Homily – Advent Liturgy of Healing and Benediction

‘Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand.’

In nomine…

We all know that Jesus’ earthly ministry in Palestine was characterized by miraculous healings – he fulfilled the Messianic expectations of Israel and brought healing to those who he met, both spiritually and physically. These are not allegories, or legends and they do not seek to glorify Jesus, they are simply a reporting of the facts, which characterized his ministry. When the Word of God, who created the world comes into contact with creation… life and healing are the inevitable result. Jesus’ very word, and very touch is healing not because of any magic spell, but because his entire being is so filled with the creative power which formed the universe… that those who came close to him jesus-healing-the-blind-man-icon.jpgwere healed simply by opening their soul to that power, through their faith, however slight, that Jesus is Lord.

In these days of Advent, we await the one who comes to bring life to the world. Jesus is the reversal of death, the calmer of the troubled mind and the only name that is given for healing in the world. We come today into the presence of the Lord, opening our hearts with faith and trust to the healing, creative power of God. In Jesus, the life of God is poured out into the world and we have an opportunity this evening to experience the love and power of God – the same love and power which was known in Jesus’ earthly ministry.

Tonight is about healing and reconciling, because the Christian proclamation has always related healing with the forgiveness of sins, beginning in Jesus’ own ministry. Therefore, in order to experience the full power and grace of the healing which Christ offers tonight, we must first undertake to reconcile ourselves to God. When we turn to him in confession, God responds to us with forgiveness and all that separates us from him is overwhelmed in a torrent of his love. As the priest pronounces God’s absolution, the power with preserves the universe breaks into our lives and all that clouds our relationship with the Lord melts away and we are embraced in perfect Love.

From the foundation of the Church, Christ and the Holy Spirit has empowered his disciples to proclaim the forgiveness of sins and he gave them the authority to anoint the sick with oil as a sign of healing and forgiveness. The Holy Spirit has, by the laying on of hands, given this gift to those who are ordained as Priests – so, for us this evening, Mark and Phelim, give us access to God’s grace and healing through absolution and the sacrament of anointing. Through the sacrament of anointing, we can experience the same healing love which the boy with the spirit experienced because ‘all things can be done for the one who believes’. Even in the midst of our doubt and unbelief, God still reaches out to us and longs to bring us more fully to life.

Tonight, you will all receive the healing touch of Christ and can confess your sins and receive the anointing of the Spirit… I urge you to feel my sisters and brothers in these sacramental actions, these sacred signs, the very work of God, the hand which is laid upon you is the wounded hand of Jesus Christ; the oil on your forehead is a sign of God’s Holy Spirit descending upon you to forgive you and to heal you. In this liturgy, we ask God to minister his love and healing to us, through the Body of Christ.

As we approach Christmas, where we will rejoice again in the coming of our Savior, we must prepare ourselves, by drinking deeply from the resources Christ has given us. But tonight is not just about us – the Lord has given us a bold mission, to proclaim the Good News in our homes, our communities and in our world… but he has also empowered us all with his abundant grace to strengthen us in our mission. We come to healing so that we may heal the world; we come for forgiveness so that we can reconcile the world to Christ; we come to hear words of his love so that we can share that love in a broken world.

Therefore, let us begin this night of healing and reconciliation – let us pray for ourselves, for each other and for the world – in this Church, where God’s Spirit is present and where Christ is present, in our hearts and in the Blessed Sacrament, the body of Christ, which will be enthrone on the altar… let us with faith and confidence join the voices of our hearts with the faithful centurion: “Lord, I am not worthy for you to enter under my room, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.”

Amen.

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Keep Awake | Advent Sunday

Jesus said, ‘keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming’.

In nomine…

One of my favorite moments in literature comes very early on in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, and I think it highlights beautifully the Advent faith which this season seeks to distill in us. When the Pevensie children first meet Mr. and Mrs. Beaver the name of Aslan is introduced into the story, Aslan being the Christ-figure in Lewis’ masterpiece, and the children react in a multitude of different ways – Peter is filled with a call to action, Lucy with a sense of wonder and Edmund, having already met the evil white witch, is filled with a sense of dread; all because they hear the name of Aslan. What message do the beavers give the children? A simple one: ‘Aslan is on the move’. Aslan is on the move – God is on the move, and this is message of advent, this season when we look forward to the coming of Jesus at Christmas and reflect on how God moves in our lives and in our world.

