If our eyes are windows into our souls, then what do you make of John's soul? What do you make of the soul of John of Patmos . . . John the Revelator . . . John the Divine . . . John the Seer . . . author of the Book of Revelation? What do you make of the soul of the one who sees this vision of a new heaven and a new earth?
A lot has been made of this vision. The Book of Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, is the most contested and controversial book of the Bible. It is easily the most difficult . . . and it is the easiest to abuse.
Fourth century bishops argued heatedly against including it in the biblical canon and, in truth, it almost didn't make it. John Calvin, theologian and reformer, wrote about the Book of Revelation that he had, "grave doubts about its value." The German Reformer, Martin Luther, distained it. A nineteenth century agnostic, Robert Ingersoll, described the Book of Revelation as "the insanest of all books."
And yet, as scholar M. Eugene Boring has notedi, John's vision inspired a fabulous series of woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer, as well as Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, and Hubert and Jan van Eyck's Adoration of the Lamb in the Ghent altarpiece . . . one of Belgium's masterpieces and one of the great artistic treasures of the world.
Sir Isaac Newton was a student of the Book of Revelation, as were D. H. Lawrence, Dante Alighieri, Edmund Spencer, George Eliot, Thomas Hobbs and John Milton.
Scholars attest that the very form of the medieval cathedral, down to the smallest details, was influenced by the pattern of the heavenly city of Revelation 21 and 22.
On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson considered John's writing to be "nonsense" and "the ravings of a maniac."
But here's the thing, if you look into John's eyes, you will see the soul of a revolutionary. In spite of Jefferson's assessment of it, John's revelation bears a remarkable similarity to Jefferson's Declaration of Independence.
But first, if we are to see into John's eyes, to gain access to his soul, we need to locate him. John is alone, in a cave, on a small island in the Aegean Sea . . . the island of Patmos . . . an island to which he has been exiled by the Roman Empire.
Cut off entirely from human community and, in particular, from his beloved Christian sisters and brothers, John's revelation is first and foremost, a letter. It is no book at all; it is a letter written for and to seven particular churches… churches in the throes of persecution.
John's letter to those Christians is a defiant declaration of independence from Caesar. It was as stirring, as lofty, as courageous and dangerous in its day and time, as was in its day, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence from the King of Great Britain.
If you look deeply into John's eyes, you will that he looks across the Sea which isolates him from his beloved churches. Over on the mainland he sees what is happening to his Christian brothers and sisters. If you look into John's eyes, what you see is pain.
John's eyes are filled with images of Christians being arbitrarily rounded up, detained, and made to pledge allegiance to the emperor. Christians were made to proclaim: "Caesar is Lord!" which was a direct contradiction of the Christian confession that "Christ is Lord!" In addition and at the same time, these Christians were required to curse Christ.ii
John watches helplessly as Christians who comply are handed a certificate exempting them from persecution.
John watches helplessly as Christians who do not comply - who refuse to pledge allegiance to Caesar -- face anything from torture, to imprisonment, to exile, to death . . . and, at worst, all four in due season.
What is a Christian to do? Their choices are limited. iii
- They can quit being a Christian, which many are doing. The cost s too high; after all they have children to provide for, families to protect.
- They can lie. That is to say, they can confess publicly and aloud that Caesar is Lord, while maintaining in their heart of hearts that Christ is Lord. They can say one thing, and do another.
- They can take up arms and fight Rome. Except, they are pacifists!
- They can adjust by making room in their hearts and allegiances for both Jesus and Caesar. (This, by the way, is what perhaps the majority of Christians in the United States do: pledge allegiance simultaneously to Jesus and to the flag of the United States of America and the republic for which it stands . . . hoping against hope that Jesus and the US government are more or less aligned.)
- Finally, the Christians in the seven churches of Asia Minor can do what John urges them to do in his letter: they can refuse. They can resist. They can reserve their loyalty for Christ alone and, as John has done, they can face the consequences with courage and determination.
Why did this matter? Why risk one's life by confessing Christ? Why not simply pledge one's allegiance outwardly to Caesar and then quietly go about one's day as a Christian: humming hymns under one's breath, sharing bread and cup with others, hearing and telling the stories of Jesus?
Why does this matter so much? Here's why. Pledging allegiance to Caesar as God and to the Roman Empire, meant pledging allegiance to a way of life ordered by and dependent upon violence - the violence of armies, soldiers and weapons . . . the way of empire is the way of violence.
