Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 8, 2022
Revelation 7:9-17 Commentary
When Christians recite the Apostle’s Creed, we profess that we believe in “the holy catholic church.” But sweet Miss Virginia always stayed silent during that part of the profession. “I’m sorry, Pastor,” she once apologized to me. “I was raised to believe that Catholics aren’t Christians. So I still have a very hard time saying I believe in the holy ‘catholic’ church.”
My dear sister in Christ’s confession opened the way for a very good discussion about what Christians mean when we make that profession. I told Miss Virginia that the phrase the “holy catholic church” actually refers to the genuine Christian church of all times and places.
“Yes, Virginia,” I wanted to (but didn’t) tell her in a paraphrase of the famous line from Miracle on 34th Street, “There is a ‘holy catholic church.’ You and I are even, by God’s grace, part of it.” I think that she came to understand that that line in the Creed refers to the Church universal. I’m not as confident, however, that Miss Virginia ever came to think of Roman Catholics as part of that Church.
One of the texts I pointed to in support of our belief in the “holy catholic church” was this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. After all, it lyrically shows us an enormous community that we can’t yet see. We can see our own local congregations. We can see our denominations. We can even see some of the broader groups that include Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians.
However, God’s dearly beloved people can’t yet see the full “holy catholic church.” We can’t yet see the Church that extends all the way back to (at least) the first Pentecost and forward into eternity’s glory. Christians can’t yet fully see the Church that wraps all the way around the globe.
So if we are to see “the holy catholic church,” we need the eyes of faith. Christians need the kinds of visions of it that Revelation 7 offers us. We might even say we need the “corrective lenses” that such Scripture readings offer for the near-sightedness about the Church’s smallness that so often plagues us. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson insists there’s far more to the Church than we can see with the naked eye.
As I noted in an earlier commentary on this passage, one of Revelation’s proclaimers’ first and greatest challenges is identifying its “timeline.” Does its John describe the heavenly realm as it’s currently configured? Is he describing the creation that Jesus will inaugurate at the end of measured time? Might John be saying something about the effects of Jesus’ resurrection on this as well as every Sunday? Revelation 7’s proclaimers have good reason to answer, “Yes!”
Proclaimers who pause only at the Lectionary’s prescribed “stops” on its hurried tour of Revelation want to present the literary contexts of those stops. So we note that this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson follows Revelation 6’s horrific images of immense creational and creaturely suffering. That chapter ends with verse 17’s “the great day of [the one who sits on the throne and the Lamb’s] wrath has come, and who can stand (italics added)?”
While those unfamiliar with Revelation’s arc couldn’t be blamed for answering, “No one!” Revelation 7:9 offers a radically different answer. “A great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language” can “stand.” In other words, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism’s Answer 54, “a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith” can and, by God’s grace, will endure the very worst the unholy trinity of sin, Satan and death can do to it.
Revelation 7 insists that that community is nearly as diverse as it is enormous. Yet several things unite it. All of the great crowd’s members wear white robes and clutch palm branches (9). God has, what’s more, brought each of them through the kind of immense suffering inflicted by Satan, sin, and death and into God’s glorious presence (14). Each member of this multitude also crowds around the throne of the Lamb of God vigorously crying out two of the Scriptures’ most stirring proclamations (10, 12).
Revelation 7 is among my favorite passages in all of the Scriptures. That’s partly because of the vision it gives God’s people of the kinds of things that are happening the heavenly realm right now. The text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday also gives us a grand vision of what God has planned for when Jesus the Lamb returns not only to judge the living and the dead, but also to establish the new earth and heaven.
However, I also appreciate Revelation 7 because the Spirit uses it to help shape the life of God’s adopted sons and daughters on this side of heaven’s curtain. In Christ’s death and resurrection, God has asserted God’s reign over the whole creation. So God doesn’t just carry some essential part of those who die in a relationship with God into God’s presence. God also exercises control over what God creates, in part through the words and actions of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
So the friends of the risen Jesus Christ seek to conform our lives to the heavenly realm’s current realities. We work to respond to God’s grace by aligning our priorities with God’s heavenly realm’s. Those who proclaim Revelation 7 might spend some time reflecting on the shape of that work. They might even look for examples of the ways God’s dearly beloved people are already combining several of those heavenly realities.
As I write this, for example, our church is again preparing for its twice-monthly food pantry. Because we feed nearly 700 households of our neighbors who still hunger (cf. v.16), we need many volunteers. Those volunteers don’t include representatives of every nation, tribe, people, and language.
However, they do include a neighbor, a Roman Catholic, who calls our food pantries his “church.” They include a neighbor who’s doing community service hours for an unnamed criminal offense. Today’s volunteers include a young neighbor whose disability limits his mobility to a wheelchair. They include a devout Orthodox Jew as well as an African-American neighbor who seems to have an intellectual disability.
None of those volunteers are anywhere close to perfect. God is still preparing them to take their place in the heavenly throng. Yet in their work on behalf of our neighbors who are hungry, they give our community a glimpse of God’s “holy catholic church” that Revelation 7 so beautifully evokes.
The Center for Excellence in Preaching’s commentary on Lord’s Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism offers this illustration of Revelation 7’s truths: “Lucy pushes past the woolen and fur coats only to discover that the wardrobe’s back has disappeared and suddenly snow is crunching beneath her feet. Alice falls through the looking glass and lands in an enchanted realm where rabbits talk and mad hatters hold funny tea parties. The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another, his entire bedroom transformed into a jungle world that brought him to that place where the wild things are and where Max was king.
“Over and again in literature, on television, and at the movies, the notion of parallel worlds has long intrigued us. What if, just beyond the veil of what our ordinary sight can perceive there is another whole world waiting to be discovered? The possibility of parallel universes has long been a staple in science fiction. Something funny happens to the USS Enterprise and suddenly Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock find themselves on a different Starship Enterprise in a parallel world where everything looks familiar and yet where everything is the opposite from their usual world.
“That’s the stuff of science fiction, but in the real world of science you can likewise hear a lot of talk about the specter of alternative realities, parallel universes, other dimensions in the space-time continuum to which we don’t have access. Maybe black holes are the portals to these different dimensions. Maybe cosmic string theory holds the clues to such things.
“Some scientists who find it difficult to explain the emergence of life in this universe (but who most assuredly do not want to give any room to the possibility of a Creator God being behind it all) claim that maybe right this very moment there are millions of alternative, parallel universes in existence. After all, if there are enough universes out there, even random statistics could suggest that somewhere in the midst of all these realities one would hit it lucky and lead to human life, and we are in the one universe that hit it right.
“Of course, writer Greg Easterbrook once pointed out the irony in such theories. It is odd that the same scientists who belittle the ‘blind faith’ of Christians somehow manage to spin out theories of whole universes for which there is not one shred of evidence. Tell the average scientist you believe in angels, and he will roll his eyes. If you can’t see it, you shouldn’t believe in it, he may claim. But then this same person may turn right around and deliver a one-hour scholarly lecture that suggests the existence of whole universes that eyes have not seen and ears have not heard. Talk about blind faith!”
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