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Church as prayer: a sermon on Revelation 22

May 21st, 2007 by isaac · 3 Comments

I don’t know how this sermon went. I got a few comments afterward from folks who really liked it. But I wonder if it was a little bit too complicated.

There’s this passage from Herbert McCabe that is at the heart of my sermon:

For us to pray is for us to be taken over, possessed by the Holy Spirit which is the life of love between Father and Son. When our prayer is the prayer of the people of God as such, when it is the prayer of the Church as a whole, it is a sacramental expression of this life of the Spirit—that is what we mean by the sacraments and this is what we primarily mean by our prayer. (220)

Title: Church as Prayer. Date: May 20, 2007. Texts: Revelation 22:12-17, 20-21; Psalm 97

I played a lot of soccer. It’s safe to say that it was my life. Weeknights were occupied with practice. On the weekends we had games—sometimes we would travel for tournaments. And whenever my body would be too tired to play soccer, I would play soccer video games. Or I would go to the houses of my fellow teammates and play soccer video games. And if we needed a break from all that virtual soccer, we would put in one of the World’s Greatest Goals videos. We would watch goal after glorious goals by all our favorite stars.

We wanted to be these soccer greats. We would spend countless hours learning their moves. And of course all this meant that we had to buy the same soccer shoes that they wore—Copa Mundials, Puma Kings, Kelme, Diadora.

The point is that we wanted to be good soccer players. And the way to do that was to imitate the greatest soccer players. That’s what we did. We needed people to follow. We needed images, icons, to imitate, to follow. So I bought blue Diadora soccer shoes because that’s what the Italian national team wore and they won the World Cup in 1994.

Many of you probably already figured out what’s coming next. Just like I needed soccer stars to imitate, we Christians have Jesus. That’s why each of us must follow in the way of Jesus. Right? I think so. But there’s something else going on in these passages from the end of Revelation that we heard last week and this week.

We aren’t really given a vision of Jesus to imitate; he isn’t our soccer star that we all want to be like. Instead, we are given an image of a city, a heavenly city, the new Jerusalem. And this city is the bride of Christ, the beloved people of God. And the culmination of history is the union between Christ and his church, this heavenly city.

But all this happens sometime long away—the future. What about now? What are we supposed to do in the present? How does this vision of the future have any relevance for our church lives?

One option is that it doesn’t. This vision doesn’t have any relevance for church. It’s all about the future; it’s a prophecy. Something that will happen in the distant future. I would say that this is a pie-in-the-sky Christianity. The vision is a utopia offered at the end of all things, by God’s sheer fancy, whenever God wants, whatever is going on, no matter what we do here on earth.

As you can probably imagine, I don’t think that’s a good way to think about this vision in particular and Revelation in general. I think there’s a better way of talking about this vision of the holy city.

The vision is a manifesto for a revolution. It’s written by a prisoner, exiled to Patmos, a rugged and deserted island in the middle of the Aegean Sea. It’s an exilic text, written by someone torn away from his people by the Roman Empire. And when this author is stripped of all his security, of all his friends, of his fellow Christian comrades, in a position of complete vulnerability, he receives a vision of God’s hope.

And it’s a revolutionary vision of hope from the very beginning. John opens his letter in the name of Jesus. Now, that doesn’t sound very revolutionary to us. We have made Jesus into a pious, gentle figure, someone to bring home to the parents—he smells like fine cologne, and probably wore a tie.

But for John and his community, there is nothing of the establishment when it comes to Jesus. Jesus is that man whose love was so profound, that it was disruptive—a subversive love, a love that offends, a love that gets him killed.

But that’s just who he is. And to name and meet in remembrance of this Jesus is a slap in the face for all established leaders and all authorities that killed the man, all those people who wanted to make everyone forget about Jesus. The community that Jesus left behind exists as a constant reminder of that revolutionary love.

Listen to how John names Jesus in 1:5: “Jesus Christ, the martyr, the faithful one, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of the earthly kings.”

This is audacious. He starts right off in the name of Jesus, and won’t let anyone forget that Jesus was a martyr, killed by the authorities of his day, a tortured political prisoner. And he’s also the martyr who came back, the firstborn of the dead people. This guy won’t go away.

And this guy that the authorities tried to get rid of but couldn’t is back, and what’s more, all the kings, all their kingdoms, they are all peons—that’s what the text says. Jesus is far above them, more powerful then they could ever imagine. He’s the king above all kings, above all the authorities on the earth.

