Revelation for the Mainliners

September 18th, 2019

“Can we do a study on the book of Revelation?” an enthusiastic parishioner asked towards the end of our Christian formation hour one Sunday. I hesitated, mostly out of my own uncertainty. Having grown up in a Mainline denomination, Revelation never got a lot of attention in Sunday School. Despite the prominence of books like Left Behind and bumper stickers that read “This car unmanned in case of the Rapture,” Revelation was that book at the end of the Bible that we didn’t talk about.

Even still, symbols from Revelation decorated the churches I attended. One time, I asked my mom about the Greek letters on a gate outside our church, and she explained that the Alpha and Omega represented Jesus, the beginning and the end, an image from Revelation. The triumphant lamb, another apocalyptic symbol, also appeared on artwork and vestments in my churches. Without knowing it, I was exposed to apocalyptic imagery but without any scriptural reference for it.

Many Christians like myself who grew up in non-evangelical traditions steered clear of Revelation because of how it gets interpreted in other parts of Christianity. But to avoid it is to abdicate its interpretation entirely, and there is little avoiding it inside or outside the church. The cultural impact of images like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the political impact of end-times theology cannot be ignored, and it is crucial that we are knowledgeable about the book of Revelation in order to challenge dangerous and misguided interpretations.

As a priest in the Episcopal Church, I was exposed to another side of Revelation through the number of funerals I officiated. Several of the options for readings include verses from the latter part of Revelation which details the vision of the New Heaven and New Earth, where “[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4) This wasn’t the Whore of Babylon or the demonic cavalry of earlier chapters that get so much press; this was a beautiful image of the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

Ultimately, I agreed to lead a study of Revelation, and I was glad that I did. People were hungry for a hopeful, nuanced way of reading what is so often taken as a guide map for the apocalypse. We were all surprised by the relevance to our own context, and our study raised questions about how we practice our faith in the midst of Empire and for whom in our world today apocalypse might be good news. Rather than being a book “for us,” as Americans, we also had to reckon with our participation in and support of an empire that mirrors the Babylon and Rome of Revelation.

Given the ecological, economic, and political challenges facing us, we need to reckon not only with end-times theology but with what and in whom is our ultimate hope. God has not promised us an escape hatch to heaven, but through Jesus, God invests in the earth. Revelation paints a picture of God wedding earth to heaven forever in the New Jerusalem. Whether or not the earth will support human life before that is up to us.     

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