers by Elias Chacour are both excellent.  In the last couple days I’ve realized how much I need to prepare spiritually as well.  How does one prepare one’s heart to enter a combat zone?  How does one prepare to witness injustice, and then to leave?

I don’t intend to carry home any stones from the Holy Land, but I like the idea of this trip being about collecting a hand full of living stones.  Not a whole crate full, which would be too much to bear, but a hand full of faces, stories, villages, and organizations doing the kind of work which makes life livable.  These are the stones that the New Jerusalem is made of.

It’s very important to me to enter this experience not as an individual, but as a representative of our congregation, Columbus Mennonite Church.  During my time there I will attempt to do some blogging, and when I return we’ll have the Advent season to consider some of these difficult stories and to marvel that the Christ light shines in the darkness.  I will pass these stones around and invite you to turn them over in your hand, to appreciate their beauty, and help determine what they are saying to us.

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Picturing the world of Revelation

A book I have found quite helpful for this Revelation series is Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of RevelationIt’s written by J. Nelson Kraybill who is the former President of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, where I attended, and is the current President of Mennonite World Conference.   It’s written in a way that is accessible to the non-academic and would be a great resource for anyone – or any small group – wanting to dive deeper into Revelation.  It’s not a verse by verse commentary but addresses different passages throughout Revelation with chapter titles like “A Prophet in Trouble,” “Stampeding Empires,” “Beastly Worship,” “The Lamb is the Lord of History,” “A Harlot Drunk with Blood,” “The Economics of Worship,” and “Long-Term Hope.”

One of the highlights of the book is that it contains 80+ images from the ancient world that pertain to Revelation.  Here are four of them (with gratitude to Google, which better not be the Beast because it’s so cool):

Domitian_denarius_son

A coin issued by the Emperor Domitian (Reigned 81-96 CE, most likely during the writing of Revelation) which shows the “divine” son of the emperor sitting on the globe surrounded by seven stars.  John counters this claim in Revelation 1:16 when he sees the Christ holding seven stars in his right hand.

Pergamum ruins

Present day ruins of the Roman temple in Pergamum, one of the first cities to implement emperor worship, and home to one of the seven churches of Revelation (2:12-17).

Arch of Titus

The Arch of Titus in Rome portraying the army leading a triumphal procession through the streets of Rome, with defeated Jews carrying the menorah and other utensils from the destroyed temple.

Lamb

Early Christian artwork in the catacombs of Rome.  The Lamb of God (Revelation 5).

The gods must be…angry?

Now that we’re in the middle of Revelation…One of the most difficult aspects of Revelation is the violence and suffering it describes –much of it appearing to be from God.  There are two Greek words that get translated as “wrath” throughout Revelation and they are used a total of 16 times.  One time refers to the wrath of the devil.  Twice there is a reference to the wrath of Babylon the Great (a.k.a. the beast, a.k.a. the empire), and the other 13 times refer to the wrath of God.  Two of those even attribute wrath to the Lamb.  Wrath carries connotations of anger, fury, rage, punishment, and revenge.  Generally speaking, wrath aint good, and bad stuff happens when wrath shows up.

It’s perfectly possible to read Revelation in such a way that the Lamb has a personality change and goes on a rampage.  Perhaps the most troubling passage in the entire book is 14:10-11 when the worshipers of the beast “drink the wine of God’s wrath” and are then “tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.  And the smoke from their torment goes up forever and ever.”  Wow.  I’ll pass on that wine, please.

It’s difficult to square “the wrath of the lamb” with the words of Jesus on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”  Rather than call down curses from heaven on his enemies, Jesus calls down blessings.  Against their better selves, the people were inflicting violence on Jesus and one another, and in the gospels Jesus never mirrors the violence back.  He returns it with an entirely different kind of energy.  Vengeance Jesus-style is to forgive, and it’s not a passive forgiveness that covers over and forgets the wrong.  It’s a form of forgiveness which seeks to defeat and conquer and terminate the harm it is avenging.  Jesus sure as hell (pardon the expression) does get angry.  His not-so-nice clearing of the temple is a case in point.  The Lamb got wrathful, but it was for the ultimate purpose of redeeming people rather than destroying.

Forgive me (because I don’t know what I’m doing) for not being able to wrap all this up in a short reflection.  Maybe for John the wrath of God and the Lamb simply means leaving evil to its own devices and letting it self-destruct.  Maybe John is reminding us that somebody ought to get angry at all the injustice in the world.  Maybe John failed to follow through on his own deepest insights and misrepresents God and the Lamb on this.  Maybe God’s not angry at all except to the extent that fierce Love ignites everything it touches and burns away all but the essential.  I can go along with any of the first three, but I’m totally banking on the latter.

One thing is for certain: fear-based religion is caustic to the soul and has nothing to do with the gospel.  This coming Sunday we’ll finally allow that Tree of Life up front to have a larger role in the worship experience.  Anyone who wishes will be welcome to come up under the leaves and receive a blessing of healing, especially healing for any kind of internalized fear-based religion you may have picked up along the way in your faith journey.

“And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22:2