This is why the book of Revelation is so radical, so revolutionary—it’s resistance literature, authored in a prison. And what John passes along to us is a vision of a Jesus who transcends death, a God who is above every other god, and a city, a civilization, a society, that compares to no other.

But this kind of transcendence, this kind of visionary reaching beyond the present reality, is not escapism. This kind of transcendence does work, it makes a difference, in the present. This is how: A transcendent God and a transcendent city put all our gods and civilizations to shame.

I was trying to think of a good way to make sense of this, and this is the best I could do. Maybe you have a better analogy… It’s like that kind of competition we play, or at least I played, when I was a kid. Some neighborhood kid says something that makes you upset. So, at a loss for a good come back, you say, “Oh yeah, well my dad can beat up your dad.” And then the kid says, “Oh yeah, well my dad is taller than your dad.” And then you respond, “Oh yeah…” You get the picture. It goes on and on until you’re bored, and then you go back to whatever it was you were doing.

That’s the book of Revelation. It’s one of those, “Oh yeahs.” Now, I don’t want to trivialize the vision—to reduce it to childish banter. That’s not what it is, and it’s not how it has worked throughout history. This vision has fueled movements throughout history.

Writing from the Birmingham jail, it was Martin Luther King Jr. who turned to images from Revelation to unite the people in a common cause against oppression. The vision was fodder for people to cry out and say, This is not the way it should be. Or, as King said in that famous sermon at the end of his life, “I’ve been to the mountaintop.” He takes the transcendent view that crushes all earthly societies.

And let us not forget the roots of the Mennonite church. The Anabaptists in the 16th Century lived and breathed John’s Apocalypse. And they didn’t have any reservations about naming their contemporary “anti-christs” or “Babylons.” They made sense of their present world with the cosmic vision of Revelation. It was their way of rejecting the religious, political, and economic realities of European society… as they reached for something else, the promise of a heavenly city.

It’s all about the reach into heaven. That’s what church is—it’s the way we reach into heaven; it’s the way we come to see how heaven makes its stamp on earth, a heavenly impression on present realities.

It’s all about the reach, the way we stretch our arms, our actions, our lives to receive God’s kingdom, the holy city that comes down from heaven. It comes down from heaven. That’s the exact opposite of another famous city, one from the Old Testament… Babel.

They want to build an eternal civilization, so they try to build a tower into heaven so they will no longer be threatened by earthly turmoil. But this heavenly civilization that comes down from God in Revelation has nothing to do with human construction. It’s not something we build as a final solution. It’s not something we vote for. It’s a gift; it’s grace—we don’t make it happen; it’s something we receive.

But there’s an ambiguity, a mystery here. When we think about God’s grace, the temptation is to think that grace means inactivity. But that’s not it at all. God’s grace challenges us to think about waiting patiently as work—waiting is something we do. Receiving isn’t passive; it’s something we do. It takes a bodily action to reach out your hands and open them, and hold them there, waiting for something, a gift to be given to you.

And if you’re like me, it’s hard work to sit and wait when there is so much to be done. I’m always coming up with things I can do in order to feel productive. I think that’s why I’ve begun my modest attempt at gardening.

The strategy of hope given to us in the book of Revelation comes together in this activity of opening our hands as we reach into heaven. That’s what the vision calls us to at the end; we are invited to open ourselves to receive this kingdom: “the Spirit and the bride 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… Come, Lord Jesus.”

This is what church is. It’s how we join our voices, and our opened and outstretched hands, and cry out, with the power of the Holy Spirit, “Come, Lord Jesus.” All the stuff we do that makes us church is this communal prayer that opens us and invites God to do something new, unimaginable in our midst. It’s the place where, as Thomas Müntzer, the important pastor and theologian to the 16th Century Anabaptists said, where we learn how “to be totally transfigured into him, so that this earthly life swings up into heaven.”

But getting transfigured takes work—but it’s a work that looks like prayer. I think that’s a good way to understand what goes on here at our worship service. We go through the hard work of opening our lives, turning our lives into a prayer, an invitation for God to turn us into that heavenly city Matt preached about last week.

It takes a fair amount of discipline to make it here on Sunday evening. And it may be taking a whole lot of work for you to listen to me ramble on and on up here. And it involves a bit of work to sing our songs of worship together—and if you are like me, it takes a bit of struggling as well. And it takes work to share our lives with one another and ask for prayer.