Yet it’s so hard to focus on the darkness and enter into this kind of prayerful expectency when the world seems to sweep us away with all its lights and bling. For a moment, I’d like you to imagine with me a parallel universe… let’s just imagine a parallel universe where everything is pretty much the same as ours but a few things are different. We are walking down the streets of Canton in late November and we overhear a conversation, two old ladies are saying to one another – ‘I do love this time of year, those first weeks of December, they’re so stress free.’ ‘Yes’, says the other, ‘I love that everything’s a little quieter than usual and how the shops pull their curtains over the shop-windows for a while… and you know there’s lovely preparation going on behind them, but the street is darker and we can’t wait to see what’s behind’

‘Ooo yes, and I’m so glad the social calendar’s a little more relaxed. There’s more time to be at home, to be quiet, to sit in the darkness, to pray. And its so nice that the children are more relaxed, they don’t come home from school all hyper – they’ve been doing some meditation, lighting some candles in the dark’

‘Then isn’t it wonderful on Christmas Eve! From the darkness, suddenly there’s a great opening out! The lights are switched on, the shop windows are revealed – there’s a beaming blaze’

‘I love it’ says the other, ‘and twelve days is about right – it’s about as much as we can take. I just love the contrast’

Can you imagine having that conversation? Wouldn’t it be wonderful? Instead, of course, the reverse happens! We are sometimes tired of Christmas before it happens; so much has been thrown at us… we’ve been to several Christmas doos already; we’ve heard so many exhortations to buy stuff and do stuff.. somehow, there’s no moment of transition or contrast! There’s no time when you can say those watch-words of Advent… ‘the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ We never walk in darkness!

We know oh too well about ‘light pollution’, compared to my home in rural North Wales, you can barely see the stars here – the heavens are hidden by a thousand tiny, man-made lights. Well, if there’s such a thing as visible light pollution – where, ironically, our little man-made lights stop us seeing the great lights – how much more so is there a mental, spiritual light pollution going on in Advent! There are so many little fairy lights going on all over the place, that we cannot focus on the great light that is coming! The light which is beyond everything; shining in the face of the infant, and, most surprisingly, is shining deep within each one of us… as the reading from St. John’s Gospel at midnight Mass will remind us, ‘The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world’.

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We know, in our heads, that Advent is to Christmas something like what Lent is to Easter. It’s a season of preparation – the Church in her wisdom always puts a fast before a feast! We don’t fast to punish ourselves or anything, we’re not world-denying, we fast so that we can appreciate even more the good things that we have. In Lent, we set things aside to depend more deeply on God and then receive them back from him with joy at Easter. I think there’s a way to do this in Advent too – although I don’t think Advent is about abstaining from physical comforts and foods. Advent, I think, is about abstaining from distractions – from those flickering man-made lights. It’s a time for dwelling in the darkness and asking those deep questions: where is God moving? What do I long for? Who is Jesus Christ for me?

This means that we, as Christians, have to resist some of the bling and chaos of this time of year – or else we risk missing the great Light who is coming and getting lost in the million fairy lights which blind us. By the way, I know that I’m setting an impossible task – but I hope that we can find some small ways of doing this, but I’ll come back to that in a moment. The call of Jesus in the Gospel to keep away this Advent is first and foremost about developing the habits of looking for God on the move within our lives and in our world. It’s about entering in to the world of the Old Testament prophets – who were looking for signs of God in the world and proclaiming that one day, although they could never imagine the reality, God would come among us to save the world.

This means that keeping awake this Advent is about more than just not being asleep. It surely must be about more than just not being asleep, because lots of us go through life not fully awake to it, for all sorts of reasons. We follow familiar routines; we believe that the way things are is the way things must be; we do what’s expected, and often even do our best, without necessarily stopping to ask why we’re doing what we’re doing, or whether this is how life has to be. There’s a familiarity and a comfort to our habits, to the patterns we weave for our lives, and that means that lots of us, lots of the time, are content to stay with the comfortable, and stop really looking at it because we know its contours so well. We fail often even to recognise the things that make our conscience twinge: discrimination in our country, a homeless man in the street framed by the glistening lights of an expensive shop, images of refugees and destructive wars on the news – we are so used to this that we often fail to hear the voice of our conscience anymore; fail to recognize God’s challenging, reforming movement – the movement of him who came among us to liberate the world.

