I preached this sermon at Universalist National Memorial Church, on May 5, 2019 with the lectionary texts from the Revelation of John and the Gospel of John.
I extemporize parts of the service, which are not present here apart from my opening aside, which I reconstructed from memory. The title, drawn from John, was meant to have a meaning, but didn’t in the final writing.
I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for having me back this rainy Eastertide morning and thank you for welcoming me back.
[I’m going to break from my notes a moment and point out a few things in this church. It preaches though silent. There’s an inscription on the back of the wall of the chancel. It’s hard to read but has a version of one of the lines in today’s responsive reading: “God is love, and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God and God in him.” (1 John 4:16). Along the chancel rail, you have images of the four “living creatures” which are customarily associated with the four gospel-writers, and you’ll find these four on the chancel-wall cross and in the archway over the front door of the church. The furthest stained glass window on the pulpit side — the one with the gold ring and the sprig of leaves — is associated with the text from the Revelation of John, “the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations.” (22:2). That was the text I preached here the Sunday after 9/11, a word of hope.
So if you find yourself tuning out, let the building preach.]
Today’s lessons from the Gospel of John and the Revelation of John have in common — as you might guess — John. Or, it’s more accurate to say they share a theological outlook.
But the closer I got to them, the more I realized there was something about them that both excited and bothered me.
And I realized that this was not my specialty, and that it’s been twenty-five years since I took my New Testament course in seminary, and I have to continually got my head around this.
So let’s start with basics. (Everybody who knows this has to learn this at one time.)
The New Testament is a set of twenty-seven documents written roughly between the 50s and about the 120s, so in the two generations after Jesus’ life and ministry. The four gospels are the longest and best known of these documents; they’re not biographies or histories as we know them, but rather a kind of hero tale that would have been familiar in the time of the Roman Empire. They concern the life, ministry, death and post-death experience of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles, conventionally read in this Easter season, is essentially a sequel to the Gospel of Luke and continues the story in the experience of the earliest Church. The documents are in the form of letters, either true letters from one person to a particular community, or “general” or public letters. The Revelation of John is written is if it were a letter to the seven churches of Asia Minor, in today’s Turkey.
Early Christians wrote many documents, including many gospels; that is, works is the gospel genre, but later influential Christians considered four “canonical” or worthy of being a rule of faith. There’s long been a whiff of conspiracy around these other Gospels, and sometimes they’re described as being hidden or suppressed. but I think they’re hidden or suppressed in the same way those ugly dishes or scratchy blankets that a dear relative once gave you: you know they’re there and you just don’t want to have to deal with them.
In fact, apart from the Gospel of Thomas — which is really a collection of sayings of Jesus — most are pretty loopy. Others are very late, and do not represent an authentic tradition of the apostle, Jesus’ core appointed leaders. It’s hard to take a gospel seriously when you know who wrote it. Because he’s, like, over there.
The Infancy Gospel of Thomas — not to be confused with the Gospel of Thomas — is an extreme example. It’s the one where Jesus make clay birds come to life and then kills other children because they bothered him but it’s OK because he brings them back to life. You know: normal Jesus stuff.
The gospels and other texts we have were chosen early on because the have the voice of authenticity and authority to them. Besides those wild gospels, other practical but later works didn’t make the cut. If you look online for New Testament Apocrypha you can find all you could ever want.
But it’s not like the four gospels are mirror images of one another. They are four versions, often of the same events, with different focuses. Mark is the shortest and probably the oldest. It’s missing events we take for granted, like Jesus’ birth. Luke focuses on secret knowledge, while Matthew is the most tied to Jewish concepts. But despite these differences, there’s enough overlap between these three that they look on the same events, and are not wholly dissimilar. Indeed, Matthew and Luke seem to depend on Mark; for this reason the first three gospels are known as the Synopics, meaning they “look together.”
The Gospel of John is not like that. It’s about 90% unlike the others (though perversely our passage today seems to depend on Luke.) So, for example, instead of Christmas narrative it has a theological prologue: “In the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
The Gospel of John tracks its own path, with the three letters of John and the Revelation of John are collectively known as Johannine literature, which is where we started. This is not to say they are all written by the same person, and hat’s not controversial: Christians since the second century have figured that out. But there are similarities of outlook that holds them together, and we’ll get to that later.
