Sermon 2 Easter Yr C

2 Easter Yr C, 11/04/2010

Rev 1:4-8

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

“Hope in times of persecution”

When life is full of one trouble after another, what do you need the most? If our government changed their policy from allowing religious freedom to a hostile one of persecuting Christianity—what message would be most appreciated in such circumstances? Well, in our second lesson today, the writer of Revelation, John, in exile on the Island of Patmos, is writing to the Christians in the Roman province of Asia. John was likely writing sometime in the 80s or 90s A.D. when Domitian was the Roman Emperor. Domitian insisted on his subjects worshipping him as lord and god. If Christians refused, they would be persecuted and killed.

John’s message is a little strange. Why? Because it is in the form of a letter, yet it is also, in part, a vision or dream or series of visions and dreams that John was given. The dreams and visions are full of symbols and written in symbolic language. John likely wrote it as an underground code language so that the Christians would receive it and understand it without the Revelation being censored or destroyed by the hostile Roman government. John wrote this apocalyptic literature to encourage the Christians in Asia and give them a message of hope in times of persecution. Even though they suffered under Caesar’s power, John said that they worshipped Christ who was more powerful than Caesar. The slavery and persecution of Caesar could not destroy them. Inside the persecuted Christians were free and could live freely under the power of Christ working in and through them.

People who believe that the powers of oppression have been defeated by the victory that Christ won in the resurrection can indeed live as free people. In his book Engaging the Powers, Walter Wink tells how members of the Solidarity movement claimed freedom even under Communist oppression in Poland:
Solidarity in Poland proved that Jesus’ nonviolent way could be lived even under circumstances of Communist oppression and martial law. People said to one another, in effect, “Start doing the things that you think should be done, and start being what you think society should become. Do you believe in freedom of speech? Then speak freely. Do you love the truth? Then tell it. Do you believe in an open society? Then act in the open. Do you believe in a decent and humane society? Then behave decently and humanely.” This behaviour actually caught on, leading to “an epidemic of freedom in a closed society.” By acting as if Poland were already free, Solidarity created a free country. The “as if” ceased to be pretense and became actuality. Within ten years, Solidarity had taken over the government.1

So, too, in the persecuted Church of the first century, the ancient Christians believed and lived “as if” ceased to be pretense and became actuality. The early Christians defied Caesar’s vainglorious lordship and divinity. Listen to the subversive language of John—making superior claims of Christ’s Lordship and Divinity.

John speaks of Christ as “the faithful witness.” In the Greek, the word for witness can also be translated as martyr. So John is referring, in a slightly veiled fashion, to Christ’s death on the Cross. Jesus was “faithful” in that he knew he was going to his most despised death on the Cross—having predicted it at least three times on his way to Jerusalem. If you’re like most folks, you would rather avoid such a cruel and indignant death if you were given the opportunity to do so. Not Jesus. Rather, he was “faithful,” willing and ready—insofar as anyone can humanly be ready—to face his suffering and death. John says Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s will led to him being a witness and/or martyr. The irony and economy of God is such that it reverses everything we, in our human nature value. Jesus was a witness, a martyr because of his faithful, innocent suffering and death. He was a witness to countless others down through the centuries who also would face untold sufferings and cruel deaths. Jesus’ death on the Cross continues to give strength and courage to those who suffer and die today due to injustices and the evil abuse of power. His death on the Cross also provides hope to the hopeless; those whom the world today could and does care less about; the forgotten ones living under oppressive regimes; the lost children and youth who are forced into military and sexual slavery, and drug addiction by evil predators, thugs and bullies. Jesus’ death on the Cross was also, and especially, for the least of these his brothers and sisters.