To be awake to that presence in the world is partly to let the whisper of your conscience speak; to dare to imagine that we are made for more than the acquisition of wealth and that our lives are more than the sum of our achievements. And sometimes we need a wake up call to realize this – sometimes we have to be confronted again by the truth of God’s movement. Sometimes that wake-up call is welcome: in falling in love, in the gift of a child, in responding to a sense of vocation, in simply hearing the name of Christ proclaimed in a new way to us. Other times we are jolted awake by illness, or bereavement, or redundancy, or a broken relationship, and suddenly the familiar contours of our lives are made strange. Redundancy, for example, can provoke us to see that we are more than just what we do. Bereavement and illness can make us re-evaluate what’s really important because they face us with the reality that we do not have limitless amounts of time.

Advent, in its liturgy and Scripture, is our annual wake-up call – reminding us to be watchful, reminding us that the world as we know it is broken and in need of healing, and our lives, habitual and comfortable as they are, can always be more closely conformed to the life of Jesus. Being watchful for God’s movement begins when we learn to look for it in the whole of our lives. It’s easy to see God at work in the sunset, in the smile of a baby, in the touch of a lover. It’s much harder to glimpse his presence and movement in the unwelcome medical diagnosis, or in the bleakness of grief, or in the repeated lies of a person gripped by addiction. And yet the promise of Advent is that God moves in the darkness as much as in the light. To keep a good Advent is to begin to wake up to the presence of Christ in our midst, and sometimes that starts as simply as remembering to look for him.

This may seem a little shocking because, if we’re honest, I think lots of us don’t expect to find God in the darkness or in the mess of our lives. A big part of the problem is that we have this ridiculous idea that God only loves the bits of us we find loveable and, because of this, we start putting a face on for God, just as we do with other people. We have this false assumption that God only moves in the light, only works among good people in good situations. But the light of Advent, which grows brighter as we journey to Christmas, is the light that shines in darkness. We miss it if we look for its glow only in the light of our world and of our lives.

So, how do we begin to look for this light? How do we prepare ourselves to celebrate the coming of the Light of the world in 28 days time? I have three practical suggestions, and you are welcome to talk to me more about them after our service:

  • Take time between now and Christmas, either a few minutes each day or maybe 30 minutes on a quiet Sunday afternoon, to be in silence – to turn your focus away from shopping and preparations; away from the hectic social calendar – and spend some time with the Lord. Time to ask the Lord to give you eyes to recognize his presence in the darkness – time to remove our mask, and invite God afresh into our lives.
  • In these times of meditation, I can think of few better things to do than read the prophets, especially Isaiah. I’ve prepared a weekly scheme for reading some wonderful extracts from the prophets each week – beginning to imagine ourselves in that Old Testament time, where people longed for God to move in the world.
  • Finally, I think we have the opportunity to take part in some small acts of social disobedience – resisting the endless barrage of adverts telling us to buy stuff and do stuff to be happy. Even if it’s just buying charity gift cards, or asking friends to donate money to a favorite cause instead of buying us a present. Perhaps Advent is the season to think about people throughout the year we have neglected; the elderly man on our street who we never visit; the relative who we know is struggling; the friend we’ve fallen out with – and taking steps to amend these relationships.

My sisters and brothers, we worship a God who, in Christ, has come among us, bringing the radiance of his light and glory, even into the darkest places of our world, and of our lives. God is on the move – always and everywhere. For His promise is that at midnight or at cockcrow, in joy or in those silent hours stalked by fears, he will come – this holy light who shines in the darkness, and whom no darkness cannot overcome.

Amen.

‘Go at once to Ninevah…’ | Jonah and the Call of God

50b4d001eac9f80507037ee155c0faee.jpgThis morning the Church in Wales Morning Prayer Lectionary turned our attention towards the Book of the Prophet Jonah. It is such a joy to hear Jonah read aloud at the Offices for the next couple of days; it is one of the shortest books of the Bible and one of my favourites. The story is a surprising, funny, fascinating and deeply rewarding read. If you don’t say Morning Prayer, I would highly recommend taking 20 minutes and sitting to read the Book of Jonah – that’s all the time it will take and it is well worth doing. In this post, I’m going to run through the whole book and scratch the surface of its enriching message and the results of my lectio divina over the last week or so.

