4th Sunday of Easter
Rev 7: 9, 14-17
April 21, 2013
Scouts, Putnam Valley, N.Y.
St. Timothy, Greenwich, Conn.
“A great multitude … stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands” (Rev 7: 9).
John’s vision of the heavenly liturgy, partially described from ch. 5 last week, continues. The angels, the living creatures, and the elders who were included in the vision last week, as we read from ch. 5, are joined now (in ch. 7) by “a great multitude which no one could count” (7:9). and that multitude joins in the everlasting worship of God “day and nite in his temple” (7:15).
In the book of Genesis, God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of the sky or the sands of the seashore, and in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed (22:17). John’s vision shows those promises fulfilled. Here in God’s heavenly temple is this countless multitude “from every nation, race, people, and tongue” (7:9). Every nation receives the blessing of salvation; all these are God’s people because, like Abraham, they have been faithful: “these are the ones who have survived the time of great distress” (7:14).
The great crowd are all wearing white robes and holding palm branches. The white robes are liturgical garments. Their worship of God and the Lamb is priestly service. More than that, they symbolize purity and innocence. Where do the purity and innocence of these worshipers come from? One of the elders explains: “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”; their robes will reflect the glory of the Lamb himself—the glory that we note when Jesus was transfigured and “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3). The Lamb’s blood that saves Christians, as we noted last week, saves us not by marking our doorjambs but by washing us. When the water of Baptism is poured over us, when the Lord’s body and blood enter our bodies and our hearts, we are washed clean, we are transformed, we are made new, we are made holy, we are made worthy of joining the imperial court of heaven and taking part in the divine liturgy. All of the baptized do priestly service in their public worship of God and the Lamb.
The palm branches have a double significance. In the 1st place, they remind us of the crowds who hailed Jesus as the Son of David, the Messiah, when he entered Jerusalem. So the countless multitude salutes Jesus, the Lamb, in this heavenly liturgy, recognizing him as Messiah. In the 2d place, the palms are a sign of victory, particularly of the martyrs’ victory over their persecutors. Traditional art of the martyrs often pictures them holding a palm branch.
The vast multitude, joyful, purified, and victorious, now enjoys what Ps 23, “The Lord is my shepherd,” promises: “The one sits on the throne will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore” (7:15-16), and in an ironic twist, the Lamb becomes a shepherd: “For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water” (7:17).
The victory of eternal life, eternal shelter, eternal salvation, comes at a price—not the price only of the Lamb’s blood, as precious as that is, but also the price of Christians’ fidelity, of their “surviving the time of great distress.” As we’ve noted previously, Revelation was written in a time of terrible persecution.
For sure there are Christians persecuted still today, made to pay a price in blood, in terror, in exile, for being faithful to Jesus: Christians in China, in Vietnam, in India, in Pakistan, in Iraq, in Syria, for instance. They face death, prison, and harassment, and some flee to avoid such fates. In this country, too, faithful Christians are under pressure to keep their religion private—believe whatever you want and you can worship as you please inside your church building; but don’t bring your faith out publicly, and don’t object to the secularization of our culture and our laws, don’t object to what academic elites, the mass media, and politicians tell you is “correct” behavior and acceptable public policy.
The new movie 42 about Jackie Robinson celebrates his great courage and the contribution that he and Branch Rickey made to American society by integrating the major leagues. A recent column in the Wall Street Journal observed that Robinson’s religious faith is “often overlooked.” He was a devout Methodist who prayed daily and who practiced his faith. When he began to play professional baseball in the Negro Leagues, he “openly scorned his whiskey-drinking and promiscuous teammates, once tossing a glass of scotch into a lighted fireplace to demonstrate how lethal liquor is. He also stunned his teammates by declaring that he was waiting until he was married to have sex.”
Our young people—and a lot of older ones—face those same temptations regularly: the culture of drinking, of drugs, of self-centered sex; and the temptations to cheat, to lie, to take advantage of others, to bully others, even to kill when someone gets in our way (such as an unborn child). It takes the courage of the martyrs, of truly convinced disciples of the Lord Jesus, to resist those kinds of temptations so as to “survive the time of great distress” in which we live—not that our age is any more challenging to Christians than the 1st century or any other age has been. But this is the time and the distress that we have to deal with. It takes courage to practice the virtues that Jesus teaches: fidelity to God above all; obedience; sexual purity; responsibility to our obligations; saying “yes” when we mean yes and “no” when we mean no; humility; kindness; generosity; etc.