The Church of the Apocalypse

During an interlude in John's Apocalypse, we hear a roll call of one great crowd (144,000 from the tribes of Israel), but then we see another, even bigger crowd:

After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9 CEB)

This innumerable crowd proceeds to shout out a chorus of praise, and the angels echo back with one of their own. This is apparently a heavenly worship scene, in the throne room of God, complete with the twenty four elders and the four living creatures, fixtures in the book of Revelation from chapters 4 and 5.

The size and transnational nature of the crowd is not to be underestimated. It apparently consists of martyrs who died in a great persecution/hardship/tribulation. θλῖψις (thlipsis) is the word in Greek, and it connotes great pressure and affliction. 

Then he said to me, “These people have come out of great hardship (θλῖψις). They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:14b–17 CEB)

This passage is probably most naturally read as a scene of heavenly reward - the faithful have come out of the θλῖψις and are now resting in God's shelter, where they don't have to worry about food or water or sunburns or tears. The Lamb shepherds them and leads them to life-giving waters - it's Psalm 23, fulfilled!

The implication seems to be that they were faithful through the θλῖψις and that their association with the Lamb in life has brought them - through the Lamb's blood and their own death - to this shepherding relationship with the Lamb post mortem. The note is pastoral: stay faithful in spite of the θλῖψις, because due to the Lamb, things will not always be this way. 

But another angle sticks out to me here. These people are before God's throne because of their white robes that have been washed in the Lamb's blood. That sounds like baptism - the white robe, the theme of washing, the association with Christ and specifically his death - that's baptism. 

They worship; God shelters; they don't hunger or thirst. This sounds like a prototypical early Christian community, gathering for worship (understanding that to be under the protection and provision of God), and the one with much sharing with the one who has little. 

In this heavenly vision the sun's scorching rays aren't a danger to these martyrs, but not because the sun ceases to be necessary as in Revelation 21, but specifically because of the Lamb's shepherding. Christ is guiding and protecting them as a shepherd would do. Another word for shepherd is "pastor."

And of course in this vision they are flushed with life-giving water, and God is wiping away their tears. 

But aren't we, in the church today, supposed to wipe away each other's tears? The Samaritan woman in John 4 receives life-giving water, which then bubbles up into eternal life for her, but it also bubbles over to quench her life-thirsty neighbors as well. In addition to the obvious baptism image, couldn't we also read this as something we in the discipleship community do for each other and for the world?

Christ shepherds them - he pastors them - but the church today also has pastors, who hopefully share in their own way in the spirit of Christ's pastoring, through leading the people to these life-giving waters.

The scorching sun must be connected to the curse of labor in Genesis 3, and it's easing is at least a heavenly expansion of the Sabbath easing of that curse. But might the curse of labor also be eased in the context of a community constantly looking out for each other, carrying each other's burdens? The same point goes for food and drink with their lack of hunger and thirst - the sharing of goods in Acts 2 and 1 Corinthians 11:17ff. Indeed, isn't this whole paragraph a kind of apocalyptic re-imagining of Acts 2:42-47?:

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42–47 CEB)

To bear each other's burdens is at some level to bear each other's θλῖψις - to come into the community of Jesus followers should mean being washed in Jesus' blood through baptism, but it also should mean to come out of θλῖψις. Suffering and hardship are still realities for us, but they should be made lighter and less substantial. 

Death is surely transformed in this passage - this vision of the dead is no hellish ending or annihilation. But this must also be taken to be a picture of the church as well. In baptism we die and rise with Christ, passing through his θλῖψις on the cross and in some sense departing from our own. This is at least partially substantiated materially by what the theologian James Wm. McClendon describes in terms of the church as a community of care engaged in the practice of "watch-care."

And so in this passage I think we see not just a picture of martyrs on the other side of the grave, comforted and pastored in a post-θλῖψις existence. We also see a picture of the community of faith now, still somehow in the midst of θλῖψις and under intense pressure from all sides, but abiding together as they abide in the Lamb - after all, the word "martyr" in Greek just means "witness."

This end-picture, this image of transformation, is not just for the end but, under the gracious pastoring of the Lamb and the martyrdom/witness of God's people here and now, might just as well become a now-picture. May it be so. 