‘Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, ‘Go at once to Ninevah, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come before me.’ (1.1,2)

There’s a lot going on in this first couple of verses. The first lesson of Jonah is one of its most important: the heroes of the Bible are always summoned, they are always, so to speak, in the passive voice. No great hero of scripture – or the Church for that matter – acts according to their own plan or design; they don’t cling to their own projects or ideas. The heroes of scripture are subject to a higher will; infused by a higher power. The Letter to the Ephesians tells us that there is a ‘power at work within us’ which ‘is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine’. This is the way the Scriptural imagination understands what it is to be a hero – it’s nothing to do with your own power and plans and everything to do with how you let the Holy Spirit work through you. John Lennon famously said: ‘life is what happens while you are busy making other plans’. This is a pretty good summary of what the Scriptures are saying: while you’re making your plans, Life is happening within you – the Spirit who is ‘Lord and giver of life’ is active, even when our back is turned.

The call of Jonah teaches us another important lesson: no-one is ever called in an abstract or generic way. Blessed John Cardinal Newman (a person whose own journey of discipleship was certainly unique) understood this. He wrote a beautiful prayer, whose first verse is this:

‘God has created me to do him some definite service;
he has committed some work to me which he has not
committed to another.  I have my mission – I may never
know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.’

I love this prayer. God has created each one of us for ‘some definitive service’. Each of us, every human being, has a particular way to serve God and the human family and the drama and true joy of life is discovering your call and living it out. Of course, the vocation of all of us is to be channels of God’s grace in the world, but we each have a ‘definitive’ way of living out this mission. For me, it is as a priest in the Church in Wales; for some it is the religious life; for some it is as a teacher; a parent; a spouse; a care-giver – there are as many calls as there are human beings. And the fullness of our vocation will never be revealed to us in this life, we will only see it clearly when we are ‘told it in the next’.

The opposite statement then is that, as Rowan Williams powerfully articulates in Being Disciples, the central tragedy of human life is to miss your calling: to fail to live out the ‘definitive service’ God has prepared for you. Human success is not about power, money, status or good-looks – God doesn’t care about these human marks of success – the fundamental question is whether you followed the call of God or not. That’s all that matters. Rowan Williams in Being Disciples tells the compelling story of Thomas French:

‘Thomas French’, he says, was ‘a great missionary of the nineteenth century who spent much of his life as bishop in the Persian Gulf at a time when the number of Christians in the area was in single figures, and who died alone of fever on a beach in Muscat. What took him there? What else except the desire to be where Jesus was, the sense of Jesus waiting to come to birth, to come to visibility, in those souls whose lives he touched – even though, in the long years he worked in the Middle East he seems to have made no converts.’ Bishop Rowan goes on to say, ‘it’s the apparent failure, and the drama of that failure, so like the ‘failure’ of Jesus abandoned on the cross, that draws me to his story, because it demonstrates what a discipleship looks like that is concerned with being where Jesus is, regardless of the consequences.’

Bishop Thomas French failed. He failed on all the counts of human success. Yet, in the eyes of God, he flourished as a human creature because he heard the call to be with Jesus Christ amongst the people of the Persian Gulf. He heard the call; he performed that ‘definitive service’ which the Lord commanded him.

‘But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord’ (1.3)

Jonah ignores the call; he flees from the presence of God and the result is ‘a mighty storm’ so violent that Jonah and all the people onboard are put in great danger. The lesson here is simple and powerful: to refuse the divine mission leads to trouble. Jonah thought he could escape the presence of God, but the presence of the Lord is everywhere, even in Tarshish! If Jonah had read Psalm 139, perhaps he’d have thought twice:

‘Where can I go from your spirit?
Or when can I flee from your presence?
If I ascent to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there…’ (Psalm 139.7ff.)

But Jonah is not able to go far – he is thrown overboard and swallowed up by a great fish. We can learn something from this powerful metaphor – Jonah’s will, which was fleeing from God, is (literally) swallowed up and contextualised by a greater will than his own. It can feel like imprisonment; but it’s not – Jonah’s errant will is swallowed up by a greater will and the whale vomits him up exactly where God wants him to be. God’s ‘service is perfect freedom’ (St. Augustine).

