Easter Sunday was once again glorious! How can you beat trumpet and timpani accompanying the organ as we sang “Christ the Lord is Risen Today?” It’s hard to move on from the glories of Easter Sunday, but the journey of faith must continue. As we go forward, the spirit of Easter remains with us as we worship the God who raised Jesus from the dead. Yes, to this God be glory and dominion forever!
The Book of Revelation is one of those books of the Bible that many find to be strange and even off-putting. Because the imagery and the language are so difficult to decipher, there have been many both ancient and modern who would like to evict it from the canon. Luther declared “It is just the same as if we had it not, and there are many far better books for us to keep.” Since the lectionary rarely offers the book, preachers rarely visit it. Despite the preachers mixed feelings, there is good news to be found in this book, and the creators of the lectionary set out a series of readings for this Easter season, which we will be exploring over the next few weeks!
One thing you will notice when you read through the Book of Revelation is that it centers on the worship of God. Even if you can’t make heads or tails of the apocalyptic imagery, it’s clear that the author of this last book of the New Testament wants us to go before the throne of God in worship. It is in that spirit of worship that John seeks to encourage his brothers and sisters in the faith as they face persecution.
According to the opening verses of Revelation, a man named John wrote to the seven churches of Asia from exile on the Island of Patmos. The recipients of this letter were facing a wave of persecution, and they might have been wondering whether God was paying attention. John answers their question by telling them to keep focused on the one who is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
As to why they were being persecuted, it would seem that the Roman Emperor had become concerned about this small but growing group of Christians who refused to call him “Lord and Savior.” Because they won’t swear allegiance to him, they’re having to pay the price with their lives. John writes to these churches, encouraging them to stand firm in their faith, because God is and will be faithful.
John addresses these churches in the name of the one “who is and who was and who is to come.” Yes, John speaks on behalf of the one who declares: “I am the Alpha and Omega.” What I hear from these statements is that God is faithful. Even when it seems like God has abandoned them, John wants them to remember that God has always been there and always will be there. Therefore, as people freed from their sins by Christ, they can claim their place as members of a kingdom of priests serving the God and Father of Jesus, the one who will return in the clouds in glory.
In making reference to the clouds, John offers us a moment of revelation when the curtain of heaven is drawn back and we get to see the heavenly things. Yes, we get to see Jesus coming back to judge the living and the dead – to borrow a phrase from Acts 10. In making this apocalyptic statement, John wants us to know that in the end Jesus will set things aright! So put your trust in God. Yes, even though things may look bad, God has promised that love and justice will prevail. Therefore, let us come before God in worship and give glory to God.
As a Christian living in the United States, I face very few restrictions on how I practice my faith. Christianity might not have as much clout as it once did, but it’s still the dominant religious force in America. In many places in this country, including this community, clergy will open official meetings with prayer. Most of the time this will be a Christian prayer. In fact I just signed up to pray for a city council meeting in late June.
Persecution isn’t something we experience, but the same can’t be said for Christians living in places like Iraq, Syria, and even Egypt. Christians living in what is the cradle of the Christian faith face the possibility that, at least in their homeland, they may become extinct. Some within these ancient Christian communities have died, some have converted to Islam, and many have fled. As confirmation of this reality, the State Department recently declared that ISIS is engaged in genocide.
While this ancient Christian community will not completely cease to exist, it must find shelter elsewhere in the world. In fact, many of these Christians have made their way to Southeast Michigan. That’s because we have strong Syrian, Chaldean, and Assyrian Christian communities in our area. This includes Troy. I believe that these Christians can identify with the words of John and find in them words of encouragement. Why? Because God is the Alpha and Omega. We can stand with them by praying for our sisters and brothers in the faith, and by speaking on their behalf to our political leaders. But remember that it’s not just Christians who are suffering. ISIS is no respecter of religion, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Druze, to name but a few of its targets.
As we remember these sisters and brothers in prayer, we come before God in worship. We worship God because we trust that God will be faithful to the covenant promises. The witness of the Old Testament is that even though God’s people fall short of their commitments, God will remain faithful.
When Moses asked God for God’s name, God simply declared “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). When it comes to God’s relationship with God’s people, God is ever faithful. God stood with Abraham and Sarah when they left home and traveled to a strange land. God was with Jacob and with Joseph. God told Moses that God would be with Moses and the people of Israel as they left Egypt and headed for the Promised Land. All that Moses needed to tell the people was that “I am who I am” has heard their cries! It is this same covenant-making God who raised Jesus from the dead, and in doing this conquered death for all creation.
This reading from Revelation is an invitation to live in the Easter faith. As Charles Reeb puts it, John called the letter’s recipients, along with us, to “live their Easter faith boldly, because all the struggles of the present life are simply a prelude to ‘feasting at the heavenly banquet’” [Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2, p. 395]. Now, I know that this may sound too flippant. After all, life presents many challenges to our faith in God. Despite those challenges, John invites us to enter into worship as priests of God. As we serve God, we will find strength for the journey. We may not have certainty, but we can live in a faith that is nurtured in worship.
Worship stands at the center of Easter faith, and the Book of Revelation is a book of worship. In fact, the Eastern Orthodox Churches look to the Book of Revelation for guidance in their worship. They believe that worship draws us into the heavenly realm. Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann writes that:
To be in the Spirit means to be in heaven, for the Kingdom of God is “joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.” And thus in the Eucharist it is He who seals and confirms our ascension into heaven, who transforms the Church into the body of Christ and—therefore—manifests the elements of our offering as communion in the Holy Spirit. [Schmemann. For the Life of the World (Kindle Locations 603-606). St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.]
Yes, to worship the Alpha and Omega is to be drawn into heaven. Therefore, as we partake of the Eucharist, we as the church experience transformation.
No matter what happens in life, whether good or not so good, we are reminded by John, that God is ever faithful to God’s promises. That is because God is the Alpha and the Omega. Therefore, glory be to the one who was, and who is, and who is to come!
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
April 3, 2016