People Currently Residing in My Head

Abigail wanted me to make a list of the thinkers I reference in class, and write a few words about each of them and what kinds of questions they are dealing with. This is a start. These are people whose thoughts have influenced my own, with a particular emphasis on things I've read or interacted with recently and therefore might be more likely to reference. I included pictures, because Abigail seems to think that might get me an extra bathroom in my mansion in heaven, and Jesus said to store up treasures in heaven (by which I'm sure he would have included bathrooms had there been indoor plumbing in the first century). So here it is:

Karl Barth

Swiss theologian/really neat guy. When I got my copy of his Church Dogmatics in the mail, a certain classmate of mine responded, "Retire your Bible!" I look forward to reading him after I'm all done with school.

YoderJohnH1 John Howard Yoder

Awesome facial hair. Mennonite theologian, studied in Switzerland where he had the chance to take a number of classes with Karl Barth. His The Politics of Jesus was widely read and very influential. The cross, not the sword, controls the meaning of history. The relationship between the obedience of God's people and the triumph of God's cause is not one of cause and effect but of cross and resurrection. The church is an alternative polis and engages politically on its own terms. Turn ons: Luke's gospel. Turn offs: Constantinianism.

mcclendon James Wm. McClendon, Jr.

Grew up Baptist in Louisiana, went to the University of Texas (my alma mater - Hook 'em Horns!) and Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. Was fired from a teaching post at a Southern Baptist seminary in California for sending students to march with Martin Luther King Jr., and he was also fired from a teaching post at a Catholic school in California for being against the Vietnam War. Other than a year as visiting professor of theology at Notre Dame in the 70's (where Yoder, MacIntyre and Hauerwas were all teaching at the time), he pretty much stuck to the West coast. He wrote a non-foundationalist systematic theology from a "baptist" (intentionally small 'b') perspective, by which he intended to include Baptists, Mennonites, Campbellites, Brethren, and many others. His 'baptist vision' is this is that and then is now, by which he means that the church today is the church at the resurrection and the church on the last days. His systematic starts with Ethics (how must the church live to be the church? - Way, Watch-care, Witness), moves on to Doctrine (what must the church teach to be the church? - starts with eschatology, examines the Identity of Jesus Christ and finally the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit), and finishes with Witness (what must the church's stance vis a vis the world be in order to be the church? - theology and culture, theology and philosophy, theology of mission). Wittgenstein, MacIntyre, Yoder, the Radical Reformation.

murphy-nanceyNancey Murphy

Church of the Brethren, Fuller Seminary. Studied Philosophy of Science with Paul Feyerband and Theology with James McClendon. Holism in epistemology. Thinks of theology in terms of Imre Lakatos' concept of scientific research programs. She's a nonreductive physicalist: is there a soul? Sure, but it's embodied. Modern neuroscience, Anglo-American Postmodernism (Wittgenstein, MacIntyre, philosophers of science after Kuhn).

Hauerwas Stanley Hauerwas

Methodist, grew up in Texas as the son of a bricklayer. Studied at Yale, I think before George and Hans were around. Took Old Testament courses from Brevard Childs, who made him think that Ezekiel was Karl Barth. Influenced by many, influencer of many. Time magazine called him "America's Best Theologian", and he thinks that's hilarious: "Best is not a theological category." He doesn't like liberalism. At all. He does like thinking of Methodist identity in terms of being high church Mennonites or  free church Catholics. He thinks Christians should tell the truth. Virtue, narrative, church. Yoder, MacIntyre, Wittgenstein. Teaches at Duke.

lindbeck George Lindbeck

Yale School. Invented the world "postliberal". Cognitive and propositional ways of understanding religion are dumb. And he seems to think experiental and expressivist ways of understanding religions are dumber. Religions are more like cultures or languages. If you proclaim "Jesus is Lord" while striking down the infidel, you're a liar. Kuhn and Wittgenstein. Karl Barth is also a major influence of the Yale School.

frei Hans Frei

Yale School Postliberal. He's bringing narrative back. Narrative got the boot in 18th and 19th century hermeneutics. He seems to want to give historical criticism similar treatment. For a Christian, disbelief in the resurrection is rationally impossible. Karl Barth is a type 4 theologian, and you should be too.

richard-hays Richard Hays

Methodist New Testament scholar, New Perspective on Paul. Subjective genitive, Paul as interpreter of Israel's scriptures. New Testament ethics is about community, cross and new creation. Teaches at Duke.

