Rev. Rebecca M. Heilman
I knew how to attract a crowd during my time in Zambia as a Young Adult Volunteer for the PCUSA. All unintentional, of course. I lived with a host family in an inner-city neighborhood in the capital city of Lusaka, probably the only white girl in a 5-mile radius. The lines of race in Lusaka, are drawn as clear as they are here in America. So as you would expect, there were many MANY cultural differences and often uncomfortable boundaries to cross and understand. Mostly, my goals for my time there were to be cool, be kind, and not embarrass myself or insult my friends by accident. It was important for me to be treated as member of my host family and community, ensuring I was treated less as a guest. So I lived life like I would at home in Valdese, NC. I swept the house, washed the dishes, and cleaned my own laundry. However, every time I did one of these tasks, I’d turn around noticing a crowd forming outside our home. I remember a particular sunny morning where I was sitting by the community water spicket, washing my clothes by hand. I won’t lie, it was hard work for a white woman from a privileged home in NC and my clothes were never truly clean that year, but I was determined to do it on my own and not be waited on. I heard some rustling and whispering behind me and when I turned around, there was a sizable crowd pointing and laughing. I decided to laugh with them because let’s be honest, I didn’t know what I was doing. Several women critiqued my washing skills, reminding me to use more soap, dunk longer, and scrub harder. Several people tried to take my clothes out of my hands and clean for me. School children danced around asking a million questions as to why I was doing all that work. This confused me. Why couldn’t I do my laundry without a crowd making a big deal of it? Doesn’t everyone clean their clothes! Turns out, many locals believed that white women, especially, can’t, won’t and shouldn’t do hard work. My host father informed me that many of the women who watched probably, at one point, worked for a white woman as a maid. There were some members of the community who truly believed I was not capable or should not do that type of work because they’ve never seen it done before and it just wasn’t right. Colonialism working at its finest. I really shook the community that year and I hope for the better. The cultural boundaries were daily, often with a twist of racism and colonialism underneath. I confused and shocked many of my friends as much as they confused and shocked me. BUT the gift was that we were friends and so while we laughed and pondered about ridiculous and new things, there was a level of trust developed to ask hard and perplexed questions about each other and our culture. We could ask those deeper questions for clarification without fear or resentment. I’m expecting us to experience some of this today while we dive deeper into Revelation. We all know that on the surface, there are confusing and strange words and imagery. However, with trust we can dive deeper, hopefully laugh a little bit, find some hope, find comfort and understand the cultural differences going on in this letter written by John.
John is the author of Revelation, a different author from the Gospel of John. And one thing to keep in mind is that we are reading Revelation from a 21st century mind, when this letter was meant for readers in the first century. Much like my host father and friends explaining the culture and traditions of the Zambian community, I too can explain the words, the grammar, the history, the imagery of Revelation, but the emotion and reality of that time period is harder to grasp. There is a cultural boundary. Many people read Revelation as a gloomy, scary, complicated book about end times. But what if we risk looking over the boundary that we’ve always been taught and see a letter of comfort and language of resistance? John wrote this to a community of Christians living in the powerful and imperial rule of Rome, more than likely under the emperor Domitian. There were expectations under his rule to worship Roman deities, which showed that you had a loyalty to the Roman state. Politics were morphed into religion and religion into politics. In a sense, they were one of the same. If a Christian did not participate in this worship, they were at risk of persecution and of being thrown out as an outcast, both socially and economically, making it impossible to make a living. So Christians during that time would sometimes pass as believers to the Roman deities in order to survive. If a Christian chose to reveal him or herself as a believer of God, Christ, they risked impoverishment and severe punishment. No doubt, churches were experiencing the threat of persecution or for some, even worse, persecution itself.
And so we come to Revelation Chapter 1, verses 4 through 8, looking over the cultural boundaries of what we have always known in order to try and interpret what a group of people were experiencing in their context. We find four surprisingly comforting verses, carrying lots of meaning to convey the general message – Jesus Christ is Lord. This is what John would like people to know, simple as that – Jesus Christ is Lord. We’ve basically summed up the entire book of Revelation with those four words. John starts out with the typical, yet theologically loaded greeting to the people of the seven churches, saying, “Grace and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come.” This phrase, this greeting is derived from the Jewish tradition, as well as the Greek tradition. John is pulling this threefold formulation from the Greeks, who often said about their own deity, “Zeus was, Zeus is, and Zeus will be.” The Greeks said this as a way to celebrate their deity’s power and “eternity.” By John saying, “God, who is and who was and who is to come,” John is not only saying God is beyond time and even in a sense, embraces all time – past, present, and future. But John is also writing religious rhetoric morphed into political counterpropaganda or more simply, language of resistance. The people John is writing to are experiencing pain, suffering, and oppression. They are on the margins and are often having to choose between their faith or economic and societal gains. So, John hijacks this threefold phrase from the Greeks, “God, who was and who is and who is to come,” in order to show that God through Jesus Christ transcends human history. John reminds there, you no longer have to look to your oppressor’s god, our God is in control. God controls time in order to bring a different kind of rule and a different kind of King, that is Jesus Christ. There is comfort in this message for the first readers of John’s letter. Their author is saying, it does not have to be a Roman deity you look to and worship, you can look to our God. It’s okay. For God was in the midst of time in the past, in the midst of your living now, and in the midst of time to come. God embraces time and is bringing a different rule and that reign is coming. That reign that is coming is hope. It is God’s revelation through Jesus Christ.
