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Bishop's Message

RSS By: Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo

The Rev. Dr. Robert Rimbo shares regular thoughts and reflections about our life together.

2015 Synod Assembly Bible Study: "The Power of the Lamb"

Jun 01, 2015
 

A small group of us was discussing images that come together in these days in worship and in actions at our Synod Assembly. It was a pile-up of pictures, mostly from the Book of Revelation, the New Testament Apocalypse, one of the most scary and, frankly, most misunderstood pieces of literature ever written. I’m no biblical scholar but I do know some things about worship and about the church, so I thought I would learn more about this book, correct some of the misguided thinking on it, and help all of us grow into the koinonia, the communion, God desires for us.

So, we were talking about the river that flows from the throne of God…about the powers and principalities that war against the Church…the City … heaven…a seven-headed beast…a dragon…the Tree of Life…leaves for the healing of the nations…lampstands…singing angels…a bride adorned for her husband…God’s dwelling…tears…mourning…Alpha and Omega…


That conversation was just the start.

And, of course, running through my musical/liturgical mind was "This is the Feast." Let’s sing it together now.

I want to talk with you about the Power of the Lamb who is the true central figure, the real main theme in the Book of Revelation, a book which many Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants like us tend to avoid and have given over to the Fundamentalists. They tend to love it because they can use it, presumably, to predict the end of the world, even though Jesus himself could not predict it and even though that is not what this book if about. The Book of Revelation is about hope. It is about the Power of the Lamb.


Many of the images in the Book of Revelation are scary, alarming, and seemingly incomprehensible. Bloody battles, judgment and destruction. But I want to suggest that the book is really about Hope and Power. And not just any kind of power: the Power of the Lamb.


I’ll just give you a quick overview, so you’ll have to take my word for it. But I invite you to consider looking at two books that helped me think about this. First, Barbara Rossing’s The Rapture Exposed: the Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, a book I read when it first was published, and Ward Ewing’s The Power of the Lamb: Revelation’s Theology of Liberation for You, a new one for my library. Both are intelligent contributions to understanding a book that is mysterious and has scared a lot of people. But it really should not scare because it offers ultimate hope for our own time and situation and the future.


First, we’ll talk about powerlessness. Then, the Power of the Lamb.

There are letters to seven churches. You can read the letters in Chapters 1 and 2. I think they capture much of what continues in our churches today. They are small, poor, struggling to survive, suffering from discrimination, divided by internal squabbles, abused by local magistrates, treated badly by other religions, surrounded by pagan corruption. These seven churches have a tendency to drift into complacency –laziness – to tolerate and even follow false teachers, and generally to lose their commitment to Jesus and their hope for the future.

Turn to a neighbor and ask yourselves: Does this sound familiar? Do you know of any churches like this? You need not name them. Just say whether you are aware of them.

Interestingly, at least to me: the shining stars among John’s seven churches are Philadelphia and Smyrna. These bright spots are two poor, harassed and not-very influential congregations which, despite their weakness, hold steadfastly to the faith in Jesus. And that’s why St. John the Divine likes them, commends them, holds them up as examples. Again, turn to a neighbor: do you know any congregation like this? No names. Just Yes or No.

St. John writes to Ephesus, Pergamum and Thyatira about his concerns regarding false teaching, calling for purity in belief and in practice. On the other hand, the church at Ephesus heard John’s first letter to them and became so rigid that the spirit of love was lost. He reminds them that their works of love, faith, service and patient endurance must be neither so tolerant of pagan practices that the uniqueness of the Christian life be lost, nor so intolerant of pagan faiths as to become a persecution. A delicate balance still for us.


And for St. John the Divine, the most important announcement is that Jesus was and is God’s Anointed – God’s Messiah – that’s the most important message and that means that all the gloom and doom of approaching destruction has to be reinterpreted.

Not only did the Messiah come, but he was crucified! And not only did he die, he was raised! It was incomprehensible to the audiences for which John and all of the New Testament writers wrote that the Messiah would be crucified by the powers of the world; the Messiah was supposed to overcome them. So the Book of Revelation announces that the crucial battle between the power of God and the oppressive powers of this world has been won, and God’s rule has begun.