It meant pledging allegiance to a society ordered by class distinction, by wealth, privilege and patriarchy.
These were repugnant to the early Christians. Anathema! The early Christians to whom John wrote his letter were pacifists. They were committed to a radical re-ordering of community. They recognized slaves and slave owners, men and women, Roman citizen and alien, Jew and Gentile as equals.
The Christians ordered their lives around ethical commitments with political consequences . . . commitments that the Empire experienced as treasonous.
The burden of the Book of Revelation is to implore frightened, threatened Christians to hold fast to, to give witness to this extraordinary way of life that threatened empire.
The Book of Revelation is John's best argument for why Christians in the seven churches (located on the Western coast of what is today's Turkey) . . . should nurture a courageous and defiant loyalty to Christ alone. He sees a glorious, shining city in which people live under the rule of Christian ethics.
John's vision was in its day and way as defiant, as lofty, as perilous and courageous as was Jefferson's Declaration of Independence from Great Britain.
But here's the difference: The thirteen colonies were willing to engage in violent combat to assert their independence. The early Christians were not.
The thirteen colonies were simply creating a new form of empire, exchanging one for the other. An over simplification? Perhaps so, in some of our eyes, but not in the eyes of these early Christians to whom John was writing.
The early Christians, on the other hand, were engaged in the establishment of a polis, a city state, one that did not and could not rely upon either force or class distinction; a polis arranged around the principles of peace, justice, equality, abundance . . . a polis ordered around the commitments of the heart of Jesus. Talk about all things new!
John's letter is not addressed to us. It is not addressed to Christians in North America in the 21st century. In many ways it is so foreign that it appears to have little to say to us, other than its value as a part of Christian history.
On the other hand, there are similarities between the circumstances faced by Christians in Asia Minor in the latter half of the first century and Christians in the United States who have just entered the second decade of the 21st century.
The Christians to whom John wrote were in the throes of tumultuous times . The empire was troubled by wars. Nero's tyranny and death were still fresh in their memories. They had experienced the instability of three different emperors in two years. There was broad famine among the poor and most of the Christians of that time were poor. They were in the midst of a long season of earthquakes, including the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 . . . which destroyed two significant Roman cities and killed between 10,000 and 25,000 people. Not least, in the midst of all of this instability and insecurity, Christians were often the targets of persecution.
John lived and wrote in a pre-Christian world . . . a world in which Christians were considered anything from a laughing stock, to treasonous, to pathetic.
We live in a post-Christian world . . . but also in tumultuous times.iv Our nation is troubled by wars and our world is troubled by terror . . . as well as by a devastating and growing division between poor and rich. There is famine across the globe. In this nation schools are in crisis. The youth in our cities are shooting each other, and shooting up. Glaciers are in catastrophic retreat and icebergs are melting. And, on top of all of this, the Christian faith is often misused, misunderstood . . . both by Christians and by others. The simple faith of our pacifist leader, of Jesus, has been used as a rallying cry for such horrors as pogroms and crusades and slavery.
In this midst of all of this, it is the purpose and aim of each Christian Church to at least hint at the new heaven and the new earth John sees in his vision.
It is our intention in this Christian community, to practice radical allegiance to Christ . . . to order ourselves in such a way that there is among us no fundamental distinction between rich and poor, male and female, straight and gay, educated and illiterate, black and white, red, brown and yellow, immigrant and citizen.
It is our intention to be peace-makers who are governed by the practices of forgiveness and gentleness. There is no entrance fee here. We open the doors to this house and home of God seven days a week. Each Sunday morning and Thursday evening we offer food, both to the well fed and to the hungry . . . and we offer warmth, beauty, music, fellowship and hospitality to each and all …without regard to station or circumstance. In addition, we pool our collective resources to provide material as well as spiritual assistance and sustenance to those in need.
As the calendar turned the page from 2009 to 2010, this reading appears in the lectionary.
John's vision and John's soul intrude themselves upon us. The challenge and rigors, the costs and consequences of the Christian life is thrown, like a gauntlet all the way from the small island of Patmos.
I wonder what others see of our souls when the look into our eyes? Can others see reflected in our lives glimpses of the new heaven and the new earth to which John's vision invites us? Can they?
i. Boring, M. Eugene. REVELATION: Interpretation, a Bible Comentary for Teaching and Preaching, John Know Press, Louisville (1989), p.61
ii. Ibid. p. 13
iii. Ibid. p. 21
iv. Ibid. p. 60