25 November 2018

Alpha and Omega

Revelation 1:4b-8

Reign of Christ Sunday
Preaching on this Sunday is challenging.  Christ the King. Reign of Christ.  Today is the culmination of the liturgical calendar, a year modelled on the life of Christ.  It begins with the promise of his coming, followed by his birth, his life, death, and resurrection, ascension, the season of Pentecost, which eventually leads us to Christ the King. But, what does it mean to say that Christ is King today, when kings and monarchs are a relic of the past?  We can modify the language a little and talk about the Reign of Christ, to get away from the monarchial, and masculine aspects of Kingship.  Still, what does it mean to affirm the reign of Christ?  It can sound so arrogant and even pompous.  You can see why it’s often overlooked or bypassed, especially in years when Reign of Christ is the Sunday before Thanksgiving instead of the Sunday after Thanksgiving, like today.  Presbyterians are free to use or not use the liturgical calendar and the accompanying lectionary and are, therefore, free to focus on this day, or not.  Sometimes it’s easier to celebrate Thanksgiving and sing, “Come, Ye Thank People, Come,” than focus on the Kingship of Christ and sing (like today),

Crown him with many crowns,
the lamb upon his throne,
Hark! how the heavenly anthem drowns
All music but its own:
Awake, my soul, and sing
Of him who died for thee,
And hail him as thy matchless king
Through all eternity.[1]

Talk about kings and crowns and thrones sounds like we’re lost in a Grimm’s fairy tale.

Liturgically-speaking, theologically-speaking what this Sunday means for us, though, must be taken seriously.  The theological heft of this Sunday can be seen in today lectionary readings, such as John 18:33-39, where Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you king of the Jews?” (18:33).  If you’re king of the Jews, Jesus, then where are your armies? And then there’s the reading from the opening of John’s Apocalypse, from Revelation.

When John received his revelation—his apocalypse—on the tiny island of Patmos, in the Aegean Sea, he was in exile. Eusebius (263-339), the fourth-century church historian, records an early Christian tradition that Emperor Domitian (51-96) banished John to Patmos in AD 95.  The Roman historian Tacitus (c.56-c.120) tells us that there were three small islands (Gyaros, Donoussa, Amorgos), near Patmos, which were used for political exiles.  Tacitus doesn’t name Patmos, but we know there were islands where people were banished by the empire, or islands inhabited by people who sought to flee the empire. 

Read the Book of Revelation very closely and you’ll see Rome everywhere.  And you’ll discover that John’s apocalypse is not really a prophecy for the end of the world, the so-called “end times.”  Instead, you’ll see that John is writing a pastoral letter to followers of Christ who have sold out to the idolatry of the Roman Empire, he’s writing to encourage Christians to “come out” from the collective, come out from the empire and stand up for Christ, step away from the crowd and be faithful to the Lamb, to Christ.  John challenges and offends anyone who supports Roman rule, those who prefer to follow the Anti-Christ, who is none other than the Roman Emperor himself.  Yes, John was in exile—either he fled there to save his life or he was sent there by Rome.  Either way, the Roman Empire is the stage upon which John’s vision unfolds.

The Book of Revelation is challenging, to be sure, and there are a lot of wacky interpretations out there.  What we need to remember is that Revelation is essentially a book of worship; not a book about worship.  Revelation is a liturgical drama, written in such a way to invite you into worship, calls you to enter the divine drama, become part of the liturgy, join in the chorus of praise of the Lamb; it’s something to be experienced, not analyzed to death. 

And, remarkably, unlike any other text in the New Testament, John intentionally links worship with politics.  He believes they are inseparable.  It begins with a liturgical blessing, “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come” (Rev. 1:4b).  Within two verses, John is talking about a “kingdom,” a basileia, a “realm,” or better, “empire,” which belongs to God.  John talks about how we in the church have been made into a new empire, with “priests” that serve God, and God alone (Rev. 1:6). Did you hear this?  Worship and power.  Religion and politics. Politics and religion converge in acts of worship, and worship always shapes our allegiance.  You see, worship is always a political act.  Worship focuses our attention on God, and in worship we remember who is God and who isn’t God.  Worship is always about allegiance, where we place our trust and our hope.  And one of the central themes that’s running through Revelation is the question of allegiance. 

