Friday, 31 January 2014

The Gospel is for a People

"A believing community is the context for the life of faith," writes Eugene Peterson in Reversed Thiudner: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination (HarperCollins, 1988), 43.
Love cannot exist in isolation: away from others, love bloats into pride. Grace cannot be received privately: cut off from others it is perverted into greed. Hope cannot develop in solitude: separated from the community, it goes to seed in the form of fantasies. No gift, no virtue can develop and remain healthy apart from the community of faith. "Outside the church there is no salvation" is not ecclesiastical arrogance but spiritual common sense, confirmed in everyday experience.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Jesus among the Lampstands

The first thing said about Jesus Christ in the book of Revelation connects him to the revelation which “God gave him to show his servants” (1:1). In verse 5 Jesus Christ is more fully introduced as “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.”

What we should know about Jesus Christ even before we start reading the book is that he is the one “who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” (1:5-6).

The one to whom we look now, ascribing glory and dominion to him, is the one “every eye will see” and all over the earth people will wail on account of him when he is revealed to everyone for who he is (1:7).

He is the one in whom Christians at present share both “the persecution and the kingdom” along with “the patient endurance” required in these days (1:9). The day named in his honour “the Lord’s day” (1:10) links us weekly to the day in the past when he became “the firstborn of the dead”.

While he is the coming one, he is also present, in the midst of the seven churches (lampstands) that represent the people of God.

and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. (Revelation 1:13-16)

John says, he “fell at his feet as though dead” upon seeing Jesus but was assured not to be afraid,  

I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. (Revelation 1:17-18)

A list of attributes does not do justice to the portrait but it can help us see which different facets are and are not highlighted for the different churches and what features are added:

the faithful witness --> Laodicea (able to testify to the true situation), cf. Philadelphia “the true one”

the firstborn of the dead, cf. below Smyrna

the ruler of the kings of the earth

in the midst of the lampstands --> Ephesus (cf. the threat of lampstand being removed)

clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest.

his head and his hair white as white wool, white as snow;

his eyes like a flame of fire --> Thyatira (cf. "I am the one who searches minds and hearts")

his feet like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace --> Thyatira (cf. need to be purified of false practices)

his voice like the sound of many waters, cf. "These are the words..." which opens each message

in his right hand he held seven stars --> Ephesus, Sardis (emphasis on being able to see behind a fa├žade?)

from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword --> Pergamum (cf. presence of false teaching)

his face was like the sun shining with full force *

“I am the first and the last, and the living one”  --> Smyrna

“I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever” --> Smyrna (cf. "be faithful until death")

“I have the keys of Death and of Hades” --> cf. Philadelphia: the one “who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens” and who has set before the church in Philadelphia an "open door which no one is able to shut".

To the angel of the church in Sardis Jesus is presented as the one “who has the seven spirits of God” (cf. 1:4) as well as “the seven stars” and to the angel of the church in Philadelphia Jesus is introduced as “the holy one, the true one” not dissimilar to the presentation to Laodicea where Jesus is also designated the origin of God's creation”.
* "The most prominent impression from the Son of Man vision in Revelation 1 is of a great effusion of light, a dazzling incandescence. Light cascades from that image in great force and quantity, and floods the churches. It is the first-day light of Genesis, and the light that enlightens very person who comes into the world. The light does two things: it shows what is good and therefore to be celebrated in the light; it exposes what is sinful to the healing warmth of the light. The light reveals and heals."
Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination (HarperCollins, 1988), 50.
The churches are lampstands; "places, locations, where the light of Christ is shown." (54) 

Angel of the Church

In Revelation 2 messages are sent to "the angel of the church" in various places, or, maybe more accurately, to these churches via their angel. Who or what is "the angel of a church"?

Three options have been supported in the history of interpretation. 

They might be human representatives. As far as the Greek word is concerned, the translation “messenger” is perfectly acceptable and such messengers need not be supernatural (see, e.g., Luke 7:24; 9:52). But as envoys they are linked with the sender more than the recipient. This does not seem to fit the scenario in Revelation 2 very well.