John goes on to make the claim that Jesus is “the first-born of the dead.” In this claim, John is referring to Christ’s resurrection and the hope that those who follow him shall also be resurrected from the dead. As the “first-born” he is the privileged and honoured One who conquered the powers of sin, death and evil by God raising him from the dead. The apostle Paul says that one of the inheritances of our baptism is that we too shall share in Christ’s death and resurrection. So, again, in response to this inheritance, we are free to live “as if” there is a resurrection in every death that we die. We die in countless ways as we journey through this life. However, death does not have the last word; Christ’s resurrection power transforms our deaths into new, resurrection life because he is the first-born of the dead. Moreover, as the first-born of the dead, he has, as we learn in John fourteen, gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us; waiting with open arms to welcome us into his resurrection presence. We have a foretaste of that already through the Church, the Word and the Sacraments, along with the communion/community of sinner-saints—delighting in each other’s company; you, me, and folks of every tribe and nation.

Another claim that John makes for Christ is that he is “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” In making this claim for Christ, John is saying that the exalted Christ is the highest authority over all other earthly authorities. The exalted Christ in heaven is King of kings and Lord of lords as a consequence of his all-sufficient victory over sin, death and the powers of evil. Reference to Christ being first-born and ruler of the kings of the earth is most likely based on Psalm 89:27, where we read: “I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.” A close study of Revelation shows that John knew the Hebrew Bible thoroughly and quotes from it often, either implicitly or explicitly. This verse from Psalm 89 was interpreted by the Jewish rabbis to be a reference to the Messiah. So here John is saying that Jesus is the Messiah and he rules from heaven over the kings of the earth. Such a claim, once again, of course, is a challenge to the lordship and divinity of the Roman Emperor.

Continuing with the passage, John then moves from highlighting the claims of Christ’s Lordship and Divinity to describing what Christ has done for us. In Lutheran tradition, we are fond of saying to know Christ is to know and receive his benefits.

John says that Christ loves us. His love is perfect love. He is not a fickle, “fair-weather” lover—only in times of joy and success. No. His love is an everlasting love—it is always there for us. He loves us at our worst, at our best and every time between the two extremes. His love is an unconditional love. He does not say, ‘I’ll love you only if you do this or that and fulfill thus and so conditions. No. He loves us without placing any conditions on us. He says, ‘I love you because I love you, without conditions.

Another benefit John says that Christ does for us is he has “freed us from our sins by his blood.” In the Hebrew Bible, God told the Israelites to place the blood of a lamb on their doors; that blood would be seen by the angel of death who would then pass over that door and everyone in the house would be saved from death. Christ for us Christians is our Passover Lamb. His shed blood has atoned for our sins. Just as the Passover for the Israelites saved them from death and brought them freedom from Egyptian slavery; so Christ our Passover Lamb and his shed blood saves us and has freed us from slavery to our sins. We are now freed to love and serve God and neighbour thanks to Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross.

Yet another benefit Christ has given us John says is that he has “made us a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father.” That is a quotation of Exodus 19:6: “You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.” Jesus has done two things for us.

He has given us royalty. Through him we may become the true sons (and daughters) of God; and, if we are sons (and daughters) of the King of kings, we are of lineage than which there can be none more royal.

He made us priests. The point is this. Under the old way, only the priest had the right of access to God. In the vision of the great days to come Isaiah said: “You shall be called the priests of the Lord” (Isaiah 61:6). In that day every one of the people would be a priest and have access to God. That is what John means; because of what Jesus Christ did access to the presence of God is now open to every (person).2 So for folks living under persecution, such benefits would be most uplifting and motivate them to live life to its fullest with courage and commitment to Christ, their risen Lord and Saviour. May it also be true for us today. Amen.  

1 Cited from: Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 265.

2 Cited from: Wm. Barclay, The Revelation of John: Volume 1 Chapters 1-5 (Burlington, ON: Welch Publishing Co., Inc., 1976), p. 35.

About dimlamp
I am, among other things, a sojourner, a sinner-saint, a baptized, life-long learner and follower of Jesus, and Lutheran pastor. Dim Lamp: gwh photos:

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