Revelation 5 1-14
I recently I overheard a fascinating conversation. A young couple were explaining to a friend who is a pastor that they are S.P.L. Christians. My friend was unclear about the meaning of the acronym, so he asked: “You are what?” “We are S.P.L. Christians – sing, pray, and leave.”
You can describe Cove in many ways, but I would never describe this as a congregation of S.P.L. Christians, people who show up on Sundays for their weekly spiritual fix, hoping it will get them through another horrendous week out there, and then leave. I have found Cove to be a congregation that is not only aware of human need but a congregation committed to doing something about that need, in the name of and for the sake of Christ. I have found Cove to be a congregation not of S.P.L. Christians but of S.P.A. Christians -- sing, pray, and act Christians – and your songs and prayers, your acts of kindness and compassion inspire me every day.
Now, when you add the word “act” or “action” to Christian life some folks start to get antsy. In every congregation I have served, some have suggested, “Gary, please leave all the social activism talk for outside the church where it belongs; I come to worship to have my soul massaged, to get closer to Jesus.” Well, I am all for soul tending amid the craziness of the world today. In fact, I fear that most of us do not do nearly enough soul-tending, myself included.
There is a problem, though, with reducing the Christian faith to soul-tending. For in the Christian faith, soul tending and social action live in the same house. As soon as you and I get serious about soul tending and getting closer to Jesus, we find ourselves not just kneeling by our bedsides and bowing our heads in this sanctuary; we find ourselves working on Habitat Houses, tutoring in public schools, and searching out the forgotten places where human need is greatest because justice rarely visits there.
The Gospels are littered with stories of folks who come to Jesus for some soul tending and leave ready to act. In Mark’s Gospel, just before stepping foot into Jerusalem for the first time, Jesus is stopped by a blind man who will not take no for an answer. Once healed in body and soul by Jesus, Bartimaeus will not walk away, celebrating his soul has been tended. No, he walks with his new-found sight following Jesus into the killing fields ahead.
Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, an unnamed woman is healed by touching the cloak of Jesus and once healed, she resists the urge to run away with her newfound wholeness. She comes out of the crowd to make herself known to Jesus and to a disapproving lot. There is something about following Jesus that stirs our soul not only to sing and to pray, but to act.
I doubt that this is the Jesus most of us have come to know in modern America. Dorothy Sayers, that 20th century Oxford colleague of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, argued that you would not learn much about Jesus by looking at most Christians of her day. With a razor-sharp pen, Sayers wrote: “Somehow or other, and with the best intentions, we have shown the world the typical Christian in the likeness of a crashing and rather ill-natured bore – and this in the Name of One who assuredly never bored a soul in those thirty-three years during which He passed through this world like a flame.
“The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore – on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him ‘meek and mild’, and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies” (Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church, p. 4).
What Lewis, Tolkien, and Sayers realized in an England that was fast sinking into secularism was that the church was sinking with it. So as not to offend anyone, the Jesus of the sinking church had become a certifiable bore – someone you would avoid at a party or not invite at all, someone who hardly commands people’s attention, much less their lives.
It is hard to reconcile a boring Jesus with the “Lion of Judah” that Sayers mentions and John introduces early on in the book of Revelation. In John’s vision today, the scene is set in heaven where there is a crisis of eternal proportion. No one has what it takes to break the seven seals of the scroll that will reveal God’s future – no one in heaven or on earth or in the recesses of the great underworld. When the question is asked, “Who is worthy?” the response is “no one.” When John hears this, he weeps. He weeps the tears of the ancient prophets, lamenting “how long will it be before God’s purposes are revealed?”
A heavenly elder tells John to weep no more, because “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has conquered so that he can open the scroll and the seven seals.” The image of the Lion of Judah is one of raw power – the violent power of a lion equipped to tear its prey to pieces, the military power of David, of the tribe of Judah, who conquered neighboring peoples, a Messianic power to subdue the wicked so that the earth would be full of the knowledge of the Lord (Isa. 11:1-11).
