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. 

Ignatius and the Hebrew Bible

Ignatius vs. the LionsIgnatius of Antioch is a fascinating figure from the early 2nd century. Famous for encouraging Christian unity through obedience to bishops and for getting eaten by lions, he also had a helpful and balanced, if not much elaborated, view on what it means for Christians to read the Hebrew Bible on this side of the Christ event. In his Letter to the Philadelphians, Ignatius confronts 'Judiazing' Christians, probably not too dissimilar from those Paul confronted, though Ignatius does so with noticeably more gentleness than Paul does in his letter to the Galatians.

After offering his trademark prescribed cure for disunity - stand by your bishop - Ignatius proceeds to attack what appears to be the greatest risk to brotherly love within the church in Philadelphia.

He explains that although he is in chains and on his way to his death, he nonetheless has hope because of the gospel message proclaimed by the Apostles. But this message was also proclaimed proleptically by the Hebrew prophets, who themselves "have obtained salvation within the unity of Jesus Christ" and "are included as participants in the universal Gospel hope" (IPhil 5).

But this doesn't mean, for Ignatius, that Christians should practice Judaism. Without Christ we're dead (cue tombstone metaphor), so avoid these kinds of teachings so they don't "weaken your love" (IPhil 6). Instead, cling to the unity of the church.

Ignatius works for unity in the church, because, he tells us, that's the kind of church that God lives in and where forgiveness reigns. So the Philadelphians need to avoid the teaching of factions and instead cling to the teachings of Christ. Ignatius seems to have come across some people when he was in town who told him they couldn't believe any teaching unless it was explicitly written in the "ancient records", the Hebrew Scriptures. They were using the prophets as the measure of the apostolic teaching, and where they didn't find clear precedent for a doctrine in the scriptures they refused to believe it. Ignatius counters:

But for my part, my records are Jesus Christ; for me the sacrosanct records are his cross and death and resurrection, and the faith that comes through him. (IPhil 8)

For Ignatius, that is his justification, that is his proof text, that is his Scripture: the narrative of Jesus, especially his death and resurrection, and the faith - the life of the ecclesia, the church - that springs forth from that Christ event.

Early Christians slowly and organically developed what was called the regula fidei, or rule of faith, which they used as the guideline for interpretation and the development of doctrine. Think of it as an early edition of the Apostles' Creed. But for Ignatius, Christ is the rule of faith. The narrative of Christ is the essential condition of Christian faith and teaching. While Judiazing Christians insist that all belief and practice pass through the litmus test of the Law and the Prophets and the Writings, for Ignatius Christ takes priority as the only litmus test needed. This represents not just a high understanding of the person of Christ, but a profound Christocentrism. The good bishop understood the story of Jesus to be the story through which all other stories are illuminated.

Bonhoeffer: the church is Christ existing as Gemeinde

From the Editor's Introduction to Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 1: Sanctorum Communio:

When Bonhoeffer says, "the church [Kirche] is Christ existing as Gemeinde," this does not mean that an institution calling itself church defines where Christ is communally present. On the contrary, it is not a church organization that defines Christ, but Christ who defines the church. In other words, it is precisely where, and only where, 'Christ-exists-as-Gemeinde' that we find the 'church' (Kirche).

Now that's an interesting test for ecclesiality.


Re-Think Missional

Vital Congregation?A few weeks ago I went to a forum for everyone who holds a formal leadership position (mostly members of the myriad of committees)  in the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. The conversations were mostly interesting and fruitful, but I did notice one recurring theme that I found disappointing: most of the discussions of what it meant to be missional - a popular buzzword at this and other recent conference gatherings - were aimed primarily at how to get more people to come to our churches. The watch-word of the day was, "Why?"; indeed, that's the watch-word for the next four years in our conference. But the big "Why?" question that remains unexplored is why are the most interesting things we can think about to make our churches more 'missional' basically directed towards getting more 'butts in the pews'? We would be much more interesting and much more faithful if we concerned ourselves a little more with how we send our members out into the world than how we get more members in. And then, when we do actually get new members in the body, we can actually invite them to join us in doing something other than just expanding membership. Then last week I went to our conference United Methodist Women's fall festival, where I was invited to lead a 'focus group' about how that storied ministry could better reach out to youth and other young people. But most of the ideas that came up and generated excitement had to do with sometimes creative ways of getting youth and young people to one way or another come to their 'circles' or their churches. The thought was that if we could just get more young people to come to us, then we might be able to figure out what to do with and for them. Ideas included inviting local teens who like basketball to come play basketball on the church grounds, or to come to a free community meal and stick around for Bible study. I pointed out that these attempts at outreach were really more like 'in-reach', and challenged them to think about ways they could go out and meet youth on their home turf. Someone commented that youth who come to in-reaches like those listed above probably feel really awkward, and we made the connection that in legitimate outreach it would be the church who would have to surrender home field advantage and meet youth where they already are, and thus bear the bulk of the discomfort.

Also within the last month, as if to remind me that this is not a distinctively Methodist problem, at an ecumenical, community-wide gathering the preacher's basic message was that Christians need to be more bold in their faith. How? By inviting their friends to church. Now hopefully when people come to church they hear Good News about God's great love and mercy, and about his bottomless grace. And hopefully when people come to church they hear the story of how God's love came down to save the world. But the teachers and preachers responsible for sharing that News and that Great Story in the context of a church worship service aren't the only ones allowed to tell people these things. Wouldn't it be so much more interesting if we encouraged Christians to really own and live out their faith among their friends and neighbors? And wouldn't their friends and neighbors be more likely to find the story of God and humanity more interesting if they initially heard about it from a peer instead of from some professional stranger who has no idea who they are? And think about this: if you hadn't heard this Story and didn't know this News, wouldn't it just seem odd to get invited to a place where the central activity is to sit and listen to a guy tell you that you need to invite more people to that place?

