3rd Sunday of Easter

April 29, 2001
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 30
Reading 3: 
Acts 9:1-6 (7-20) and Revelation 5:11-14
Reading 4: 
John 21:1-19
By Barry A. Woodbridge

Last week we took the approach that a new process-informed commentary on Revelation by Dr. Ronald L. Farmer would re-open the issue of preaching the Eastertide series of New Testament lections from the book of Revelation. This week, after reviewing each of the other three lections (Eastertide always substitutes a reading from Acts for the Hebrew bible lection), we will continue exploring Ron’s processive views of the message of Revelation.

Psalm 30, generally thought to be an individual thanksgiving of a person recovering from an illness ("I have cried to you for help, and you have healed me." v.2), serves many different contexts from Hanukkah to Passover. Here it makes appearance in the Easter lections. Perhaps it is verse 3 which gives us the context of thanksgiving specific to this season:

"O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit."

Although the resurrection narratives are about complete transformation and not just restoring to full life in any medical sense, there is the hint in this verse about that strand of the New Testament tradition which suggests Jesus descended to preach good news to the "spirits in prison" (1 Pet. 3:19) before he was transformed and ascended to a new life. The psalmist universalizes this journey for all of us in terms of our descending in order to ascend with thanksgiving, rather that be in a personal tragedy or a society’s coming to terms with its own past in order to be freed to move on.

Acts 9:1-20 brings us Paul’s personal account of and encounter with the resurrected Lord, one so different from the resurrection narratives in the gospels. First, the freshest fury of anger and persecution sets the stage of Saul’s own transformation: "…still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord" (v. 1). Where does this fire-breathing, bullish, pugnacious, diminutive man get his impetus for vengeance? Most of us find that what we want to destroy with that much fury is a displaced part of ourselves. The text has no such twentieth century psychological understanding embedded within it. There usually is no adequate and reasoned rationale for such destructive compulsions, and Luke-Acts doesn’t waste time trying to provide one. What is important is that the power of God to transform is greater than the power in Jesus’ opponents, greater than the all the human and non-human powers of opposition to Jesus’ ministry, and yes, greater than the fury of Saul directed at those in the new "society of followers" code-named "the Way" (v. 2). Rather than neutralize Saul’s tremendous energy of death and destruction, that same basic energy is transformed into missionary zeal. If Saul was quick to persecute, notice the timing after his amazing Damascus road experience: "he got up and was baptized" (v. 18) and then "immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogue, saying ‘He is the Son of God.’" (v. 20). Saul traded one compulsion for another, and like many others who have followed him, the world became the beneficiary of his new compulsion.

There is a similar pattern to the gospel resurrection narrative in John 21. After the productive transformation in fishing, Jesus addresses Peter’s own impetuousness. Peter’s former compulsive claims to follow Jesus anywhere, anytime resulting in three denials, now are counter-balanced by the tri-affirmations of love and purpose. They are now off-set by three opportunities to renew faith in a new and greater community. "Do you love me more than these? Feed my lambs." Here then is the intersection in the New Testament witness of the two lives whose destructive weaknesses were transformed into the uniqueness of the Petrine and Pauline faiths which most shaped the history of response to Jesus in the Christian community.

Revelation 5: 11-14
In the Revelation lection we are literally dropped into a live worship service in progress in the throne room of the heavily host in Rev. 5:11-14. Beginning this reading with verse 11 is like walking into the sanctuary of a very high church liturgy 15 minutes early on the Sunday time changes and finding the pastor already at the table consecrating the elements towards the end of the service because it is really 11:45, not 10:45! Do yourself and you congregation a favor: this once do not start with the suggested verse. If you are preparing to read and preach this lection, it would be better to read at least from 5:6 if not from 5:1 to bring out this richer context.