It is powerful to remember that the darkest moment of Jonah’s life, the worst thing he has experienced, actually leads him where he wants to go. In this is great hope for us who are in the midst of a difficult time – trust in the Lord! Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish (2.1ff.) shows the depths of his despair (‘I called to the Lord out of my distress’) but also his radical trust that the Lord hears and answers his prayer (‘As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple’).

The book goes on… ‘so Jonah set out and went to Ninevah, according to the word of the Lord’ (3.3)

Having tried to flee and failed, he arrives at the huge city of Ninevah. God brings him to this place and gives him the most unwelcome of messages – ‘forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!’ (3.4). Imagine going through Cardiff or Wrexham or St. Asaph with this message: repent or God will overthrow you! We would probably, like Jonah, flee as far from possible from this task! Yet God always calls us to self-sacrifice; calling us forward on the path of greater love and greater service. This is deeply rooted in Jesuit spirituality: semper meior, always greater! We are always spurred on to greater charity; greater sacrifice; greater love but, as we run the race, we have the promise of greater and greater life taking root in us.

Then, suddenly, Ninevah does the unbelievable – they repent. ‘The people of Ninevah believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth’ (3.5). We can see here how much power is unleashed when we truly follow the will of God – the slightest cooperation with his grace can release the divine life into the world – the power always does infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. When God calls, however the great the task, if we cooperate with his Spirit, there is no telling how wonderful the results.

Then comes the most challenging reminder of this great book – Jonah’s reaction to the faith of the city. We read in the Scriptures:

‘When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah and he came angry.’ (3.10, 4.1)

One of the greatest pitfalls of Christian discipleship is that sense of self-righteous superiority which infects Christian communities. Often we’d rather stay on our pedestal and can’t quite handle when God’s grace shows up and transforms lives around us. But we must remember that our call is to be a channel of the divine love and grace in the world! We can’t sulk when we succeed at that task. Our work is always to bring love, light and grace and not a sense of superiority that seeks to retain its own status, power and position. If you want to share in the divine life: give it away! Then, as you give it away, you will receive more and more! We receive God’s gifts, so to speak, on the fly!

So, what is God calling you to? Jonah ignored God’s call, but when he accepted the work he was given, enormous spiritual energy and power was unleashed into the world. What ‘definitive service’ are you called to? If I’m honest, I’m starting to thing that that is the only question in the world really worth asking – even if it will take all our lives, and the next, to find the answer.

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‘Like Living Stones’ | The Priesthood of all Believers

‘Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ – 1 Peter 2.4f.

The New Testament and the classical tradition of theology has emphasised that every baptised person is a priest. Of course, the ordained or ministerial priesthood has its own particular charism as ‘a walking sacrament’, to quote Farrer, but all believers share together in the holy priesthood of Christ. This is a big claim. Priests are those who mediate between God and human beings – as 1 Peter says, they offer spiritual sacrifices of praise and thus draw humanity up to the Creator. Priests are a pontifex – a bridge between the Trinity and the human heart. Every Christian person is, in this sense, a priest – a builder of bridges.

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‘The Priesthood of All Believers’ by Janet Pfeiffer

The background of our understanding of priesthood comes from the Old Testament. The Old Covenant is full of priests! Moses, Abraham and Noah all offered sacrifice to God and acted as priests but perhaps Aaron is the greatest. Aaron is the founding father of the long line of temple priests, who sustained the worship of Israel until the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. The Jerusalem priests became very interesting figures: they wear special vestments, preside over the complex liturgies of the temple and offer prayer and sacrifice on behalf of the people. In short, these priests were essential to the religious life and imagination of ancient Israel.

Some commentators have attempted to say that Jesus does away with all this priesthood and cult, that he entirely sweeps away this central pillar of the life of the old covenant. I think there’s some real problems with this interpretation. Of course, Jesus was not a temple priest – he was a Rabbi, a teacher of the faith. However, he was clearly temple-centric: the gospels tells us that Jesus often went up to Jerusalem to participate in the sacrificial cult and he often preached in the temple precinct. Then, of course, there is the climax of his public life – the event which probably led to his arrest – when he enters the temple and shocks the foundations of the religious establishment. He enters the temple, turns over the temples of the money changers and pronounces divine judgement: ‘I will destroy this temple and in three days raise it up’. This is a serious judgement, but it comes from his deep love for the temple. Many prophets of Israel, especially Isaiah and Ezekiel, have pronounced judgement on the corruption of the temple – Ezekiel famously saying that the very spirit of God had abandoned the temple in Jerusalem. However, they do this because they love the priesthood and the sacrifices. Jesus too loved the temple – he wanted to cleanse, reform and rebuild it!