Michael J. Gorman

New Testament, New Perspective on Paul. Studied with Bruce Metzger. Paul is the apostle of the crucified Lord. MJG, Paul and Jesus are all about cruciformity: the way of discipleship is the way of the cross, ethics is about the cross, Jesus is exercising his divinity in the cross - pretty much everything has to do with the cross. And he's right; everything does have to do with the cross. What did you have for lunch? Oh, wow, that really reminds me of the cross! He also apparently has taught adjunct at MHGS, probably before we got Badley.

Willard Swartley

Mennonite New Testament scholar. Narrative and Sabbath. Synoptic Gospels. Peace and peacemaking are major New Testament themes, and are quite a bit bigger (theologically and ethically) than merely "nonviolence".

Nicholas Lash

British Catholic theologian. Some texts, like Shakespeare's King Lear, are not to be merely read, but instead must be performed. The Bible is such a text, and the church is the group of "performers", most explicitly in the Eucharist but also in her life together. Hope is the Christian alternative to the optimism and despair (both of which claim to know too much about the future) we find in the world.

Herbert McCabe, OP

Dominican. Thomist. Wittgensteinian Marxist. But God still matters. Wanna understand the Trinity? Be filled with the Holy Spirit and look at the cross.

Most importantly, there's a chance that he may be somehow (very) distantly related to me, through my ancestor John McCabe who fled his homeland during the potato famine as a stowaway on a cattle boat, ending up in South Carolina and (several generations later) giving me reason to call myself "Cabe".

macintyre Alasdair MacIntyre

Scottish Catholic moral philosopher influenced by McCabe. Thomas Aquinas' moral philosophy brought to bear upon the moral discourse of our (post)modern world, which he argues is in grave disorder. Liberal modern individualism is the problem; a community shaped by particular narratives and practices and with a particular account of the virtues, the unity of a human life and the concept of a tradition is the answer. Taught at Notre Dame, where Hauerwas and Yoder and McClendon all found themselves in the late 1970s.

terryeagleton460 Terry Eagleton

Influenced by McCabe. Marxism for the (post-)postmodern world (This is not your father's Marxism). Sympathetic to Christianity. Likes to rip on (the new) atheists and the post-structuralists.

Thomas Kuhn

Philosopher/Historian of Science. Nancy Murphy describes him as the first to think about science in terms of holism rather than foundationalism. The Structure of Scientific Revoloutions is a widely read and influential text. Scientists assume their paradigm rather than constantly submitting it to scrutiny, and this is a good thing because it allows for normal science to do its proper work. Major changes happen through paradigm shifts or revolutions. Just read the book, it's really interesting.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Philosopher of language and other things. Hung out with the Logical Positivists in Vienna, but they didn't get along too well. Spent much of his career in England with Bertrand Russell. His Tractatus Logico Philosophicus is an exemplary text of modern philosophy. The rest of his work was published posthumously, and could be thought of as being the first philosophy to move beyond modernity. Language games. The foundation is carried by the whole house. Pictures. Lots of other things. McClendon claims he was a Christian, albeit a peculiar one.

That was kind of fun. Did that help? Who have you been influenced by?

Theology means struggle.

“Theology means struggle. It may begin as Bonhoeffer said in silence, but when the silence is broken, a battle begins. This seems regrettable; in matters of great moment, the human heart yearns ceaselessly for secure truth, and it is easy for us to believe that unchallenged beliefs are self-evident truths. A little reflection, however, will show that this is not so; in fact we very often have believed without doubt or contradiction what turn out to be mere falsehoods. (It is small enough comfort to know that other people do the same.) Thus when we set out upon Christian theology or ethics we must be reconciled to the fact that here as elsewhere hard truth is not available without hard struggles.” -James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Ethics: Systematic Theology, Volume 1 (2nd ed.), 17.