So, why was allegiance relevant to the seven churches in Asia Minor addressed by John?  Because the imperial cult, that is, the worship of Caesar as divine, was widespread and extremely strong in Asia Minor.  The Emperor demanded their allegiance; the emperor demanded their worship and adoration because the emperor was considered divine; one of his titles was “son of God.” The Emperor expected to be thanked, relentlessly, excessively, for all the benefits bestowed upon his people, for all the great things done for his people.  Knowing this, the Book of Revelation becomes a clarion call for believers to avoid giving ultimate allegiance to any person or power other than God and the Lamb.[2]

New Testament scholar Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza suggests that Revelation is asking one central question: “Who is the true Lord of this world?”[3]  Is it the emperors of Rome as the Roman Empire would want its citizens to believe?  Is the emperor of Rome to be worshipped, as was his desire? Is the true Lord found in powers and institutions, including the merchants and shipbuilders of the empire, that support the empire?  The entire book makes the case that Jesus Christ is “Lord and God and King of the world,” not human emperors or empire-builders. Jesus Christ is “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:4b), as John said.  You see, this is, at the same time, both a theological claim and a political claim—and they can’t be separated This means that if Christ is the ruler of the rulers of the earth, then Caesar is not really Caesar.  From the perspective of the powers that be, from the perspective of Rome, from the perspective of Caesar, such a claim is both heresy and sedition, and worthy of death. 

John wants us to look at the Lamb.  John sees Christ as the Lamb who has ransomed us from sin.  John is calling for repentance.  But the sin John has in mind is not what we ordinarily consider sin. For John, the most pernicious sin is the sin of accommodation. “[John] wants those who are accommodating themselves to cultic practices [of the Roman imperial cult], [the] social affiliations, economic buy-ins, and demonstrations of political loyalty that acknowledge, celebrate, and support the lordship of Rome to repent from such activity. Sin, then, is specifically tied to affiliation with Rome and the Roman imperial cult and its practices.” The lordship of God and Christ requires a greater loyalty.  This means that following Christ makes you part of the opposition.  John is essentially calling for nonviolent resistance against the powers that be.[4]

And John sees the Churches in Asia Minor as the first line of resistance.  He writes to the seven churches—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamon, Thyratira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Laodicea—each with its golden lampstand.  (Notice the seven lamps carved into the apse behind and above the pulpit.) Seven is significant because it is, for John, the number of completeness.  These seven churches represent the Church as a whole. And, not by chance, each of these cities had a Roman law court where believers could be forced to testify about allegations that they were Christ-believers.  John is intentionally taking on the imperial court, which includes the imperial cult, the worship of Caesar as divine.  These citied owed their prosperity solely to the emperor’s beneficence.  The revelation John received forces him to take all of this on.  We could say that Revelation is a liturgical text that amounts to a theological and political manifesto.[5]

God desires the Church to become a witness against the sins of the empire.  Caesar is not the true ruler; God is the true ruler. The implications of this are obvious, as Brian Blount makes clear: “if God uses God’s power (Spirit) to contest Roman control of human history, and God also uses God’s power to empower the churches to whom John is writing, then it must also be the case that John’s churches will form one of the principal mechanisms through which God will win the fights against Rome.  This Holy Spirit, then, is very much a political Spirit.”[6]

John writes, “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.” “Who is, who was, and who is to come.” There is no other place in the New Testament where Christ is described this way.  There is no other place where God is described this way.  A threefold formulation was a commonplace way of celebrating a deity’s eternity and immutability.  It was said, for example, “Zeus was, Zeus is, and Zeus will be.”  Athena also claimed this title.  Plutarch (45-127) tells of a statue to Athena containing these words on the base, “I am all that has been, and is, and shall be.” But John does something subversive here. He refers to Christ as one “who is, who was, and who is to come.” John hijacks the formulation, and then adds, is coming, Christ is coming, bringing the supernatural order to the natural realm. And John messes with the flow of time; he changes the order.  It’s Christ who is—now—because he was, and is now coming, for he’s always on the way.