All of these stories share the same fundamental misconception about the kind of thing a church is. They all see church primarily as a place or an institution. If church is first of all thought of as a place or an institution, then people associated with that church will attempt to live out the church's mission within its geographical boundaries and institutional parameters. This is actually really comforting to such people, because it takes a huge load off their backs: they can think, "The church needs to do more _____," as if the church were some kind of reality external to themselves that they have basically no responsibility for. Or they can safely avoid risk, discomfort and awkwardness by staying within the safety and familiarity of literal and/or metaphorical church walls by doing outreach that is really more like what I've called in-reach. Or they can through inviting their friends to church take comfort in the idea that they are let off the hook for telling their friends the story of God's love for the world, because that's the preacher's job.

But the church is not primarily a place or an institution. The church is a people shaped by God's story and sent out to show and tell that story for all the world. If the church is more people-on-a-mission than place or institution, then when one realizes that the church needs to do something, they can't avoid a fair share of ownership of the problem and should thus be more motivated and empowered toward a change. If the church is more people-on-a-mission than place or institution, then risk, discomfort and awkwardness are things that all in the church will have to bear together as this people-on-a-mission bears God's love outside church walls to a hurting world. If the church is more people-on-a-mission than place or institution, then instead of the first 'evangelical' move being to invite people to come to a worship service at church, worship services can be about shaping pew-sitters into people who will go out and be the church for their friends and neighbors.

The primary point of church as place or institution is to get more people to come be members. But 'members' here is more analogous to members of a country club than members of a living body. But if the church was really that called out people-on-a-mission for God the Biblical metaphor of the living body of Christ (unified in its mission but diverse in its gift and activity) becomes a more sensible metaphor for our churches. And then, almost as if by accident, churches would actually have become the kind of thing worth inviting people to come and be a part of anyways - not just for a few hours a week, but in every waking moment of their lives.

Speaking of the Word: Who Jesus is for our Youth

After sharing with my pastor the results of a little two year 'experiment' I did, he asked me to type up a report to share with our Parish Council. I presented the following on Sunday, March 18.  On a Wednesday night in February of 2010, I asked our youth a seemingly simple question: Who is Jesus? They answered with things like, “best guy in the entire universe,” “awesome,” “ultimate psychiatrist,” and “helps me play video games.” The most popular answer was “my best friend,” given explicitly by at least three youth before we all just kind of agreed that Jesus was all of our best friend. These answers all show that our youth had a generally positive impression of who Jesus is, which is good, but they are not particularly biblical, nor are they spiritually or theologically deep answers.

They also gave some standard, ‘textbook’ answers, but were unable to speak about them at any length. They said that Jesus is, “the Son of God,” “our Savior,” “Son of David,” “miracle worker.” These answers are obviously much more biblical and have some theological and spiritual depth to them, but further conversation revealed that our youth were unable to elaborate, explain or articulate what these answers mean or why they were significant for their day-to-day lives. Our youth seemed to be quoting “right answers” as if they were learned by rote rather than personally held convictions that they truly owned. The only possible exception was one girl who said that Jesus “saved my life by dying on the cross and forgiving my sins.” She said that in the middle of everyone claiming Jesus as their best friend, and right afterwards our conversation quickly steered back in that direction. But that evening I wrapped up our discussion by highlighting this answer, and wondering aloud why only one of them had given it.

Two years later, in February of 2012, I asked the same question again: Who is Jesus? Answers included “The Son of God,” “Savior,” “the only pure one,” “makes us whole,” “the one through whom God completes our lives and relationships,” “fills our emptiness,” “makes our lives whole.” But more importantly, our youth were able to elaborate on all of these answers, giving them much more color and demonstrating a deeper kind of knowledge. This time around they weren’t talking about Jesus as their best friend or psychotherapist, and they weren’t just rattling off textbook answers either. But even that wasn’t quite enough for them: the conversation pushed onward to what it looks like to follow him. “Jesus gave it all, so we should be willing to give it all...following Jesus looks like the cross.” “Following Jesus looks like love - Jesus on the cross is ultimate.” We had a real, substantive conversation about who Jesus is in which our youth demonstrated the ability to talk about Jesus at length, and in their own words!

Two years apart, same question, totally different conversation. The National Survey of Youth and Religion, conducted just a few years ago, found that while adolescents in the United States are eager to share their opinions on a wide range of issues, almost all of them are incredibly inarticulate when it comes to their faith. I am really excited to report that our youth are growing in this area. Don’t get me wrong - we’ve still got a long way to go. We’re learning to “talk the talk,” but that doesn’t mean much if we’re not also learning how to better “walk the walk.” But regardless I think our church has something to celebrate - our youth are asking great questions and they’re really seeking God as their Answer. We’re making some observable strides along the road from faith learned by rote to faith they can really own as truly and authentically their own - what some people call “sticky faith.” This can only be described as an act of God’s grace. And by God’s grace we’ll continue learning and growing together toward the kind of Christian faith that lasts.