And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
In my first or second year of seminary—I can’t remember which, and the whole period is fading into the past much faster than I’d like—but somewhere back then in the very early 2000s there was tragic death on campus; a young man who had everything going for him died suddenly of an aortic embolism. I don’t know about you, but I live in terror of that exact kind of thing happening to me or someone I love.
My seminary was in New York City in the time right after 9/11 where every bad thing that happened in our pressure-cooker, fishbowl community reminded everyone of every other bad thing that had ever happened. The faculty member scheduled to preach the next community Eucharist after his death was one of the scripture professors. She titled it “Mulholland Drive and The Book of Revelation.”
Anyone remember that movie? It’s a David Lynch film made in 2001, American “neo-noir” about an aspiring young actress who meets a young woman with amnesia and tries to help her figure out her story. There are many surreal and bizarre subplots that all come together in the end, kind of, but not in any way I could ever figure out. When I came home from seeing that movie, I lay awake for hours trying to make sense of it all.
The professor who preached on “Mulholland Drive” in connection with the Book of Revelation was making two points: one, one oughtn’t try too hard with the Book of Revelation to turn it into linear sense. And two, human experience is full of horrible inexplicable things that sometimes we simply cannot piece together. We certainly know this latter truth from the experiences of the past week and the unfolding story of the two young men who engineered such a violent and tragic attack. People who live in parts of the world where this kind of violence is a daily occurrence live constantly with the struggle to make sense out of surreal experiences with subplots they will never understand. And for them, the incomprehensible experiences just keep on coming.
This would have been the life experience of the people for whom the Book of Revelation was originally written, who were the first martyrs, victims of the earliest persecution of Christians.
My New Testament professor was not the first person to link the Book of Revelation with a movie. A generation ago (at least), a preeminent scripture scholar with the unfortunate name of Eugene Boring wrote about Revelation in terms of the 1967 American classic, “The Graduate.” How many of you remember that one?
Boring writes about how the Book of Revelation talks of the end-times but contains no closure, and he makes a connection to the end of the Graduate. The Dustin Hoffman character stands behind a stained glass window during a church wedding shouting “Elaine!” The Graduate leaves us with an image rather than a conclusion. And Revelation is nothing if not a collection of images, without a conclusion in sight. Ending without closure.
We tend to dismiss the Book of Revelation as hopelessly incomprehensible. Some people have speculated in all seriousness that the author must have been writing under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs.
Because Revelation contains some of the most creative and powerful images in all of scripture, I’d like to try to rescue it from its exile.
Revelation is the literature of God’s people in their experience of powerlessness. It is written to a particular people in a particular time: early Christians learning, first hand, not just from Jesus’ earlier preaching, that to be a Christian is to be a martyr. Revelation reminds us that God does not prevent suffering, even for faithful Christians. Like many good sources of comfort, the book provides images and poetry, rather than parables or history. It is not a code for us to crack to predict our own future, but a lens through which to see the transformation of the world that has not yet come and is always becoming, where the powerless are granted full life with God.
In and among all the psychedelic aspects of Revelation are words of comfort. If the passage we heard this morning sounds familiar, it is because it is often read at funerals.
So why do we read Revelation during Easter season? I have a couple of theories. One is that it’s an important complement to the book of Acts. In Acts, we read about the earthy day-to-day on-the-ground life of the apostles on the other side of the cross, figuring out what it means to be disciples, what it means to be the church. Revelation reminds them that what it means to be the church is to suffer. We do well to remember that, especially when we find ourselves complaining about aspects of first-world, twenty-first century parish life. Revelation reminds us that for us, triumph is to be found in the symbol of the utmost powerlessness, the Lamb.
I think another reason we read Revelation during the Great Fifty Days of Easter is to remind us that Easter begins with death. My guess is that most of us are more comfortable with the world of Acts than with the world of Revelation. Revelation reminds us—quite frankly—that death is a part of discipleship. No wonder no one wants to read the thing! Revelation also reminds us, over and over again, that God and the Lamb have the final victory, not death.
Anyone who reads the history of the early church knows they just don’t make martyrs like they used to. In the first centuries after the resurrection, to witness to one’s faith meant to be willing to die. This witness became, in fact, a form of evangelism (also a word for witness). The second-century author Tertullian famously said “the blood of martyrs is seed,” meaning that with every Christian cut down, many-fold more will grow up. In the nineteenth century, as they were marched to their death, the Martyrs of Uganda sang and prayed for forgiveness of their enemies. The crowds who watched this converted to Christianity on the spot, and the government could no longer keep them silent. Martin Luther King, Junior, a student of the Book of Revelation, said:
We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will match physical force with soul force. We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.
There are times and places where suffering and death is a powerful Christian witness. However, the word martyr simply means witness. The Book of Revelation is a call to, and a tribute to, patient, faithful witness. How do we serve as witnesses to our faith? How do we keep the Church faithful to that witness? How do we engage the very real powerlessness that is what it means to be a follower of Jesus?