In terms of extending this reading, perhaps it would be good to note the use of the book of Revelation in the entire three year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary and how this is the only opportunity in all three years to use this chapter and how other denominations already extend the passage back to verse 6:

Rev. 1:1-8 Christ the King B and Easter 2C

Rev. 5:6-14 (or 11-14) Easter 3C

Rev. 7:2-17 All Saints A Easter 4C

Rev. 21:1-6 New Year A, B, All Saints B, and C Easter 5C

Rev. 21:10-22:5 Easter 6C

(Roman Catholic and Episcopal lectionaries have added reading from Rev. 1: 9-19, 4:1-11, 11:19-12:10, and 19:1-19)

These selections comprise a mini "canon within the canon" and together tell what others believe is the message of the book of Revelation. Ron Farmer’s new Revelation commentary has the effect of rescuing much more of the totality of the book of Revelation and showing how its message, once freed from the shackles of older apocalyptic-based treatments, truly represents and is consistent with the freeing good news of the gospel and of a God who frees rather than massacres. Those interpretations required reading Revelation with an understanding that God’s power is exactly like Cesar’s power of the Roman Empire, only greater. Farmer maintains John’s entire message is to challenge the reader to see that God’s power and the Roman Empire’s power are two very opposite kinds of power, the one coercive, the other persuasive. This view of power is not the traditional one most readers have assumed from the often scary and frightening images of unilateral, monopolistic divine power in Revelation. The reader, experiencing the tension between these two propositions, is called upon, even at the risk and reality of death, to side with God’s use of power when compelled to comply with the Roman Empire’s power. In this sense, John promotes a life-and-death mission of civil disobedience. One notes the contrast between John and Paul’s views of civil authority here and has only to consider the passage of time between the two writings and the increasing inhumanity and violence of the Roman Empire.

Ron Farmer shows us that a too often overlooked change of images from chapter 4 to chapter 5 holds the hermeneutical key for understanding the entire book. He writes:

" In reading Revelation, one is wise to examine the dialectical relationship between what John see and what he hears (emphasis added). Auditions and vision explain one another. An unfortunate paragraph break between verses 5 and 6 in most Greek editions and English translations can cause the reader to miss the full impact of two contrasting images. John looks for the Lion of the audition but sees instead the Lamb. The vision of the Lamb bearing the marks of the sacrificial slaughter stands in stark contrast to the militant Lion of the audition."i

Now, to discover the reason and motivation for the high worship occurring in the throne room scene in 5:11-14, we need to see this passage’s greater context of Rev. 4:1- 5:14.

The opening verse of chapter 5 sets the scene for this understanding of power. Farmer observes that John’s attention is drawn to the scroll lying in God’s right palm. How else could he see both sides of the scroll unless it were held in an open hand, not a closed fist? That image is crucial to a fuller understanding of this text. God does not want to withhold but to make available what is in the scroll. The human tragedy is that no one among humans is willing and able to reach out, break the seal, then receive and implement what is contained in it. The Greek in v. 4 ("I began to weep bitterly") shows the strongest kind of inconsolable weeping imaginable. John cannot contain himself when he realizes all God wants to offer for the fulfillment of creation is going to remain unopened and unappropriated because no one is willing and worthy. The best and culminating aim of all divine intentions will lie dormant (one thinks here of Leibnitz’s incompatible possibilities, called "incompossibles," -- each one singular in its beauty and promise, but together clashing and jumbled without an ingress into our reality).

John then sees the Lamb who alone can take the scroll and open it (v.7 "He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne.") The entire purpose of creation contained in this scroll can now be rescued and fulfilled because there is one who can appropriate it and make it available to the faithful but persecuted community. That is why when we join in the middle of worship in verse 11, John looks but hears "the voice of many angels" rejoicing greatly because "Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered." The persuasive power of the slaughtered Lamb has triumphed over that of the Lion, and all creation rejoices in response. Worthy are we who can celebrate this Easter season by opening the deeper message of this text and freeing our listeners to respond in praise, in doxology, and yes, when required, in non-violent civil disobedience against the world’s deterministic and violent power.