Jesus said to John of Patmos, "I am the Alpha and the Omega." The beginning and the end.  Again, John refers to him as the one, “Who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty" (Rev. 1:8). Not one or the other, but both-and. A text such as this lifts up the cosmic Christ.  To call this Cosmic Christ “lord” is to oppose the empire’s teaching that Caesar is “Lord and Savior.”[7]  Christ embraces every aspect of time, and yet we experience him in time, in our time, in our lives. On this Reign of Christ Sunday, the culmination of the liturgical year, we remember that, always, we live in the wide embrace of Christ. He is our beginning and our end, and everything in between. The Alpha, the Omega, the Almighty.

Christ as “Almighty,” pantokrator, in Greek, means Christ is the ruler of the human realm, not the powers that be, not Caesar, not kings or queens or prime ministers or presidents.  Those who pierced Christ will soon discover that he’s the one who holds all time in his hands; he’s Lord of everything that occurs through time, in time. Even the designation “Almighty” becomes a title of resistance, which, then, makes his “coming” a political claim. His coming means that the present ruler will have to give way, the present aeon will have to yield to the new moment breaking into time.  The coming of Christ is always an event destabilizing the present order in order to make way for the new emerging order.  As Caesar discovered, the birth of Christ meant the end of the old order. He is alpha and omega, beginning and end.  He is our beginning and our end. Christ says, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).  Whenever we encounter Christ who is always coming toward us, the old order of our lives passes away.  God’s new age is always coming and is now; now and always on the way. You could say that we exist in a perpetual Advent.

The German theologian Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) concluded his sermon from December 12, 1943, preached in Germany in the middle of the war: “To be a Christian means to be one who waits for God’s future.  Hence for the Christian perhaps all seasons are essentially an Advent season.  For Advent is characterized above all by this note of expectation…It is intended to remind us sharply of what we so easily and so often forget, namely, that as Christians we are expectant.”[8]

As we wait and expect, we need to remember that Jesus is Lord.  Jesus poses a political challenge to every ruler that defies the reign of God.  Who is your “Lord” is always a political question.  In other words, who has power?  Who has ultimate authority in your life?  Who reigns over our decisions and choices as a church? And as we wrestle with these questions, which can take a lifetime, we must never underestimate the power of anti-Christ which seeks to block and hinder his coming. We must never misjudge the power of the force that seeks to resist God’s reign.

On March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero celebrated the Eucharist at the chapel of the Divine Providence Cancer Hospital in San Salvador.  In the preceding months, Romero had summoned the people of El Salvador to nonviolent resistance against a repressive military regime.  In this sermon, he said, “God’s reign is already present on our earth in mystery.  When the Lord comes, it will be brought to perfection.  That is the hope that inspires Christians.  We know that every effort to better society, especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us.”[9] As he finished his homily, a single bullet from an assassin ended his life.

Worship is always a political act.  The gospel, God’s good news—if it truly is God’s good news— is always political, because as Mary and Elizabeth and Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi-Kings, and Simeon and John the Baptist, and everyone came to know, God’s glad tidings of great joy (Luke 2:10) announce the coming reign of God!  Come, Lord Jesus.  Come!

Christ as Alpha and Omega, fresco from the Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome; Christos Pantokrator (12th century) in the Cathedral of Monreal, Sicily.
[1] The hymn “Crown Him with Many Crown” was written by Matthew Bridges (1800-1804) and Godfrey Thring (1823-1903), in 1851. It’s set to the tune DIADEMETA, composed by George Job Elvy (1816-1893).
[2] J. Nelson Kraybill, Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010), 33.
[3] Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Invitation to the Book of Revelation (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1981), 72.
[4] Brian K. Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 37
[5] Blount, 34.
[6] Blount, 35.
[7] See Matthew Fox, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ: The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance (HarperOne, 1988).
[8] Cited in David W. Congdon, Rudolf Bultmann: A Companion to His Theology (Cascade Books, 2015), 157. I’m grateful to David for the rich phrase “perpetual Advent.”
[9] James R. Brockman, The Church Is All of You: Thoughts of Archbishop Oscar Romero (Minneapolis: Winston, 1984), 110.