But the next sight you and I see in this chapter is not a vision of the mighty Aslan from C.S. Lewis’s, The Chronicles of Narnia. Instead, we see a lamb that has been slaughtered standing just where we expect to see the Warrior Lion of Judah. The lion has become a lamb, and this is no ordinary lamb after the slaughter, no sacrificial offering for the sins of the people, no random victim of human violence. This slain lamb wears seven horns, symbols of its divine power and seven eyes, symbols of its divine sight. This slain lamb has suffered violence but has not been finally conquered by violence. To the contrary, it has conquered violence despite experiencing the insidious violence of crucifixion.
Now, when humans “conquer,” they do so most often by inflicting pain and death and destruction on their adversaries. In John’s time, the Romans had extended the borders of the empire through military conquest, but they had also conquered by putting in place basic assumptions about how to live in the Roman Empire. It can be argued that Rome’s most powerful weapon was the way it demanded people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds to accommodate to its worldview. After all, when in Rome . . .
John found himself an exile on the isle of Patmos because he did not find Jesus a bore and he could no longer stay in his comfortable Christian closet while pretending to be a diligent Roman citizen. He refused to watch Christianity lose its moorings and sink into a private, spiritual, tedious affair. After the slain lamb appears in Chapter 5, the rest of the chapter is not a requiem for the dead, but a Hallelujah Chorus as the heavens break forth into glad song. The choir is not singing about the glory of suffering. There is nothing glorious about suffering, then or now, and there is nothing intrinsically redemptive about it either. Neither do they sing of the joyful escape from this earthly world of trials and tribulations into a safe and sweet heaven. No, these saints are a heavenly choir of S.P.A. Christians, who never stopped singing, who never stopped praying, and who never stopped acting as witnesses to the heaven and earth transforming power of non-violent love, even when confronted by deadly threats from Rome.
In Montgomery, Alabama in 1959, Martin Luther King, Jr. felt a need to make sure people understood their call to non-violent witness and the real possibilities of suffering that might follow. King spoke: “As victories for civil rights mount in the federal courts, the angry poison and deep prejudices . . . will be further aroused. These persons will do all within their power to provoke us and make us angry. But we must not retaliate with external physical violence or internal violence of spirit. . . As we continue the struggle for our own freedom we will be persecuted, abused and called bad names. But we must go with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive, and love is the most durable power in all the world” (Brian Blount, Can I Get A Witness, p. 83).
In his book, Can I Get A Witness, African American New Testament scholar, Brian Blount, argues with King about King’s notion of “unearned” suffering. Speaking of those who engaged in acts of civil disobedience in the Civil Rights movement, Brian writes: “They stood up and witnessed to a contrary truth. In that sense, they ‘earned’ the retaliatory, reactionary response they received, even though they did not deserve it. Those sitting in at a segregated lunch counter or defiantly plopping themselves down in the front of a bus when they had been legally consigned to the back will ‘earn’ the abuse they receive. Just as John ‘earned’ his exile. . . . Just as the Lamb ‘earned’ his slaughter. Just as the followers of the Lamb who dare to stand up and witness to a truth that contradicts the declared truth of municipal, state, and imperial power will ‘earn’ theirs. These are not sacrificial victims; these are fully engaged, nonviolent, activist witnesses” (Blount, Can I Get a Witness, p. 84). Brian knows the truth of what King spoke in 1961: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Rome thought that violence would crush the witness of Jesus. John writes the book of Revelation to insist that those who follow Jesus must never settle for the sedate S.P.L. version of Christianity. He insists that those who follow Jesus wear the moniker of S.P.A. Christians, women and men who refuse to bow down to the idol of violence or to reduce the faith to a weekly spiritual massage.
Daily, I am honored to live among S.P.A. Christians at Cove, people who understand that the world is violent, often brutally violent, and people who know that on its best day, life is not fair. Yet, again and again, you sing, pray, and act in another way, a non-violent way, the way of Jesus. You temper me when I am ready to return a fist with a fist or a slur with a slur or an insult with an insult. You inspire me to follow not a pathetic, impotent, boring Jesus or witness to an apocalyptic cartoon of a little lamb Jesus. You inspire me to follow the Lion of Judah who is the Slain Lamb of God and through whom this life and the life to come will finally be transformed.