When he pronounces judgement, he claims that ‘in three days’ he will raise up the temple but, as the evangelist tells us, ‘he was speaking of the temple of his body.’ Jesus doesn’t hate the temple, but he reorientates it – it would be in his body that God would be properly worshipped. The creeds affirm that in Jesus humanity and divinity come together – he is, in the very structure of his being, a priest and a temple. This is how he interprets his own death – the ultimate temple sacrifice, the great high priestly act. When we hear the words of the Last Supper: ‘take, eat; this is my body which is given for you’ – this is the language of sacrifice – this is the work of a priest! In this, Jesus makes his own body a sacrifice. Then, taking the cup of wine, he says ‘this is the blood of the new covenant’ – again, the language of the temple! Just as the blood of the slaughtered animal was a sign of atonement and reparation for sin; so his blood will be poured out for the sins of all humanity. Jesus is performing the final sacrifice because he is the final perfect priest. Jesus says that he will be in his own dying the temple.

Then we come to verses I quoted above from 1 Peter. The Apostle tells us that we will become ‘like living stones.. built into a spiritual house’ – the language is strange but this would have been entirely comprehensible to Jews who knew the temple! Jesus is the new temple and we are to be living stones within it. This means, as people who belong to the priesthood of all believers, we must be stones in the temple of the Lord’s body. This is the mission of the believer: to be so configured to Christ that your whole life is an offering of praise; that you become a true priest, a bridge between the divine and human. If your life is centred around your identity as a living stone, then your whole life will become an offering of praise and you will radiate the love of Christ to those around you. That’s what it means to be configured to Christ.

If we don’t live out our Christian faith, if we don’t speak about Christ to others, or allow the love of God to radiate out of ourselves then we will fail our mission. We are priests, without our being configured to Christ, no-one will experience the love of God and the temple will crumble! This is summed up in John 14, Jesus’ discourse at the Last Supper, where he is presented as the perfect priest. Philip says to Jesus, ‘Lord, show us the Father’ and Jesus responds ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father.’ That is Jesus’ priesthood, he is the icon of the invisible God – the great bridge between humanity and divinity. Similarly in this chapter, the apostles ask Jesus to ‘show us the way’ and he tells them that he is ‘the way and the truth and the life’! Just as the priest offering sacrifice was offering a path to connect Israel to God, so Jesus is saying, I am myself the High Priest, the perfect sacrifice and the temple! If you want to know God, says Jesus, you need to me.

Wonderfully, this is true, by analogy, of all the baptised. You and I must be the way, the bridge and the means of access to God! By God’s grace, we are to so radiate the divine life that we reconcile humanity and God and draw people to share with us in the temple of the living God.

So be it.

Understanding the Book of Revelation: ‘The Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered’ (Rev. 5.6)

A more academic-style article, exploring the Christology (understanding of Christ) of the Book of Revelation. 

Introduction

The Revelation of John is an apocalyptic text rich in imagery and symbolism, with a particular Christological focus – indeed, it is described in 1.1 as ‘the revelation of Jesus Christ’ and concerns itself with the revelation of Jesus by Jesus, through the angel, to John the seer.  Therefore, it is through how Jesus is presented that we can gain a ‘way in’ to the study of this most complex text of the New Testament. However, having said that, the life and teaching of Jesus are largely ignored, and the focus is on the heavenly exalted Jesus post-resurrection. The book follows a three-stage kemaxresdefaultnotic Christological model with the midd
le act, Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, largely ignored with the focus on the preexistent and post-resurrection Christ. Before beginning, to explore the book of Revelation, we must note that the apocalyptic idiom of the book was probably necessitated by the situation of the Christians in Asia. In the midst of persecution at the hands of the Romans and conflicting claims to power, meant there was a need for a strong stance: if you confess God to have asserted his rule over the world, then you cannot put your trust in any other earthly power or authority.