And all of this, the whole of our worship service, is our prayer. Church, everything about it, this worship service, is prayer; it’s an invitation to God; it’s how we say “Come, Lord Jesus.” It’s the way we get to work at making our lives available for God to transform us, to transfigure us, into that promised city. This is the way we listen and learn how to submit to the direction of the Holy Spirit. For it is the Spirit that shows us how to actively invite God’s transfiguring presence.

Now, I admit, talking about church as prayer, the way we invite God to work, the way we actively receive that holy city we are to become, forces us to admit some lack of knowledge, a certain lack of direction. Sure, Revelation has given us a vision of our future, this heavenly city. That is where we are going. We are pilgrims on earth, awaiting the arrival, the descent, of God’s promised dwelling for us on earth.

But it gets tricky when we try to figure out how to make it happen, how to build the walls of that heavenly city on earth. The great tower of Babel is a constant reminder of our temptation to think we possess the right strategy, the right mission, to make heaven happen here on earth.

But how do we get there? As Psalm 97 says, “Clouds and think darkness are all around him.” We know where we are going, the throne of God, but it’s engulfed with impenetrable clouds and thick darkness. So, how do we get there? How do we navigate the clouds? How do we arrive at that city? Where do we go from here?

I think the Psalm gives us a clue, maybe something to help us get us on our way. It says, “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.” It goes on, “The Lord loves those who hate evil… Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart.” How do we find our way into the darkness that surrounds God’s throne? Maybe it’s by finding that foundation of his throne—the place of justice. The light of God dawns for those who give themselves to the work of righteousness, to God’s loving justice.

A couple weeks ago at our Congregational Life Meeting we decided together to join Jessamine and Jaso in their work at the women’s shelter here in town. I wonder if this is the sort of place where we can engage in our piecemeal pilgrimage into God’s presence. It’s a small thing—helping women and their children plant and grow food for themselves. But who knows what may happen as we entangle our lives with theirs, as we link our church to their lives, as we present ourselves to God in that place, among those people.

Our task is to offer our church as a prayer, opened up to the movement of God, and speak the words of Revelation with our lives: “Let the Spirit and the bride say, Come.” And this invitation to God is also an invitation to others: “And let everyone who hears say, Come.” And when all these voices and lives get mixed together, maybe we will discover that we have already actively received, through simple things like gardening with woman and children, the light of God’s justice that shines from the darkness.

Tags: sermons

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 cittadipace // May 23, 2007 at 6:47 am

    Reading this sermon was good for my soul, Isaac. I appreciate the attention and depth you are giving to thinking about our lives as eschatologically determined by God’s own work.

    Have you seen that essay in Stanley’s fetschrift by Bernd Wannenwetsch? It is called ‘A Negative Political Theology according to Revelation’ something or another.

    Anyways,
    Peace be with you.
    Scott Prather

  • 2 isaac // May 23, 2007 at 5:31 pm

    Scott, thanks for the kind comment and I’m grateful that the sermon communicated something edifying.

    I haven’t purchased nor read anything from God, Truth, and Witness. Some stuff in there looks pretty good; I just haven’t had time for that—the lectionary texts direct my reading. Thanks for the recommendation. I find Wannenwetsch’s work on political liturgy pretty interesting (hopefully a paperback version comes out soon—$200 is a bit much for a book). The title of that essay is completely in line with what I’m interested in these days. Jacob Taubes’ Pauline (and Benjamin) negative political theology has captured my imagination for the time being—if Wannenwetsch does anything along those lines, I’m there. I imagine he also does something with O’Donovan’s essay on Revelation and negative politics—that would also be interesting to see. I guess I’ll have to read it.

    Peace to you, and I hope studies are treating you well.

  • 3 Scott // May 29, 2007 at 4:00 am

    Isaac,

    I haven’t yet looked at Taubes’ book, but you peaked my interest. Wannenwetsch’s stuff is quite interesting…the essay I mentioned in particular is good. He doesn’t interact w/ O’Donovan as far as I can remember, but he does have a great reading of Nietzsche’s ‘Ape’.

    There are rumors that he might be coming to Aberdeen soon, which would be great for me if he does that in the next two years.

    I also wanted to mention…since you guys still have a link to my old blog that I never really got started…. that I’ve begun a new blog I’m committed to maintaining. The link is here if you’re interested. I’m going to try and post pretty regularly there.

    Best to you and yours,
    STP