3d Sunday of Easter
April 14, 2013
Rev 5: 11-14
St. Timothy, Greenwich, Conn.
A shorter version of this was preached to Boy Scouts and Scouters in Putnam Valley on Saturday evening.
“To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever!’” (Rev 5: 13).
While my sister and her husband were posted by Uncle Sam in Belgium for 3+ years, I had the chance to visit them twice. Belgium’s a beautiful country with medieval churches and monasteries and castles, charming urban architecture, magnificent public squares, canals, windmills, not to mention flowers, lace, chocolate, and beer! One of Belgium’s artistic treasures is in the cathedral of Ghent, a large multi-panel painting called Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The central panel depicts the scene described in today’s reading from the Book of Revelation.
Revelation uses many symbols to convey the Christian message. In today’s 4 verses, e.g., we have a throne, countless numbers of angels, living creatures, elders, and a Lamb. The vision pictures heaven as an imperial court where God the Father rules the universe. All the angels and every bodily creature pay him homage.
The living creatures mentioned here in ch. 5 are introduced and described more fully in ch. 4. Their imagery is borrowed from the OT prophets. There are 4 creatures, and each of them has a different appearance. One appears like a lion, one like an ox, one like an eagle, and one like a man. They represent the wild and the domestic animals, the birds of the air, and human beings—the whole of animate creation. In a slightly different interpretation, they represent certain qualities: nobility (that’s the lion), strength (the ox), swiftness (the eagle), and wisdom (the man); in this interpretation, these are the most outstanding qualities of living creatures. In either case, the whole of earthly creation, represented by its most superior parts and its best qualities, is at heaven’s throne worshiping God.
With the 4 living creatures are 24 elders, also introduced in ch. 4, dressed in white garments with gold crowns on their heads, all seated on thrones around God (4:4). These 24 elders represent all God’s people: the 12 tribes of ancient Israel and the 12 apostles of the new Israel with all the churches they have founded. All worship the one living God and sing his praises. The elders represent us who are here this morning to worship God, for we belong to a church, the church of Bridgeport, headed by a successor of the apostles—at least when we get a new bishop!
God the Creator and Father of the universe isn’t alone at the throne. “The Lamb that was slain” (5:12) is with him, sharing the same honor and glory, the same blessings from God’s redeemed people. John the visionary, the author of Revelation, is making an obvious point, that the Lamb shares in the divinity and the honors of God the Father. This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. This is the Lamb whom “God exalted at his right hand as Ruler and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31). “Lamb” is John’s favorite title for Jesus, used 28 times in Revelation’s 22 chapters.
And it’s an important point that the Lamb shares God’s divinity. At the end of the 1st century Christians were being persecuted—imprisoned, tortured, exiled, and killed—because of their faith. Our 1st reading (Acts 5:27-32,40-41) contained an explicit reminder that Christians may have “to suffer dishonor” in this world “for the sake of the name” of Jesus (v. 41), as the apostles and martyrs did. At the end of today’s gospel (John 21:1-19), we’re also reminded that Peter died a martyr: “when you grow old, you’ll stretch out your hands, and someone else will…lead you where you don’t want to go” (21:18), i.e., to his crucifixion on the Vatican Hill. Like the Acts of the Apostles, John’s visions of the Lamb in heavenly glory, surrounded by the angels and saints, is an encouragement for 1st-century Christians, and for us, to persevere in our loyalty to Jesus.
The title “Lamb” suggests the Passover lamb, ritually slain by the Hebrews in Egypt for a sacred meal just before their release from slavery, and the lamb’s blood daubed on their doorposts to mark the Hebrew homes so that the angel of death would pass over them and strike down the 1st-born sons of only the Egyptians. In a sense, the lambs of the Hebrews were substitutes for their 1st-born sons.
At the beginning of St. John’s Gospel, John the Baptist identified Jesus as the Lamb of God (John 1:29,36). The Fathers of the Church, the earliest Christian authors and theologians apart from the NT, noted how Jesus offered himself in our place, suffering for our sins, in accordance with the words of the prophet Isaiah: “It was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured…. He was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed…. The Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all” (53:4-6). Jesus poured out his blood so that the angel of death—Satan—would have to pass over us when he comes to claim his own. Some of the Fathers of the Church compare the lips of Christians with the doorposts of the Hebrews; when we eat the body and drink the blood of Christ in Communion, our lips are marked with the Lamb’s blood.
How deserving of our veneration, then, is the Lamb! “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing” (Rev 5:12), this worship to be given by “every creature in heaven and on earth, and under the earth [i.e., even the dead] and in the sea” (v. 13). The book of Revelation urges us to be faithful, so as to be part of that heavenly scene, to be counted among the countless tens of thousands enjoying salvation around God’s throne, singing our hearts out in joyful praise. “Oh, when the saints come marching in, I want to be there in that number….”
When you listen to the final parts of Handel’s Messiah, you hear a beautiful rendition of the hymn from Revelation ch. 5. Every creature in heaven, on earth, and in the sea sings these hymns to God the Father and to Jesus Christ, the Lamb that was slain for us. Every creature acknowledges the sovereignty of God and the Lamb over all of us. We shout joyfully: “Blessing and honor, glory and might forever and ever.” Heaven, if you like, has become a giant pep rally.
The scene painted by John is a liturgical one, one of public worship. Our liturgy attempts to echo the heavenly liturgy. Ideally, crowds of grateful Christians would fill our churches and sing out God’s praises, communing heart and soul with their Lord and Savior each resurrection day, each Sunday. If we fully understood and appreciated what our Lord Jesus has done for us, we’d see Sunday worship not as an obligation but as a privilege—the privilege of singing God’s praise.
In 1988 the people of Ukraine celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of the their conversion to Christianity. There's a little story about that. It seems that Vladimir, prince of Kiev, wanted his subjects to adopt the most sublime religion they could find. He sent deputations far and wide to see how other peoples worshiped God. They visited the Moslems along the Volga River and Jews living in the Crimea. In Germany they found Latin Christianity—that’s our kind. But when they met Byzantine or Greek Christianity in the great cathedral of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, with its clouds of incense, its chanting and ritual, its mosaics, icons, and vestments, they thought they’d surely found heaven: “We did not know,” they reported, “whether we were in heaven or on earth. It would be impossible to find on earth any splendor greater than this, and it is vain to attempt to describe it…. Never shall we be able to forget so great a beauty.” So Prince Vladimir and the people of Kiev became Christians with Eastern liturgy and laws. And so the Ukrainians and the Russians remained until the Communist persecutions of the 20th century, and so many of them remained despite persecution, like the apostles of old, and so their religion has risen to life again in what used to be the Soviet Union.
There probably are very few Catholic churches and Sunday liturgies today that a non- Christian would mistake for heaven. But if heaven on earth isn’t here around the altar of the Lamb, around God’s living Word, where shall we find it? We won’t, until we become convinced that God loves us and desires our presence; until we desire his presence and want to be part of that “countless number” of creatures shouting and singing before him, thanking him for our brothers and sisters, our community, our local church, thanking him for wiping out our sins, thanking him for Jesus.
Our weekly worship, our weekly communion with Jesus, is a dress rehearsal for eternity. In heaven, of course, our love will be perfected. In the meantime, we love and we worship as best we can, and we try to turn the world around us—all of it, not just our church building—into a little bit of heaven by our faith, our hope, our love, and our worship.