But like the apostle Paul with his emphasis on sin, the Gospel of John has a bad reputation in liberal churches.
I think there’s two reasons for this. First, the synoptic gospels are earlier. Being a closer witness to Jesus and his ministry matters. It’s that same attitude that the early church applied to post-apostolic writings, and I get that. John is later and different. It’s also less practical. With the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, for instance, you get a sense of what you should do. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Be a peacemaker. It’s practical and approachable in its own way. John is less about doing and more about being, and its meaning isn’t clear.
But there’s another reason we might be uncomfortable with John: we might sense that we’re reaching a limit of what’s acceptable. And a lot of that problem is what we bring to the reading of these text as our cultural inheritance.
Let’s also be plain about Christians for century have made targets of Jews, and have very often used texts from John to justify terrible violence. The community that produced these material were probably expelled from their synagogues, and might have been bitter and hurt for it. The relationship between Judaism and Christianity isn’t the same then as now. Both were periods of rapid transition. From its own perspective, the separation from a Jewish identity was not anti Jewish, much like a much less anti-Semitic in our modern use of the word.
But a lot of Christians who followed in the generations to our own have used the Gospel of John as a blunt weapon against Jews. And so we have to be very careful when we introduce these texts in our worship do so carefully. I’m unapologetic that I will remove or trim ratings in order to take out a phrase that means something very different to us today than it did when it was written.
The text is associated with Holy Week just passed or some of the hardest to deal with, and that’s why in place of the usual Good Friday text from John, I was glad to see Pastor Gatton use the text from Luke instead. It’s reading aloud is less likely to put casual readers on edge when emotions are prone to be high.
Another problem with Johannine literature is much older: it’s association with, and approval by, Gnostics. in these tolerant and pluralistic days is easy to overlook how dangerous Gnostic seemed. I think it’s because we’ve lost the sense of how powerful ideas can be, although that hasn’t really changed. Ideas are as powerful as ever, which means that some ideas are necessarily harmful.
Gnostics fall into that category. They have strong dualistic view of existence. Light and darkness are real, separate and irreconcilable. Spirit and matter are real, separate and irreconcilable. And the spirit is good in the matter is evil. The Gnostic views our physical bodies, our material world and the created order itself is something tragic. What Gnostics are described as having an equal regard for men and women, it’s because physical existence of self is equally bad I’m so how could you distinguish between them? It doesn’t read like approval to me, indeed when I think of Gnostics I think of the great sadness they must be towards the world. Any beauty or comfort or desire would have to be a delusion, or worse something misleading and diabolical.
Their hatred (or fear or rejection) of the material world. Not being able to love trees or mountains; birds or beasts; their hunger or their food; the sky and the stars; their bodies and their growth, even aging and dying. They hate the non-spiritual, and hate living itself, subordinating everything to the spiritual. And that moves me to tears.
I’ve come to love the Revelation of John, who is not fashionable in the liberal tradition. It’s wild, erratic, based on visions, is full of wild imagery and (most of all) is apocalyptic. Liberal Christian grows well in better-tended garden, one less wild and without the threat of sudden and inextricable change. But who doesn’t? Even the early church wasn’t sure the book — framed as letter — belonged in the canon of the New Testament.
It was probably a coded taketown of the Roman empire exactly at the time when it was most dangerous to do so. In the nineteenth century, it became
But it’s precisely that wild visionary view that gives the words of the Revelation their power. It was probably a coded taketown of the Roman empire exactly at the time when it was most dangerous to do so.
It’s this otherworldiness found in Revelation that helps us understand the Gospel of John. They belong to the same “school of writing” if not the same author, and are known collectively as Johannine literature.
Be careful in your dealings with people, yourself included. Be wise in your dealings with people, yourself included. Above all, be loving in your dealings with people, yourself included.
Seek that spirit that goes where it will, and be conscious of where it is taking you, for just because it seems to be of God, doesn’t mean that it is.
And lastly, look that the opportunities that God has given you with a questioning mind. What is the truth in this moment? What details am I missing? What other perspectives might there be? Does your understanding of our shared experience differ? Maybe my understanding or your understanding has a greater portion of the truth, and with wise discernment we can try to tell the difference.