[This is the third in a series of sermons in interpreting America in the 21st century in light of the Book of Revelation. The series will continue, monthly for about two years.]
Revelation 2:1-29—Shalom Mennonite Congregation—November 13, 2011
Imagine getting something by mail-order, say a computer, that you have to do some assembly on before you can use it, like maybe add some memory. You want to save some money and do it yourself. It seems so easy. And imagine that this computer and the memory chips come with instructions telling you how to install the memory. But then imagine you think you know what you are doing, so you don’t bother with the instructions. What might happen?
Well, I can imagine this scenario pretty easily, since I lived it. And what happened was that I tried to force the memory chip into place the wrong way and ended up breaking the memory chip holder. Not too bright.
I thought about that embarrassing memory as I was reflecting on the role that chapters 2 and 3 play in the book of Revelation. These chapters contain messages to seven churches in cities in northeastern corner of the Mediterranean. Most typically, these letters are read as our last moments of sanity before we enter into the craziness of Revelation’s visions. But we don’t usually think of them as the key to understanding the visions.
I think that’s what they are, though. The seven messages are kind of the instructions for understanding the rest of the book. To interpret the visions without paying close attention to the letters is like my trying to install the memory in my new computer without looking at the instructions.
So, today and in my next sermon I want to reflect on the seven messages as giving us a window into what comes later. These messages provide our interpretive key for the book as a whole. They tell us what John’s urgent concerns were and they tell us what purposes the wild and crazy visions to come will serve.
Let me first read an abbreviated version of chapter two, the first four messages. As I am reading, think about what they might be telling us about the purpose of Revelation. What do you think John’s agenda might include based in these messages?
These are words from Jesus:
To the angel of the church at Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands: I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers. I also know that you are enduring patiently for the sake of my name. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love that you had at first. Remember from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.
And to Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life: I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.
And to Pergamum write: These are the words of him who has a sharp two-edged sword: I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, who was killed among you. But I have a few things against you: you have some who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication. So you also have some who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.
And to Thyatira write: These are the words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire and whose feet are like burnished bronze. I know your works—your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. Your last works are greater than the first. But I have this against you: you tolerate Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. She refuses to repent. Beware I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress. But to those who do not hold this teaching, I say, hold fast to what you have until I come. To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end, I will give authority over the nations; to rule them with an iron rod. To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star.
So, what do you think John is concerned about?…
John’s Main Concern: Negotiating Living in Empire
In general, I think John’s main concern is with how the people in the churches will negotiate living in the Roman Empire—the visions that follow will in their own creative ways repeat what John conveys here: confrontation to those who too easily find themselves at ease in Babylon (that is, in the empire) and comfort to those who have sought to follow the way of the Lamb and have suffered because of that.
We might get some wrong impressions from a quick reading of these messages. We might think that when Jesus condemns “fornication” he is concerned with sex. We might think the reference to the “synagogue of Satan” is about Judaism. And we might think that what’s at stake here are religious beliefs. Well, it’s a bit more complicated.
“Fornication” is an old prophetic metaphor for when the community of faith in the Old Testament turned from the ways of Torah—trusting in idols, wealthy people exploiting the vulnerable, trusting in weapons of war. To “commit fornication” in this figurative way is to forget the call to justice, to forget the call to compassion, to forget the call to care for those in need—to forget that true worship is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.
The reference in the message to Smyrna seems to pit Christians against Jews. But that is not actually the case. John and other Christians would have thought of themselves as Jews. The conflict here is not between Christians and non-Christians but between two different ways of envisioning being the people of God. What was at stake was their attitude toward the empire. This charge—and John puts some sharp words into Jesus’ mouth in these message—of being a “synagogue of Satan” has to do with being too tight with the empire, which is linked elsewhere in Revelation with the Dragon, the great snake, that is, Satan.
The city of Pergamum, we are told, is where “Satan’s throne” is—Satan’s throne being a major regional center for emperor worship. In John’s view, the Roman Empire is a force for evil in the world, not a representative of the true God as it claimed. Partly, the empire—to use Paul’s language—sought to separate believers from God. It did that in many ways, but probably most fundamentally by its ideology of power as domination. Rome was ruthless, nations and peoples who did not go along were crushed—witness the thousands of Jews who were crucified by the empire before and after Jesus’ execution.
So, what’s at stake here in these messages is most of all the politics of empire versus the politics of the Kingdom of God, the politics of Babylon versus the politics of the New Jerusalem. To which vision of ways humans relate to one another will those in the churches commit themselves? Certainly, these are religious commitments—but not religion as doctrinal belief or rituals so much as religion linked inextricably with social ethics. How do believers negotiate empire?
The Empire’s Threat to Faith
John is deeply concerned with the powerful currents in his culture that push believers to forget Jesus’ way of being in the world. The empire gives the message that it does represent the gods and that because of this its power is to be feared and accepted as definitive. The villains in the messages to the seven churches, though, are not the beast and dragon, the false prophet and Babylon. No, the villains are people in the churches who advocate cooperation with empire.
The characters from the Old Testament, Balaam and Jezebel, were notorious for persuading those in Israel to turn away from faithfulness to the ways of Torah toward the ways of domination. One telling story, from 1 Kings, shows Jezebel, an outsider to Israel not bound to Torah, persuading her husband, Israel’s king Ahab, to seize a vineyard he wants simply because he has the power to. As we learn, though, this vineyard was part of the inheritance system that was meant to protect future generations from landlessness and poverty—core concerns of Torah. Jezebel’s influence turned Ahab away from justice, away from shalom.
