SERMON PREACHED AT ALL SAINTS’, CHARLEVILLE
FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER (9th May) 2004
As the gospel spread out into the Roman empire it generated both enormous interest and enormous response, as Luke constantly reminds us in Acts, and increasingly attracted antagonism. The Christians soon came to be seen no long as a wild and woolly Jewish sect, but as an intolerable and atheistic movement; it was seen to be atheistic because when pushed its adherents would not worship the gods of Rome. When troubled times, natural calamity such as storm, drought, fire or earthquake, struck Roman communities a scapegoat was quickly provided: the gods were angry because the Christians would not worship them. It was no easy or comfortable time to be a Christian.
It was inevitable, then, that the Christian community sought comfort. They were now hated, or at best scornfully tolerated, by Jews and Romans alike. In many places they were barred from trading rights, and forced to rely on others more fortunate than themselves within the faith community. “See how they love each other” was as much a curse as a remark of admiration. Some under pressure gave up their faith, as the conclusion of this chapter of Revelation (21) makes clear. Many more however did not.
In part this was because of writers such as John of Patmos. Like Mark and Daniel before him (and others whose writings have come to be known to us from outside the sources that we use in worship) he turned to the language of apocalyptic. He knew that his people were going to need inspiration if they were going to maintain their faith in times of trouble. He uses language of heaven and hell, of the saved and the damned, to inspire his community to stand firm through all that befell them. This was not language predicting the coming antichrist in centuries to come; this was the language that recognized that persecution is in itself the inevitable outcome of the refusal of the faithful to worship the gods of Rome.
Nor should we play lightly, as I have mentioned before, with the language of the apocalypse. Here is the vision to end all visions
I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
This was language designed to encourage the faithful. It was not, as it is now often used, to strike fear into the hearts of the outsiders, though they too might tremble at the suggestion of a God unfazed by the gods of Rome. This was not language designed to make 21st century Christians tremble at the imminent coming of Christ, but to make second century Christians stand tall in the face of the machinery of one of history’s most brutal empires. This does not tell us about George Bush and Osama bin Laden but about the Caesars and the Christians and the Jews.
But the message is timeless – and there is no doubt that it is timely. As images reach us of horrendous action on both sides of bitter hatreds unfolding in Iraq, even many of those who supported the coalition of the willing – and I am not one of them – are wondering what sort of demons are being unleashed in the sands of that far off nation.
Ultimately the vision of a new heaven and a new earth tells of a time when the puzzles of Patmos no less than those of Fallujah will be over. They tell of a time, to borrow Paul’s words, when Christ shall be all in all. They tell of a time when there will be no need for politicians to lie, nor need of interreligious hatred, when the mysteries of our faith will be unravelled and visible to all:
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more
for the first things have passed away.
This is the hope that some of us are called to continue to cling to now, as in every age, when the mysteries of politics and of hatreds and of prejudice become unimaginably entwined. As we cling to the words of hope we are called out to speak for compassion and justice and Christlikeness – expecting to find it not in the face of politicians but in the face of God.