Seeing Jesus 2017:
Third Sunday of Easter · Sunday, April 30, 2017
Reading: Revelation 21:1-8
Rev. Gerald C. Liu, Ph.D.
Sermon began with a series of questions to the congregation:
[Congregation provided answers here and in the following queries.]
I. What do you love about New York City?
II. What do you loathe about New York City?
III. What do you love about church?
IV. What do you loathe about church?
V. What do you think of when I say Revelation?
Well, Revelation and note that it’s Revelation (singular, no s), never mentions being left-behind or the Antichrist. The rapture isn’t a part of the story. So, we can’t dismiss it because of that association.
The rapture is a 19th century invention that probably began with a 15-year-old, Margaret MacDonald, who had a vision in a healing service at Port Glasgow in Scotland in 1830. That vision was adopted and made popular as a master plan for all time by John Nelson Darby, a British evangelical preacher who came to America several times between 1859-1877. Darby claimed that God came in dispensations or intervals of time and dealt with people differently in each interval. But Revelation isn’t about dispensations either (Barbara K. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, 2005).
Today’s passage describes a city loved by God. It comes to us from Revelation, a letter to churches loved by God.
For those of us familiar with Revelation, we probably don’t think of it as a letter to churches loved by God. And we’re probably wary of what it has to say. That’s okay. When it first came on the scene, Greek and Syriac Churches held it in suspicion. But the Latin churches readily adopted it. What I want to suggest this morning is however we feel about Revelation, for our age of political, cultural, economic, military, and religious extremism, Revelation reveals an uncompromising vision of God’s faithfulness for us.
Check it out. The first words that God speaks in chapter one (v. 11) are, “write in a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.” And in the very last chapter (22), before Jesus says he is coming soon, he declares, “It is, I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this witness for the churches, I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” Revelation is a letter of hope for churches.
And it’s designed to be heard. As strange as it sounds, all of us ought to read, sing, dance, or act Revelation aloud to one another as a devotional practice or small group exercise. Don’t worry too much about getting it. None of us do. But if we listen to it, and it’s possible to binge read all of it in a couple of hours, we’ll see that it’s about how the future of God should inspire our faithfulness today.
Now, we aren’t Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, or Laodicea. We’re Church of the Village. We’re part of the United Methodist Church. And in Newark on Friday, a United Methodist judicial council decided that the consecration of the United Methodist Church’s first openly gay bishop, Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, violated church law. A bishop is a spiritual boss of a region of churches. Their ruling was correct according to United Methodist polity. But there are higher laws than those of the United Methodist Church.
In its day, Revelation railed against the law of the land, the Roman Empire, most likely the reign of Domitian, and an Asian society supportive of his rule (Wilfrid J. Harrington, Revelation [Sacra Pagina Series], 2008). For Revelation, Jesus was the one true ruler of all time, not the imperial cult. Revelation made the point with disturbing depictions of human sexuality, marriage, imperialism, animality, and extreme violence that read more like hallucination (Stephen D. Moore, Untold Tales from the Book of Revelation: Sex and Gender, Empire and Ecology, 2014). But for all of its provocative and impenetrable prose, Revelation assures its readers that God will make good on what God has promised.
In Revelation 21, God promises to dwell with the children of God and to wipe away every tear. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also, he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
And strikingly, just before those verses, the covenant of marriage frames the promises of Revelation. Take a look at verse 21:2 on your phones or if you have a Bible nearby. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. For some of us, the marriage imagery here is troubling. But I’d like us to see it as another opening to situate Revelation as a letter of hope to churches. What Revelation envisions, We get to enact. We display in this life how the words of God are trustworthy and true.
Bishop Oliveto is a native of Long Island (born on Good Friday). She’s an alumna of where I used to teach - Drew University. She’s married to Robin Ridenour, a nurse anesthetist and church deaconess. And the judicial council of the United Methodist church cited her marriage as proof that she was a self-avowed practicing homosexual and therefore disqualified her from being a bishop because her sexuality violates church law.
But what the judicial council missed is how her election as a bishop gives us another picture of the future of God. She’s not the new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven to marry a celestial husband. But she embodies people of the new Jerusalem, residents of a city loved by God, who in their expressions of fidelity to congregational ministry and matrimony show us how God makes things new. In other words, the scandalous consecration of Bishop Oliveto helps us see Jesus in 2017 by making visible how God calls us to move beyond restrictions that stifle the future of God’s worldwide redemption.
I also see Revelation insisting that in the end we can’t save ourselves or bring enduring justice. We might embody Christ now, but we aren’t the Lamb of God. That Lamb is on the way. The living Christ has come & is coming back to save. Simply put, we need God. And I see a glimpse of what it looks like to long for God and a new world right here in COTV. Didn’t we just pray: “Christ is risen. The home of God is among mortals. And God will be with us.” We can also design and build more durable ways to reform the UMC than to ignore the Book of Discipline. Maybe we write our own church law or form another Methodist expression. Or, realize that faithfulness is more than being Methodist. Either way, we’ll never get it completely right. So, whether the Newark decision infuriates, disappoints, or depresses us (or all three), or even if we agree with it, God will do what needs to be done, alongside and in spite of our efforts.
Consider the evils burned up in the lake of fire in verse 8. We could dismiss it as caricature or just crazy. Or, we could see v. 8 as an uncompromising statement that evil has no place in the city of God. There’s only room for God and the people loved by God who inhabit a city of heaven on earth. And in the meantime, we can do the difficult work of clarifying what evil is, whether for example, 1st century sexual immorality can be fast-forwarded and applied to the 21st century.
Later on in the same chapter, Revelation 21:22-27 states: 22 I didn’t see a temple in the city, because its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb. 23 The city doesn’t need the sun or the moon to shine on it, because God’s glory is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there. It is a city that never sleeps. 26 They will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it. 27 Nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is vile and deceitful, but only those who are registered in the Lamb’s scroll of life. NYC is also a part of the new Jerusalem.
This city, the big apple, Sin City, is a Holy City where all things will be made new. How does seeing New York as a holy city change the way we live in it? The renewal of God is happening here inside of this sanctuary, but is in no way contained by it. It is happening beyond those doors. It is happening where we call home and where our family and friends reside. But it’s also happening where judicial councils make mistakes (or any place of misjudgment) and especially when things seem to go extremely wrong, not only in United Methodism, but everywhere. It’s happening from us, but more importantly by a God who will fulfill God’s promises, which may seem hidden. Even the name Revelation comes from the Latin word, “re-velare” – literally “to remove the veil,” to reveal, to make known what is hidden. The good news is, Revelation provides an unusual glimpse into the future, where God’s redemption includes a city and churches in it that we love and loathe right now. Amen.