for the 2d Sunday of Easter
April 11, 2010
Rev 1: 9-13, 17-19
Ursulines, Willow Dr.
“Write on the scroll what you see” (Rev 1: 11).
I’m sure that over the last 50, 60, or 70 years you’ve heard more than a few homilies on today’s gospel (John 20:19-31): on doubting Thomas, on Jesus’ gift of peace, on forgiveness and Reconciliation, on the mission of the Church. You probably haven’t heard a lot of homilies on the 1st chapter of Revelation.
John the Seer or John the Prophet narrates his calling, rooted in a vision. His account echoes some of the prophetic calls of the OT. Whether this John is John the Apostle, and whether John the Apostle is John the Evangelist, and whether any of these Johns is the “beloved disciple” of John’s Gospel; and the relationship between John’s Gospel and the Book of Revelation—all that’s much debated among scholars but need not concern us this morning. (Whew!) Whoever this John is, he’s received a prophetic revelation from Jesus Christ, which he’s instructed to share with his fellow Christians, and does.
John the Seer identifies himself with the local Christian communities, specifically with the 7 major churches of Asia Minor centered around Ephesus. These 7 churches are in fact listed in a half verse omitted in our passage today (1:11) and, as you know, the revelation John receives includes messages for each of them individually, which make up ch. 2-3. The 7 golden lampstands amid which the “one like a son of man” stands (1:12-13) represent these 7 churches; that verse indicates that Jesus is present in and among the communities of his disciples.
John the visionary identifies himself with these churches: he is their brother; he shares with them “the distress, the kingdom, and the endurance we have in Jesus” (1:9). If we accept the tradition that this John is the beloved disciple and that he settled in Ephesus with Jesus’ mother, that kinship with the 7 churches is readily understood. Regardless of that, we know that the provenance of Revelation—the end of the 1st century—was a difficult period for Christians, a period of hostility from society and public authority, sometimes of outright persecution. John states that he received the vision “on the island of Patmos,” where he was “because I proclaimed God’s word and gave testimony to Jesus” (1:9). Patmos, a small island off the western coast of Asia Minor, was a penal colony where criminals or enemies of the state were sent. John was there because he was preaching the Gospel.
Hence the reference to “distress,” or in other translations, “tribulation.” Hence the need for “endurance,” or “patience” in some translations. Of course even in good times a disciple of Jesus needs patience or endurance, because the world, the flesh, and the devil are always part of our lives, seeking to lure us away from the straight and narrow path that leads to life (Matt 7:14). The tribulations of daily life can distract even well-intentioned people from a focus on Jesus and on his kingdom.
John notes that he and his sisters and brothers in the churches already share in the kingdom. Serious Christians participate actively in the life of Christ—including the cross of tribulation that demands patience—and they make real that saying of Jesus, “The kingdom of God is within you” or “among you” (Luke 17:21). Christ claims them, lives in them, acts thru them, has an effect on the world thru them; and on a certain level, the level of their relationship with Christ, they already dwell in heaven. Christians also hold that the new creation, the age of the kingdom of God, has already begun with Jesus’ resurrection.
The voice that speaks to John is “as loud as a trumpet” (1:10). It’s the voice of God, the voice of revelation, like the sound of trumpets that accompanied the Lord’s presence on Mt. Sinai (Ex 19:16), like the sound of the trumpet on the Last Day (1 Cor 15:52). Not that this vision is related directly to the Last Day; but John’s visions do include plenty of references to the vindication of God’s saints and the damnation of the wicked.
The “one like a son of man” whom John sees and hears is, of course, Christ. The “ankle-length robe” he wears suggests his priestly office, and the “gold sash around his chest” bespeaks kingship (1:13). Christ is priest, king, and prophet. As priest, he offered sacrifice for the sins of humanity, and that sacrifice was himself. Revelation will go on to refer to Christ as the victorious Lamb. As king he rules the universe in his Father’s name, and he passes judgment on the good and the evil. As prophet, he delivers the Father’s message of eternal life.
John falls down “as though dead” (1:17), the reaction of any mortal coming into contact with the divine. But Christ tells him, as he so often said to his disciples and to others during his earthly ministry, “Don’t be afraid” (1:17). Altho he now wields awesome power in heaven, he wants to be near his people. He’s on the side of those suffering distress and enduring faithfully on his account, those who have identified themselves with his kingdom. He has conquered death—“I am alive forever and ever” (1:18)—and opened the way to life, a way on which he wants to lead all his followers: “I hold the keys to death and the netherworld” (1:18). John should write down his vision (1:19) and share it with the churches, for in this vision Christ is offering encouragement to the persecuted, the promise of life to those who undergo harassment, imprisonment, torture, and death.
Such an encouraging vision still speaks, I would think, to our brothers and sisters undergoing the trials of active persecution—let us say, in Pakistan or Iraq. It speaks to us who experience cultural discrimination because we follow Jesus, because we don’t bow to political correctness, or because we’re Catholics specifically. It speaks to us who oftentimes find life difficult because of personal pain and suffering; because of distress that so much goes wrong in life especially the lives of innocent people, like coal miners and the poor of Rio de Janeiro’s slums and of Haiti; because of anger at the injustice in the world. It speaks to us who are of a certain age and might be nervous about death and judgment—a fear that priests and religious aren’t immune to. As the Lord Jesus stood among the 7 lampstands, he stands still with us. He is still priest, offering himself for our sins. He is still king, ruling the universe and passing judgment on evildoers and on Satan himself. He is still the one who conquers death and offers us life. In the words of our opening prayer today, the Father of Jesus is still the “God of mercy” who “washes away our sins in water, redeems us in Christ’s blood, gives us new birth in the [Holy] Spirit,” “renews [his] gift of life within us.” No need to be afraid, either for the ultimate fate of humanity or for our own eternal destiny, so long as we listen to and cling to Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God (cf. John 20:28).