This is why I think this book, interpreted in the light of history and the rest of the Bible, has a great message of hope for us, power for the powerless. John’s churches do not seem very different from us. Our congregations seem weaker than in ages past, are concerned with internal issues, we have little clout in our political structures.

The issue we face is power and specifically whether the Power of the Lamb can work for us today.

Here is a visual way to contrast, to capture the paradox of the Book of Revelation and the times in which we live: The Beast is a symbol of brutal force. The Lamb is a symbol of unprotected vulnerability. The Beast coerces through fear and might, the Lamb has no such power. The followers of the Lamb are not manipulated, cajoled, or constrained to follow; they freely choose the Lamb as their leader. By his love and his sacrifice, the Lamb transforms the heart and inspires devotion. Love compels the followers of the Lamb, not force. The Beast controls people by fear and death; the Lamb liberates people from bondage and heals people and brings life. The Beast uses people for its own glory and in the process people get hurt. The Beast kills people and drinks their blood, but the purpose of the Lamb is to free people from destructive enslavement, even at the cost of its own life. Through his own blood the Lamb liberates his people and raises them to new life. Those who follow the Lamb know eternal life now and will live with the Lamb forever.


Ward Ewing puts it this way, contrasting what the world teaches with what Jesus teaches:


Blessed are the rich for they shall rule the world.

Blessed are the poor for there is the kingdom of heaven.


Blessed are the calm and collected, for little can touch them.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

 

Blessed are the aggressive, for they shall be promoted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

 

Blessed are those with finesse, for in avoiding controversy they shall come out ahead.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

 

Blessed are the cool and callous, for they shall emerge untroubled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

 

Blessed are the manipulators, for they shall achieve power.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

 

Blessed are the nice, for all will speak well of them.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.

The issue we face is power and specifically whether the Power of the Lamb can work for us today. So, now, what about this Lamb of God, of which we sing rather complacently?

Jesus is the main character in Revelation. Let’s read Revelation 1:1-3 together aloud.


The revelation of Jesus Christ,
which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place;
he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John,
who testified to the word of God
and to the testimony of Jesus Christ,
even to all that he saw.
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy,
and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it;
for the time is near.


Revelation’s primary purpose is to tell us the story of Jesus, not to predict end-times events in Europe or the Middle East.

And who is Jesus? Jesus is first presented as a majestic, human-like figure with a sword in his mouth.

But this depiction is quickly eclipsed by the portrayal of Jesus as the Lamb. It is the Lamb who gathers 144,000 holy warriors on Mt. Zion (Rev. 14:1). It is the Lamb on whom the armies of evil make war (Rev. 17:14). It is the Lamb who even marries and rules after the war (Rev. 19:7; 22:3).
 

The Lamb is an amazing and yet wonderfully disarming vision. In place of overwhelming military strength, we are given the image of the Lamb’s non-violent power. In place of Rome’s image of inflicting slaughter on the world, Revelation tells the story of the Lamb who has been slaughtered – and who still bears the scars of that slaughter. Revelation undertakes to reveal what true power and true victory is: At the heart of the power of the universe stands Jesus, God’s slain Lamb.

We first meet Jesus as the Lamb in chapter 5 in the heavenly vision that follows the seven letters to the churches. We go on a journey behind the veil into heaven itself where we see God seated on a beautiful throne.

All creation is singing praise to God. Singing and worship are central to Revelation, a fact often overlooked by people who see the book only as a system of end-times predictions and timetables. In Revelation we sing our way into God’s new vision for our world.

God holds a scroll sealed shut with seven shields that must be opened. But who is worthy to open this scroll? The Lion of Judah? The Root of David?

No. Rather: a Lamb. A rather peculiar Lamb, but still a Lamb.


Let’s read Revelation 5:6 together:


Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures
and among the elders
a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered,
having seven horns and seven eyes,
which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.


