Sometimes when I read the Book of Revelation, I, sometimes, have this one-word immediate response: What? Because some of Revelation’s symbols, particularly if I take them literally, are beyond my comprehension and imagination. For example, in today’s passage, it’s hard for me to conceive how a robe bathed in blood can come out white.
Nevertheless, the primary image of “a great multitude from every nation, all tribes, peoples, and languages” spellbound in worship, is a familiar human experience.
The National Mall in Washington, DC, where I lived for nearly thirty years, was and is where countless people from countless cultures and creeds engage in countless demonstrations, in praise or protest, about countless concerns.
Around the world, there are countless stadiums, I consider them cathedrals for the religion of sport where multitudes from across the human social spectrum gather; their cheers, an earthly expression of Revelation’s angelic chorus of praise.
And I never can forget being in South Africa on my sabbatical journey some years ago, gathering on Sunday mornings with throngs of Christians, their impassioned songs of praise to God reaching the rafters, raising the roof.
So, Revelation is unique, but not entirely strange. There are earthly, ordinary examples that mirror its imagery. But Revelation’s imagery, as symbol, points beyond itself to something that is otherworldly, which our earthly, ordinary examples can reflect only imperfectly.
For Revelation is a vision of the end of time, the end of human history…
When our creedal hope that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end,” is fulfilled…
When, in the words of the Beatitudes, all who hunger and thirst for righteousness are satisfied,(1) for, according to Revelation, they will hunger and thirst no more…
When the prophetic word promising life eternal with the Lamb who also is our shepherd guiding us to springs of living water is accomplished…
When the eschatological gift of white-robed salvation through the sin-cleansing blood of the death and resurrection of Jesus is bestowed.
All this is beyond our experience. So, first asking, “What?” I ask, “How?” How does this happen so that Easter’s promise, as promise, though not yet fully realized, is no less really real now?
Through Jesus the Good Shepherd who calls us to follow him so that Easter’s promise is ours, forever and now.
There are countless voices in the church and in the world that speak in God’s Name, telling us how to be in relationship with God…
Some say we must have religious experience. Behold heavenly visions. Hear angelic voices. Encounter God’s mysterium tremendum, God’s ineffable mystery and majesty.(2)
Others say we must believe the right doctrine. Hold with absolute certainty every word of the Bible and the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds.
Others say we must be in constant study and prayer, so, in the words of Ephesians, to “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God”;(3) that is, to know Jesus as the Son of God and to know what Jesus, as the Son of God, knows about God, which is of infinite proportion!
Others say we must ascribe and adhere to a strict morality of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.”
All of it – mystical experience, orthodoxy, knowledge, and orthopraxy – is important. Secondarily!
For Jesus, only one thing is primary. That he is our Good Shepherd, therefore, we are his sheep, therefore, we belong to him, therefore, we know who we are for we know whose we are.
Allow me to put this another way…
Our relationship with God does not depend on having the right experience, the right belief, the right knowledge, or the right behavior. Yes, these things are important, but not first and foremost.
Our relationship with God depends on what Jesus has done in his life and ministry, death and resurrection. We call it salvation. Because of that and that alone, he is our Good Shepherd and we belong to him. Therefore, “no one (not even we ourselves in our sins) will snatch (us) out of (his) hand.”
Therefore, secure in his life and love, we are liberated from everything – our past failures and present fears – to live and love as he is and does, forever and now.
(1) Matthew 5.6
(2) Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), German Lutheran theologian, described God’s mysterium tremendum in The Idea of the Holy (1917).
(3) Ephesians 4.13