Easter 4C Sermon (2010)

4th Sunday of Easter
Texts: Revelation 7:9-17;
John 10:22-30; Acts 9:36-43


Last Sunday, we glimpsed with the John the Seer, the writer of the Book of Revelation, the pivotal moment of drama in his vision. There in the heavenly courtroom of God, the One sitting on the throne has a scroll with the plan for saving the whole creation. All manner of creatures are assembled because everyone has a stake in this moment. Who will be worthy to open the scroll? The elder says to look up for the Lion of Judah. Yes, that’s the ticket. The Lion of Judah is the symbol for the great king whose army will turn the tables on all God’s enemies and win the decisive battle. We’ve been waiting for that champion!

But, no, John the Seer does look up, and instead of the Lion of Judah — for whom God’s people have been waiting for centuries, and for whom they still are waiting — instead of the Lion there stands the Lamb slaughtered, Jesus the Messiah. And here grammar is important. The verb is a perfect passive participle, showing past action continuing into the present: the Lamb is standing as if it had been slaughtered. In other words, instead of waiting for a Lion yet to come someday, we already have a Lamb who was slaughtered. The Lion of Judah, God’s great Messiah, has already come! And he came as a Lamb slaughtered instead of a Lion! In other words, he came as one who took upon himself the typical slaughter of all the lions of the world. He came to show us once and forever that God’s way is a way of love that takes upon itself the hurt and wounding of the world’s predators before it ever resorts to being the predator, even if it be the biggest predator of all who, out of fear, stops all others who would wound or kill.

From this point on in the drama of the Book of Revelation, creatures like the Lion or the Eagle are seen as distorted monsters who follow the way of the beast Satan rather than God’s way, the way of the Lamb slaughtered.

From our human way of seeing, though, we ask: how can this possibly be considered a victory? Well, first of all, we begin to see things like human empires for what they really are, followers of the dragon-beast Satan. Instead of envying the power of empires, instead of envying things like military might, of having our own Lion to lead us in military victory over our enemies, we learn to persist in faithfulness to God’s way of love.

I think that the other most poignant moment in Revelation comes in chapter 13, where it’s almost like John the Seer takes a commercial break and speaks directly to us, his audience. He pauses from telling us his vision to say to us:

Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (Revelation 13:9-10)

Do you see? Faith is about clinging to God’s call to do things God’s way, nonviolently, without the sword, in love. Go into captivity before you take up the sword. In a world which seemingly knows no other power than the kind wielded by military might, the way of the Lamb takes tremendous faith and persistence.

But let’s get back to the question about victory. The first kind of victory is for us to finally get God’s way of peace by following the Lamb slaughtered and seeing the Lion as a beast who follows Satan. But I think that what we see in Revelation is how this victory will eventually play itself out in the world: namely, those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Those who insist on living by the kind of power represented by military power will one day see its inevitable ending. What we see by the end of the Book of Revelation is the implosion of violence upon itself.

In the meantime, we have a glimpse of God’s comfort in the face of the continuing slaughter, which will someday play itself out but today continues to make victims, those who have gone through the ordeal whose robes have been washed clean from the blood of the Lion by the blood of the Lamb. This morning’s picture of all those who have gone through the ordeal, “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” becomes essential. We need to see that the Lamb who has already set the victory in motion is also the shepherd who wipes the tears from our eyes and promises us that the bottom line in the Creator God’s universe is life, not murder and death.

I need to come clean this morning with my deepest desires as a pastor. The recent articles from my interview with Margaret DeRitter in the Kalamazoo Gazette gives a glimpse of what I consider a new Reformation in the Church. I don’t know if it strikes you that the title Reformation seems a bit drastic, but here’s how drastic I think this Reformation needs to be. It needs to finally move us on to what didn’t happen the first time around. Five hundred years ago the man whose name our denomination bears, Martin Luther, almost became one of the victims of Empire. Luther, whose views were very similar to those of John Hus a generation before him, almost went the same way as John Hus, namely, burnt at the stake as a heretic by the Holy Roman Empire. Instead, culture and politics had changed enough so that the German princes and state protected Luther from the emperor. To that extent, the Roman Empire was disappearing. One of the lions who followed the beast Satan was going its own way, dying by the sword.

But this was not the end of Empire yet. Instead the empire centered in Rome became many at first smaller empires of European nation states. But these smaller European nation states began to take their show on the road to many other parts of the world, like Africa, Australia, the Americas, and parts of Asia, like India. Over the next five hundred years, then, instead of having the end of Roman Empire be the end of Empires, it became the beginning of the British Empire, the German Empire, the Spanish Empire, etc. Slaves from Africa were exported all over the world; indigenous peoples who stood in the way of Empire were slaughtered by the millions. Finally, once again, those who live the sword die by the sword. Last century, those European empires had nothing better to do than turn on each other to the tune of not just one but two World Wars. The European empires sunk into a lake of fire, a Holocaust, like they do at the end of the Book of Revelation.

But here’s the challenge, then, for the new Reformation: will we who are gathered here this morning, mostly descendants of the Europeans who forged the last round of empires, will we finally be faithful to the way of the Lamb slaughtered? Will we finally read the books of the Christian scriptures as they were meant to read, that is, as those who suffered through the ordeal of being victims of Empire? Yes, that’s the implications of how we are reading Revelation this morning. To the extent that Europeans forged empires, they learned to read the scripture as exactly the opposite to the way we have read it this morning. And, for the most part, this is the way of the traditional readings we still inherit. So the task before us, I firmly believe, is monumental. We need to relearn to read our scriptures verse by verse to see its perspective rightly, the perspective of those robed in white who come through the ordeal of being victims of human empire. Perhaps learning to read this Book of Revelation correctly can even provide the key to reading the other ones correctly, too. But in some of the ways indicated in the Gazette interview, and many more, we need to reread the Bible almost verse by verse in ways faithful to the Lamb’s undoing of the beast of Empire. Do you see how huge this task is? It will mean adults participating in Bible studies so that we all can learn to teach our children differently, before they too become victims of empire gathered beneath the throne.

In the meantime, we do have this liturgy each week by which we who are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb are fed for endurance and faithfulness to the victory of the Lamb slain.

Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, April 25, 2010

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