I wish I could say, we don’t live in a time where we should fear persecution like those at the end of the first century. Or carry fear of being placed on the margins for not following leaders of this world. Sadly, for some in our world, oppression and death are a fear they live with every day due to the God they choose to worship. It’s not some distant historical idea, it’s the here and now, in this century and we know it was in the last. And so even if we are fortunate to NOT carry that fear here, in this place, in this time, I don’t know about you, but I’ve faced other challenges of balancing faith and what is expected of me in our modern, everyday society. I’ve come up against choosing between being faithful and being successful. Or in being faithful and not being too political. Or being faithful and being liked as a young millennial who identifies as a woman. In a sense, this too was happening to the first readers of John’s letter.
Several years ago, during my early months in New York City, I was desperate for friends. And so one afternoon, a friend of mine was in town from California and she convinced me to hop on a train to Brooklyn and visit her cousin at a shuffleboard match. In case you didn’t know, shuffleboard, at least in Brooklyn, is now a hip thing to do with beer, and beards, and delicious food trucks. I thought, YES, I could make friends here. We popped on a train and I could feel the butterflies in my belly – many people my age joke about how making friends is almost like dating. And so what you should know is that for the several years before that, I had been in seminary and a sort of religious bubble, where I did not have to explain my career or “call” (or what a call is) to anyone. And so when my friend’s cousin asked me what I did for a living, I hesitated, realizing that this young hip millennial may place judgement on me, my beliefs, and my career choice. It felt like a full minute of stuttering and stumbling over words before I whispered quickly, “I’m a pastor.” The next thing that happened and I’m not proud of this, I immediately backed it up with, “but it’s not what you think! I’m more progressive and accepting and open and loving. I’m not like other Christians on the news or who you might know.” Like I said, I’m not proud of it and I wrestle with how to present myself as a person of faith, let alone a young female pastor, in a world of spiritual, but not religious. So here I was red in the face and stumbling over words so that I might be liked and not stereotyped. I was doing exactly what John’s audience had to do to survive, except my decision was not over life or death, merely just trying to make a friend. How many of you experience something like this daily? Balancing faith and life. Faith and hard decisions at work. Faith and morals. Faith and family. Faith and making a living. And the big one, faith and politics. I certainly struggle and I think John’s audience did as well.
John’s hopeful message is to emphasize God’s reign made visible through Jesus Christ. Christ is the hope in their struggles. Christ’s reign is the hope. Christ’s way of living is to be embodied in our daily lives. If we can find that balance of centering Christ in our world while living in a society where Christ is NOT at the center, then we are living into the hope John mentions here. These four verses and beyond are words of comfort and strength for Christ’s followers to keep pushing on. To keep being faithful witnesses in a world that does not welcome them into that space. John pushes hope by calling the reader’s attention to the coming of Christ. John again, near the end of our reading today, names God through Christ with that threefold formulation – “The Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come”. We start with God who is and who was. These are verbs of being. We know them to be true because we have witnessed to it. Yet the last verb shifts to a verb of action saying, “God, who is to come.” The coming of Christ is why the early Christians are to be faithful. Why they are to resist nonviolently and push against the Roman Empire. The coming of Christ is why they are to live out Christ’s actions. Why they are to keep moving when times seem hard. They carry this hope in their pocket because God’s renewal is not yet over in the storm of their chaos.
And God’s renewal is not yet over in the storm of our own chaos. We are on the brink of Advent and I don’t want to give away the meaning of this season, but Christ the King Sunday, today, beautifully leads us into this time of waiting. Christ is coming in whatever way we need Christ to come, whether as a small infant or as a second coming! God was and is transforming the world through Christ, but it is not yet complete. More is to be transformed, including the struggles, the strange changes and weird cultural shifts following this pandemic. More is to be transformed including this uncomfortable time, where we know church is different, but we can’t place our finger on how or why. More is to be transformed and I truly believe the church as a whole will be a part of this transformation, if we allow it to be and center the embodiment of Christ’s actions in our lives. John encourages us to be faithful witnesses, leaning into our faith when it seems nearly impossible because society might be saying no to faith or organized religion. John encourages us to embody our faith when it seems nearly impossible because of friends who might be saying, I’m not quite ready to go back yet, whether they return online or in person. Or when family members are asking, what’s the point anymore? Or when a loved one who’s experiencing mental illness can’t seem to find the energy to be in community again. Or when someone who once resembled faith to you, no longer has the same interests as they did before the pandemic. John encourages us to lean in, embody Christ, live out the actions of love and welcoming all, hopeful reassurance, and all those good traits that God is made up of BECAUSE Christ at our center is how transformation can hold and take shape. Beloved, in the beginning, there was God. In the midst of our living, there is God. In the end, there will be God. Through these strange and uncomfortable times with endless anxious questions,
let us not forget a new reign is coming. It’s okay to lean into our faith. We lean into it because we know there will be transformation and renewal for this world and church as a whole. And friends, we get to be a part of it. Thanks be to God!
 Brian K. Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 34.