The most important Christological descriptions we will explore are: Christ as universal saviour and judge who shares in divine authority; as the slaughtered Lamb; the eternal ‘alpha and omega’; and the one worthy of worship alongside ‘the One who sits on the throne’. Finding in chapters 4 and 5 the climax and interpretive key to the text, we will argue that the most significant depiction of Christ is as the Lamb, and we will discuss the implications of this striking image.

Christ: Sovereign Lord

The sovereign and eschatological Lordship of Christ is a central image in the Book of Revelation. Against the backdrop of persecution, it is natural to focus on the sovereignty of Christ, Christ’s judgement on the wicked and the vindication of saints and martyrs. The role of Christ is to turn the kingdoms of the world into the kingdom of the Lord (e.g. 11.15), which is why the concepts of salvation and judgement are so inextricably linked. Because Christ ‘shares the one eternal being of God, what Christ is said to do, in salvation and judgement, is no less truly and directly divine’ than what is said to be done by ‘the One who sits on the throne’. Salvation, the formation of this eschatological kingdom, belongs both to God and to the Lamb (7.10) and they are related together in the New Jerusalem (22.3), which will be the final consummation of Christ’s victory. In this, Christ and God are so closely connected, with language and speech often inseparable, demonstrating a clear sense in which they are seen as, in some way, one in their reign over all creation.

It is this unity in sovereignty which means that ultimate victory is assured and both God and ‘the Lamb’ can occupy the divine throne together (5.6-13). There are political overtones to this understanding of Christ, he is described as ’Ruler of the kings of the earth’ (1.5); ‘the one who is about to shepherd all the nations’ (12.5); ‘Lord’ (11.8; 14.13; 22.20); ‘lord of lords and kings of kings’ (17.14; 19.16), in contrast to the imagery of two beasts (ch. 13), which is an assault on the imperial cult. Clearly then, the image of Christ as ‘lord of lords and king of kings’ is very Christologically significant. It has a twofold purpose: it demonstrates the close identification of Christ and God; and the finality of Christ’s victory over Satan and thus, his lordship over creation. However, this politically charged and powerful language is subverted by the central image which John uses; the ‘Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered’ (5.6).

The Lord of Creation: The Slaughtered Lamb

In the cosmic imagery of the Book of Revelation, the slaughtered Lamb is at the centre of the divine throne and, in a literary sense, at the heart of Revelation. The sacrificial death of Christ is the governing image of how God rules the world and accomplishes salvation – the love-that-suffers-even-to-dying is the messianic conquest and the focus of the book (Boring, ‘The Theology of Revelation’). This image is so significant as it provides the lynch-pin to the book’s central claim: the death and resurrection of Christ has won a decisive victory for God (ch. 5) and the world only awaits the revelation of the already fully consummated victory of God. The Scroll, which governs the narrative of Revelation from chapter 5 onwards, is also closely related to this. Christ is the only one ‘worthy’ to open the scroll, which contains the secret purposes of God for establishing his kingdom (5.1). There is then a deliberate juxtaposition of the language of ‘the lion of Judah’ (5.5), with its militaristic overtones, and the image of the slaughtered lamb (5.6).

lamb-of-god-stained-glass
‘Behold the Lamb of God’

It is the opening of the scroll which is the climax of chapter 5, and John’s decision to subvert the traditionally powerful and militaristic image of the lion with a slaughtered lamb is very significant – God from his throne conquers the world by being a slain lamb and not a devouring lion, this is the shocking irony of Revelation. This reversal of power could be compared to the Johannine theology of the Cross, which subverts the traditional expectations of the glory and kingship of God. The strength, which allows the Lamb to open the scrolls, is deeply unconventional; it lies in the consistent and non-violent resistance to evil which is the witness of Jesus, a resistance which led to his execution. The slaughtered Lamb is rightly described by Boring as, ‘one of the most mind-wrenching and theologically pregnant transformations of imagery in literature.’ The lion, referenced in Proverbs (30.30), 1 Maccabees (3.4) and other Second Temple literature as a symbol of strength and military might is deliberately contrasted with the symbol of a sacrificial death and the meaning of kingship, conquest, strength and power is subverted and redefined.

The Lamb, as we have discussed it, is undoubtedly a significant image for John in Revelation, indeed, I would argue it can be considered the most significant. It is the most significant because it provides the interpretive key through which God can be understood; as the sacrificial-victim in the centre of God’s throne, he is worshipped alongside God, and provides the definitive expression of God’s activity of salvation and judgement. The centrality of chapters 4 and 5 to the book also confirms the importance of this image, which subverts the worldly understandings of power prevalent at the time, and also provides the means of understandings of Christ’s lordship as ‘king of kings’.