This is what John sees happening in these churches, too—leaders, teachers, influential people claiming that working in harmony with the wishes of the empire was totally appropriate for the faith community. They could go to the public religious services, do business, gain wealth and status, identify with the values of the empire—and then come back to their churches for a time of private worship. Rome says that’s fine—we in the churches should accept this too.
So what John sets to do in what follows in Revelation is try to show what is really going on when followers of Jesus accept this drive to accommodate. When you accommodate to your culture, he says, you actual accommodate with the beast, with the dragon, with Satan himself. In a later vision, he will state starkly why this is a problem. At the end of a list of all the fine things that Rome produces and that are apparently being enjoyed by followers of Balaam and Jezebel in the churches is this jarring reminder: the merchants also traffic in slaves—and human lives (18:13). And in Rome is found “the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slaughtered on earth” (18:24).
This is the negative part of John’s agenda—to confront those who seek to accommodate, who seek to keep the message of the gospel to the private corners of their lives, who find the comfort and security that getting along with Rome promises. The “peace of Rome” is built on the bones of “all who have been slaughtered on earth.” This is not genuine peace, but systemic violence of the most unjust and oppressive kind.
John’s Postive Agenda
But John’s bigger agenda is positive. John seeks to convey a message of hope and encouragement. Resist the beast, refuse to accommodate, keep the gospel as central to all elements of your lives—and you will celebrate with the Lamb and with the multitudes who follow him.
The messages contain threats, some strong threats. I’ll reflect on those more in my next sermon. More importantly, they contain promises. A key motif throughout the book is the call to “conquer,” to be victorious (the Greek word here for “victory” is niké). This is the heart of Revelation’s message: there are two fundamental ways to conquer: one is to conquer through overwhelming force; the second is to conquer through persistent love. One is to cause the other to suffer; the second is what Gandhi called self-suffering.
The messages promise that those who conquer in the same way Jesus conquered—through persistent love and self-suffering—will be vindicated. The conquerors from Ephesus will “eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God”—an allusion to the tree of life in the New Jerusalem in chapters 21 and 22 that will heal the nations. The conquerors from Smyrna will “not be harmed by the second death”—an allusion to the embrace into eternal life by God at the Great White Throne of judgment in chapter 20. The conquerors from Pergamum will be given manna and a white stone that gives them entry into the New Jerusalem. And the conquerors from Thyatira will be given the morning star, an allusion to the final reference in the book of Revelation to Jesus, who is called the morning star (22:16).
The message to the church at Smyrna captures Revelation’s notion of power quite clearly. “I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich” (2:9). You are weak but really you are powerful. The corollary point is that the Empire that seems so almighty and hence attractive to the Jezebels and Balaams, actually is weak in its apparent strength.
Power in Weakness
The political philosopher Hannah Arendt about fifty years ago wrote about how violence actually is powerless. “Power and violence are opposites,” she wrote. “Where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Therefore, to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant.” Arendt held that power is created not when some people coerce others but when they willingly take action together in support of common purposes. She stated that “while violence can destroy power, it can never become a substitute for it.” Then she added a sentence that perfectly captures the experience of the United States in the world this past generation: “From this results the by no means infrequent political combination of force and powerlessness, an array of impotent forces that spend themselves often spectacularly and vehemently but in utter futility” (from Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World).
The problem in the churches of Revelation is that some influential people bought the claims of empire to be truly powerful and argued that Christians should accommodate to those claims. Later on, in chapter 13, John will see visions that illustrate just how impressive Rome’s power seemed—but the visions reveal that power not to be life-giving power as claimed by Rome (and those in the churches who wanted to be at home in the empire) but rather to be satanic power, the power of domination and death. But still, it’s overwhelming—“Who is like the beast and who can stand against it?”
Here we find one of our big challenges in thinking about the message of Revelation. How much does this portrayal of empire as beastly apply to our context in 21st century America? How much does the challenge about accommodation apply to 21st century American Christians? Where do we find communities of creative resistance such as the church in Smyrna that was, because of its patient endurance in the way of the Lamb “rich” even amidst its affliction and poverty?
Certainly some elements of American Christianity run the risk of being all too like the civil religion of the Roman Empire that blessed wars and militarism and economic exploitation of the periphery of the empire that further enriched the wealthy core.
Maybe Christianity as a religion has become so linked with empire, at least in our society, that we might look outside the organized church to find Smyrnan-like creative resistance in our day—places that cultivate suspicion of coercive power, places that embrace cooperative power, places that provide human-scale alternatives to profit-driven corporate economics.
I thought a bit about this, and came up with a few, partly whimsical, examples of ways of resistance. The alternative TV news show Democracy Now over against, say, CBS or Fox News. The Friendly City Food Co-op over against, say, Walmart or Food Lion. The Dogfish Head Brewery over against, say, Budweiser. Park View Federal Credit Union over against, say, Bank of America. The family-run Taco stand on Reservoir Street over against, say, Taco Bell. Kathleen Temple Tailor over against, say, Target. The War Resisters League over against the Pentagon.
When we Christians embrace the message of Revelation, that we “conquer” with cooperative power, not coercive power, I can see us moving in two directions at the same time. One direction is to work within the churches to call our tradition back to its biblical roots—that those who confess Jesus would seek, in his name, to embody his way of creative resistance to the ways of empire. The second direction is happily to join with all others of good will outside the churches who seek life, who find true power in joining together in myriad ways to resist, to celebrate, and to encourage. Amen.