They might be spiritual beings, as the translation “angel” suggest. But there is no evidence to suggest that readers would have been prepared to associate specific angels with specific churches and the rhetorical force of the messages, with their commendations and criticisms, is directed to the congregations, not to some guardian angels.

The third option does justice to the fact that the actual people of the congregation are addressed. The “angel” is then the core essence of an entity, its collective spirit.

Here is how T. Scott Daniels, Seven Deadly Spirits: The Message of Revelation's Letters for Today's Church (Baker Academic, 2009)
“The angel is a kind of corporate personality created and formed by the members of the church and the surrounding culture but now operating in such a way that it in turns shapes, reinforces, and holds the collective life of that con­gre­gation in its grasp.” (page 24)
As he teases this out (on pages 27-28) Scott Daniels draws on Walter Wink’s influential trilogy on Powers, especially vol. 2: Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence (Fortress Press, 1986).
“How are these angels formed? What forces come together to create the angels of the churches? Wink suggests six. [Unmasking the Powers, 73-77] The first is the architecture and ambiance of a church. Buildings, Wink argues, are both an explicit statement about the values, prestige, and class of a community and a force that continues to shape those values into the future. Economic and educational levels are a second force that determines the spirit of a church. Power structures, leadership styles, theological orientations, and attitudes toward authority are a third formational force. The fourth force Wink identifies is the way a congregation handles conflict. Fifth, the nature of liturgy or corporate worship in the church and the way in which spiritual growth is developed and assessed contributes to the emergence of the church’s angel. And finally, Wink argues that the church’s perception of itself and its community profoundly shapes its collective identity. According to Wink, the following questions are vital to how the spirit or angel of a church is formed:
How does the congregation see itself? How do others see it? Does membership confer status, or does it indicate a high level of commitment to mission? Is the church inner- or outer-directed? Is it related to its neighborhood or the larger community? Is it self-engrossed, or engaged in struggles for social justice and global peace? Is it evangelistic or nurturing, or both? Is it on speaking terms with its angel and fired by a sense of its divine vocation, or is it a country club, or a haven against the chill of rapid social change? What is the place of spirituality, or prayer and meditation, of the inner journey? Is it easy to “get on board,” to become drawn into the life of the group? What about its history, its traditions, its annual celebrations, its invariant money-raisers and teas? Who have been its heroes and its villains, and what are the skeletons in its closet? [Unmasking the Powers, 76-77]

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Life is a Fatal Disease

The title is nicked from Life is a fatal disease: collected poems 1962-1995 by Paula Gunn Allen. 

The idea is much older. Manilius wrote in his Astronomicon IV.16

nascentes morimur, finisque ab origine pendet 

“We are born but to die (lit, die in being born), and our end hangs on to our beginning.” An early English gravestone paraphrased Manilius perfectly: 

As soon, as wee to bee, begunne; we did beginne, to be undone.”[1]

To live is to die. For us to live is to enter the realm of mortality. Like candles; when alive –giving light– they burn down. It is appropriate that Candlemas, the day on which traditionally all the Church's candles for the year were blessed, is celebrated on the Feast Day of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. 

The Gospel reading on this Feast Day,  Luke 2:22-40, hints at the truths we should acknowledge for a good life and a good death:

  • we are mortal but are given access to the realm of immortality (the purification motif)
  • the mortal must serve the immortal (5x “according to the law” or similar; first-born; cf. Psalm 24:1)
  • the mortal is in the hands of the immortal (Simeon: no fear of death; peace)
  • the mortal is redeemed in Jesus who brought immortality to light (2 Timothy 1:10)

Simeon, the one who trusts God for his commandments (“righteous and devout”) is the one who trusts God also for his promises (“looking forward”), the one rooted in the revelation is oriented towards God’s work of the future). Simeon can face death in peace because he has seen the conqueror of death.

Life is a fatal disease but in Christ death has been swallowed up in victory because the Immortal took on mortality: "Since the children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death."  (Hebrews 2:14-15). Cf. Living Corpses.

[1] This version from George Wither’s Collection of Emblemes, Ancient and Moderne (1635, see here).