The Alpha and the Omega

However, before drawing to a conclusion, we must explore the image of Christ as ‘the alpha and the omega’. This concept is used both of God and Christ (God, 1.17, 22.13 – Christ 21.6 etc.), reflecting the remarkable extent to which Revelation identifies Jesus Christ with God, which prepares the ground for later Christological debate and discussion. The centrality of this designation is underlined by its use seven times, the number of completeness (see also the seven beatitudes scattered through the text). John, in this symbolic use of numbering, shows the significance of this idea and writes the theological detail of his work into the meticulous composition of Revelation. This Christological statement expresses John’s belief that Jesus belongs to the fullness of God’s eternal being. In contrast to adoptionist Christologies, which understand Jesus as only being exalted after his resurrection (although the resurrection is significant in Christ’s participation in God’s Lordship (c.f. 2.28; 3.21)) Jesus in Revelation shares in God’s eternal being from the beginning. This idea has its roots in Isaiah (c.f. 44.6 etc.) and in YHWH’s claim to exclusive monotheism – God and Christ are creator and the bringer of eschatological fulfilment; in other words, the origin and goal of all history. As well as its roots in Isaiah, this idea borrows from the Greek philosophical tradition, it is used in this sense by Josephus in Ant. 8.280 and Philo, as an explication the divine name. However, this is not a static designation of Christ, he is described as ‘to come’, placing the emphasis on the coming salvation and fulfilment of his reign. This is not an ontological expression of self-existence in himself, but a promise of faithfulness and commitment to his people in history.

The designation of ‘the alpha and the omega’ is one way in which Christ is closely identified with the God the Father, which leads us to our final significant way in which Christ is depicted: he is depicted as receiving worship. Worship is a central concept of Revelation, as it indicates that which is due to the One Creator and none else. John undertakes a deliberate treatment of the question of true or false worship: there is the division between those who worship and the dragon and the beast (13.4, 8, 12, 15; 14.9, 11 etc.) and those who worship the one true God (7.15; 14.3; 15.3-4 etc.); there is also the double rejection of worship by the angel who gives John the revelation (19.10, 22.8-9). The worship of Christ is therefore not done from neglect, as the book’s stringent claim to monotheism in the sphere of worship precludes this possibility.

John implies that Jesus is somehow included in the monotheistic being of God. For example, the worship of the Lamb (5.8) parallels that which is offered to God (4.11) and the ultimate aim of the worship of the Lamb (5.8-13) is that it leads to the whole creation worshipping God and the Lamb together (5.13). This is not bitheism, but a functional identification of God and Jesus, in such a way that he can be included in monotheistic worship – particularly interesting is the use of singular verbs (11.15) and pronouns (6.17; 22.3-4) when God and Christ have been spoken about. While this may not be a deliberate allusion, it certainly points to John’s reluctance to talk about God and Christ in the plural. Christ is depicted amongst the candlesticks, which represent the Church, showing his centrality ‘to the life and activities of the churches on earth’, alongside the angels proclamation of ‘the eternal gospel’ which includes the call to worship the Creator (14.7, c.f. 13.8) points to Jesus’ worthiness to receive worship.

Conclusion

To conclude, there are several significant ways in which Christ is depicted in Revelation: his depiction as Lord and ‘king of kings’; as the Lamb who stands slaughtered; as origin and source of all history; and as worthy of worship alongside God. Each of these depictions mutually interpret and inform the others: the Lordship of Christ is informed by his inclusion in the divine identity; his Messianic victory is subverted and reinterpreted in the light of his depiction as the sacrificial victim and the power, worthiness and authority of God are located firmly in the readiness of the Lamb to die. It is therefore, the image of the Lamb which is the most significant of the Christological depictions in Revelation, as it informs the others and, in its central place in the pivotal moment of the text, contains the most profound teaching of the Book; at the centre of the throne of God, which has conquered all creation, is a sacrificial Lamb who governs the way God’s will is manifest in history. It is this Christology which influences the rest of this highly Christocentric and theological vision of creation.

Adapted from an essay submitted for supervision in New Testament Christologies (C3) as part of my Third Year Theology Tripos
at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.