Revelation 5:11-14 (online here)
This year in Easter (that’s a 7-week season, not just one Sunday) is one of the few times that Episcopal, Lutheran and Catholic services include readings from the Book of Revelation. Note, the book is called “Revelation” (singular) not “Revelations” (plural). It’s obviously not a favorite book in these and other Churches that have been talking to one another. Eastern Orthodox services never use it, period. That’s partly because it took centuries for the Church to decide whether or not even to admit it into the Bible. The four Gospels and Paul’s letters were widely accepted by around the year 150, but almost everything else was up for grabs until the late 300s.
It’s still a controversial book. Whenever a crisis erupts, somebody comes along to claim that Revelation’s dire and bizarre predictions are coming true, only to be proven wrong. You’d think people would learn after 2,000 years of looking silly, but I guess not.
In popular American culture it’s still a big deal, so I thought I should say something about it.
John of Patmos, the author, claimed to have glimpsed God’s vision of the world as God wants it to be and then he spoke words of warning and hope to the people of his time. He wrote the Book of Revelation as a long letter to help Christians, and maybe some of his fellow Jews, cope with the ruthlessness of the Roman Empire. He wrote it to help them be who they were called to be, to have the courage not to be just like everybody else, especially not like the rulers from Rome.
John’s answer to the power of Rome is a vastly different kind of power—the power of a slaughtered Lamb. Revelation is all about the Lamb. The first time John saw the Lamb in one of his visions, he had just been told by a heavenly elder that the key to understanding God’s ways was “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, [who] has conquered” (Rev. 5:5). So John looks up, expecting to see a fierce, war-like lion, or at least a powerful king like David. Instead he sees “a Lamb, standing as if it had been slaughtered” (Rev. 5:6). The key to what God is up to is not a conquering carnivore but a vulnerable vegetarian!
The Lamb, of course, is Jesus, the one who lived out the love of God among us even to the point of rejection and execution, the one who came back, after we’d done our worst, to keep loving us all over again. He never conquers by violence.
True, at the end of his letter John shows us a picture of Jesus arriving on a white horse to conquer the forces of the Empire. The picture looks violent, and the “Left Behind” books describe it as a literal slaughter of Jesus’ opponents. But John says that the only weapon Jesus uses is the “sword” that comes out of his mouth (19:15)—Jesus wins not by a literal sword but by his message, his good news. He wins by sharing the good news of God’s love for even God’s fiercest opponents. He wins by a love that outlasts every kind of rejection people can cook up, a love that outlasts even death itself.
John’s letter issues two warnings: if you live by the power of the Lamb, you’re living against the grain of empires, and you’re likely to get hurt by the power games that ambitious people like to play. It could even get you killed. That’s one warning. Here’s the other: if you live by the power of empires, you’ll do yourself in. You may succeed in looking powerful and in control, but you won’t know how to love or be loved any more. You won’t even be willing to enter the New Jerusalem. But John’s final word is a word of hope: if you live by the power of the Lamb, you’re already living a life that rises from rejection, even death itself, to embrace the whole world, even those who rejected you. That’s the power that moves the world, no matter how things look right now.
For all its violent and bizarre imagery, Revelation is all about the power of a slaughtered Lamb, not a conquering carnivore but a vulnerable vegetarian. Try reading it that way.