Given May 8, 2022
If you’ve noticed, our readings on Sundays during Easter take on a different format. Only the Psalm stays in its consistent space. Instead of having something from the Old Testament, something from the New, and a Gospel reading, we are following a different pattern, which will continue until Pentecost at the beginning of June: a reading from Acts, a reading from Revelation, and a reading from the Gospel of John.
There is a reason these particular books are used during the season of Easter. They are all revelatory. The book of Acts expands upon Jesus’ works, showing how the disciples took up Jesus’ ministry. It’s a pretty obvious choice for the season following the resurrection, as we look at how Jesus was alive in the apostles and is alive in us today.
The Gospel of John is a book of signs and symbols, it is the Gospel where Jesus talks the most, always trying to teach the disciples how they are to relate to him and to God. It’s important to note that the format of the Gospel of John is very intentional, it’s part of the writing structure. In order for Jesus to reveal more, Jesus has to have an adversary. The leaders of the temple take on that role, often simply being labeled as “the Jews”. These are the people who don’t get what Jesus is saying, and having those characters allows Jesus to expand upon his teaching. All throughout the gospel Jesus and ‘the Jews” interact, with Jesus repeating over and over, “You don’t get it, but here’s more about what I’m saying.” It’s a pattern of debate that helps the reader learn more about Jesus’ nature and character. It’s not something to be used to club Jewish people over the head with, nor is it meant to create fear in the hearts of Christians, forcing us to try and prove that we’re part of Jesus’ elect, that we’re going to make it to heaven. It’s a specific style of writing. The question of our passage is not whether we’re Jesus’ sheep or not, it’s whether we are listening to his voice. The call today is to listen to Jesus’ voice, to let Jesus be our shepherd, because Jesus can guide us even in the valley of the shadow of death.
The book of Revelation helps us on that path of listening, helping us envision a different world, one in which God reigns. Revelation is either beloved or hated, something that has both embarrassed and comforted the Church since its writing, barely making the cut to become part of the Christian Bible. More recently, it became a great text of fear of anxiety, as new theologies about the rapture developed in the 1800’s. Revivals swept across the United States and large groups of people began to believe that Jesus could indeed come back tomorrow. Some preachers turned to Revelation to help them interpret when Jesus would return and a few of those preachers even began to declare dates of Christ’s return. Theological wheels turned and new ideas were formed. Rapture and the end times became part of American Christianity before eventually going global. But the end times were never the central message of Revelation.
Revelation is a vision filled with symbols, a work meant to inspire hope in poor, oppressed people who were being slaughtered by the empire, to give them some sense of justice in an unjust world. There are certainly some weird and fear inspiring elements in Revelation. I understand the impulse to turn this into movies and how it inspired the Left Behind series. But our passage today points to the heart of John the revealer’s vision, the reason why he wrote this all down. John is telling this community that all those who have been murdered by the state, all the loved ones they have lost, are with God. They are not lost. They are not forgotten. They rejoice at God’s throne forever. The vision continues and concludes that someday, God will reign over the earth, that the justice they desire will come to pass. There will be a new heaven and a new earth, the old one with all its pain and injustice will pass away. God has been with them through it all and they are now at God’s side.
I love Revelation because despite all its weirdness, its scenes of violence which sometimes seem to be in conflict with Jesus’ message, there are all these songs of glory to God and to the Lamb. Before the passage we hear today, all the peoples of the tribes of Israel, everyone who follows God is given the seal of the living God, the promise of redemption. They are forever God’s. They then gather as a great multitude that no one could count, and they wave branches of victory. They declare that salvation has come. This is before dragons and beasts show up, before the great war. There is a declaration of victory before the battle has even begun. The same thing happens in the Gospels. The victory of God is proclaimed with the waving of palm branches before Jesus enters Jerusalem and is crucified. Why is victory declared? Not because any battle is won. Sometimes fights are lost. Sometimes injustice wins. But victory is declared because we know that if we endure, if we continue to follow Christ, being led by God’s way, the way against injustice and corruption, God wins.
The fight is won not on the battlefield but in the sealing of God’s love upon our hearts. We are given examples, those who have given their lives for the sake of the gospel. They aren’t considered saints because they died. They are considered saints because when they were given the choice between following unjust ways of oppression or following God’s way of justice, they chose God. They didn’t give in, even when they were sometimes literally fed to the lions. I’m not sure I could do that, but they did.
Their stories remind me of other stories, of people standing up against the unjust and corrupt powers of this world. People like Harriet Tubman going back over and over again to bring others out of the barbarities of captivity and enslavement. Or abolitionist, suffragist, and pacifist Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic, along with her famous Mother’s Day proclamation calling for a day for women across the globe to join together for world peace. The day for peace never became a part of our national Mother’s Day observance, but she stood up and asked mothers of all nationalities to band together and promote peace because she was done sending husbands and sons to war. She wanted peace and freedom for all.
These stories remind me of every single person who has to fight against injustice today, as the unjust keep trying to limit who has rights. If we are led by the great shepherd, we can make it through. We can hear God’s voice, follow God’s ways, walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and fear no evil because God never leaves us.
We move forward holding the image of heaven in our hearts, knowing it is possible to bring it to earth. We listen to Jesus, our great shepherd, the Lamb who has led the way, and we declare that hunger should be no more, that we should all have life and health, that the sorrows of this life are passing away. We all have a part in that dream that God can turn into reality.
Where is your role in this? Not all of us are activists. Not all of us are politicians or spokespeople or the type of people who become famous. Some are, but not all. We don’t need to be anyone whom we are not. We simply need to follow the voice of our shepherd.
When I was in college, one of my friends shared about a woman at his church. They were taking spiritual inventories and trying to decide what they were called to do for Christ. There was a lot of pressure to do more for the congregation. The woman looked at everything and shared that she was called to take care of her disabled son. He needed a lot of help, and caretaking was a full time role for her. She declared that was God’s call to her, to love her son, to ensure he had the best life possible. She didn’t need to take on additional things. She had her calling.
I think of her often when I’m invited to do things I’m not sure about. Is it my calling? Is that what God is leading me to? Or are outside influences inviting me to take on too much? The voice of the Shepherd, the spirit of discernment is needed to help us. We are called, not to exhaust ourselves doing work that is not ours, but to abundant life. We all have a part in the vision of God, but we don’t have to take on all of them. God will provide.
May we follow those who have led the way, being brought along as the sheep of God, into ever closer relationship with God, being able to see in our minds’ eye the path towards true justice, the reign of God on earth. May we be able to picture the old world passing away and the new one coming. May we find our own parts on the pathway towards dignity for all. Amen.