This is a complete reversal. But note this, the portrait of the Lamb develops and is even more interesting. The Greek word is not just "lamb," but a diminutive: a word like "lambkin," "little lamb." Dan Erlander, for many years a leader at Holden Village, calls him "fluffy." The only other place in the New Testament where this version of the word for lamb (lambkin, fluffy) is used, is when Jesus says he is sending his disciples out into the world as lambs among wolves in Luke 10. That’s the only place! The divine hero is a baby lamb. Jesus is shown in the most vulnerable way possible, as a victim who is slaughtered but standing – that is, crucified, but risen to life.

And here’s the point for us: The Lamb – dare I say it, "Fluffy" – became the victor not by militaristic power but by being slaughtered. From beginning to end, Revelation’s vision of the Lamb teaches a theology of the cross, of God’s power made manifest in weakness. This is the whole message of Revelation and it gives us hope. The victim becomes the victor.

Let’s sing about this: ELW 847, Come, Let Us Join Our Cheerful Songs

We are followers of the Lamb on whom the title "conqueror" is bestowed and so we are conquerors as well. This is one of the many amazing features of this Book. Much of Revelation can sound so violent, but we have to look at the subversive heart of the book – the redefinition of victory and conquering – to understand how Revelation subverts violence itself. Just like the Lamb, we, God’s people, are called to conquer not by fighting but by remaining faithful, by testifying to God’s victory in our self-giving love.

The Christian community is portrayed as those who follow the Lamb. Our calling as Christians is simply to be followers, standing with the Lamb, going where the Lamb leads.

"Lamb Power" is what Ward Ewing identifies in a most compelling way as Revelation’s new way of life, Revelation’s theology of liberation for us all, a lifestyle oriented around Jesus’ self-giving love, a mode of operation in church and world for us to live.

Lamb Power is the power of vulnerable but strong love to change the world, and it is ours.

It is the power of nonviolent resistance and courage in opposition to injustice, and it is ours.

It is the power of unity, and it is ours.

It is the power of forgiveness, of mercy, and it is ours.

It is the power of healing for the nations, and it is ours.

It seems to me that this Power of the Lamb can characterize our life together as a synod, especially as we tackle difficult issues, raise tough questions, struggle with what appears to some to be a hopeless future, long for health and wholeness.

When I think of the Power of the Lamb which is ours, I think of congregations in this Synod who have decided to cooperate or even close in order to move into new formations for ministry. I think of the Lutheran Parish of Northern Duchess; I think of Augustana, Elmhurst and Grace, Astoria; I think of Christ, Ozone Park, St. Philip’s, Brooklyn, Saint Luke’s and San Lucas, Woodhaven, who are moving together to form All Saints/Todos Los Santos. I think of you, faithful to your calling and to your God while facing challenges never anticipated by your ancestors who founded your congregations. I think of you, who have been with victims of disease and death and helped them face the future with hope.

Turn now to a neighbor and share a time or a situation in which God has given you courage, grace, hope, power for a challenge.

Friends, we constantly choose between the Power of the Lamb and the Way of the Beast. Living by the Power of the Lamb means we accept the Cross as the ultimate expression of love. And because we are following the Lamb, we cannot remain safe and secure. Vulnerability – the primary characteristic of the Power of the Lamb – includes by definition the possibility of suffering. The Power of the Lamb is the power of our acts of hope and resistance, our songs and our solidarity, to overcome the terror of the Beast, the terror we see every day all around our world.

This is the Power of the Lamb. It is the Power of the Vulnerable. It is the Power of the Blessed. It is the Power we have as Christians who follow Jesus.


Let us pray. Into your hands, almighty God, we place ourselves: our minds to know you, our hearts to love you, our wills to serve you, for we are yours. Into yours hands, incarnate Jesus, Lamb of God, we place ourselves: receive us and draw us after you, that we may follow your steps; abide in us and enliven us by the power of your indwelling. Into you hands, O hovering Spirit, we place ourselves: take us and fashion us after your image; let your comfort strengthen, your grace renew, and your fire cleanse us, soul and body, in life and in death, in this world and in your changeless world of light eternal, now and forever. Amen.
 

 
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