Monday, April 22, 2013

Letting God's light illumine our path

In the first century AD, a now dead religion, Mithraism, was the Roman Empire's most popular religion. Adherents worshipped Mithra, a Persian, or in modern terms, Iranian, deity associated with Zoroastrianism. The Christian poet Prudentius left us a description of the initiation rite by which a new convert became incorporated into the Mithra community. Known as the taurobolum, the bath of bull's blood, the rite has had an obvious influence on Christian theology:

A trench was dug, over which was erected a platform of planks, which were perforated with holes. Upon this platform a sacrificial bull was slaughtered. Below the platform knelt the worshipper who was to be initiated. The blood of the slaughtered bull dripped through on to the worshipper below. He exposed his head and all his garments to be saturated with blood; and then he turned round and held up his neck that the blood might trickle upon his lips, ears, eyes, and nostrils; he moistened his tongue with the blood which he then drank as a sacramental act. He came out from this certain he was rematus in aeternum, reborn for all eternity.[1]

In this morning's reading from the Revelation of John, we heard an echo of that rite: "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." (7:14)

Christians did not devise their theology and rites ex nihilo, out of nothing. Had they done so, the religion would have been unintelligible to all but the instructed few. Instead, Christians appropriated and adapted ideas, images, and practices from their world, especially Judaism but also the wider Greco-Roman context.

Contemporary Christians who want to read the Bible, particularly a book like Revelation saturated with bewildering metaphors and images, have three choices. First, we can act like ostriches, excluding from sight and thought any information other than what we read in the Bible. Sometimes you may hear this approach described as viewing the Bible as self-interpreting. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the devout Christian, through intense and dedicated study focused only on the Bible, can supposedly understand what God is saying to God's people.

This approach almost invariably leads people to regard Revelation as a prophecy of impending tribulations, which eventually culminate in the establishment of the fullness of God's kingdom. When, as a college student, I stumbled across a book by twentieth century American religious entrepreneur Herbert Armstrong that claimed the Bible predicted the emergence of Great Britain and the United States, and that the battle of Armageddon would involve the Soviet Union, I realized the absurdity of believing that the Bible is self-interpreting. Incidentally, if you find Armstrong's ideas appealing, you might recall that the Soviet Union no longer exists and that Armstrong believed the Bible mandated triple tithing – that's right, giving 30% – to the Church.

We Episcopalians, like many other contemporary Christians, generally stick with a second option. We simply ignore those parts of scripture, like Revelation, that we find incomprehensible or problematic.

However, we do have a third choice. All Scripture has a historical context and human authors. The book of Revelation is no exception, written during a time of increasing persecution of Christians by the Roman authorities. The metaphors and images are not predictions of the future but encoded commentary on what Christians were then experiencing, as illustrated by the image of washing in the blood of the lamb to become clean and victorious. The image may seem absurd (washing in blood will never make anything white) or even revolting. But set in historical context, the image emphasizes that a Christian becomes a new person, whom God heals, loves, forgives, and fills with new life.

Rightly understood, Scripture provides us a prism that refracts the light of God's love, illuminating the Jesus path and empowering us to live in the present. When I reflect on this morning's lesson from Revelation, I perceive God's light helpfully illuminating our journeys and empowering us in at least three ways.

First, like the early Christians, we live in an age in which social forces oppose Christianity. Unlike the open and violent persecution of the first century, current opposition is more subtle, relying on social pressures and insisting upon a false dichotomy between science and religion, rather than violence. This opposition has taken a toll. The Church is greying – aging – much more quickly than is society as a whole. Each adult, including the former boys and girls, who in today's Rite 13 observance we celebrate as men and women, have to decide whether Christian community is worth their time, their talents, and their treasure.

Second, God relies upon the active involvement of God's people. Illustratively, in this morning's lesson, the people with white robes have washed their own robes. The lesson ends with a wonderful and hopeful vision in which people are no longer hungry, thirsty, homeless, or experience life as empty or meaningless (7:15-17). This transformation is salvific and, when we work with God, attainable in the present. Nativity's outreach programs afford many opportunities to work with God. It's not too late to volunteer next Sunday, following the 10:30 service, to help package 10,000 meals in a step to alleviate hunger.

Third, God's concern embraces the totality of creation. Over the centuries, generations of academic theologians and biblical scholars have advanced various theories about the identity of the angels and elders surrounding God's throne without a consensus emerging, perhaps because the Greek is vague.[2] My preferred interpretation is that the creatures around the throne symbolize all creation coming within the penumbra of God's care. Today, not coincidentally, is Earth Day, a time especially appropriate for emphasizing God's concern for all creation and our role as God's stewards, sharing with God in the ministry of reconciliation and creation care.

The prism of Scripture refracts at least three messages: a call to walk the Jesus path, allowing God to transform one; an invitation to join with God in bringing heaven to earth; and an affirmation of God's care for all creation. Where does the light lead you? Depending upon your identity and location, you may discern a very different message.
(Sermon I intended to preach on the Fourth Sunday of Easter at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC, before the Boston Marathon bombings occurred.)

[1] William Barclay, The Revelation of John, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), p. 33.
[2] J. Massyngberde Ford, Revelation, Anchor Bible series vol. 38, ed. W.A. Albright and D.N. Freedman (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), p. 123.

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