The Resurrection Reality – Life has just got a lot more complicated
John to the seven churches that are in Asia:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.
“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. (Revelation 1:4-18 ESV)
The resurrection was an unexpected event despite Jesus’ references to it. We can imagine that he wasn’t taken seriously when he spoke – or it was thought that he meant some sort of spiritual-God-thing. The women went to the tomb that Sunday morning to continue the burial process not to be the resurrection cheer squad. The disciples weren’t there as one might imagine Alfred for Bruce Wayne after an evening adventure – ‘Been to hell I understand, Jesus, you’re looking good’ as they handed him a towel and cool drink. No, the disciples only went to the tomb to see what the women were talking about! And we can imagine them muttering ‘Empty tomb indeed! What nonsense!’.
By the evening of that first Sunday it was a different story. Mysterious, unnerving, wonderful, enigmatic encounters on the road to Emmaus, at the breaking of the bread, in the locked room changed the disciples’ world for ever. Despair turned to joy. Death was gone as the implacable foe – that final victor who knocks us down for the count. Death can come but now the disciple sees what he has believed – Jesus. The world was never the same again.
To which the world hurrumphs or sighs – either will do – and says, ‘The world is still the same thank you very much – there is still death and taxes to face; family, work, politics, and the economy to navigate; health to court and disease to avoid. Nothing has changed. You Christians are deluded – death is death – and your Jesus died – he isn’t coming back – so keep his memory if you want but settle back into your place in society, resume being a cog in the empire, keep your head down and just get on with life as it really is and not with your delusional resurrection.’
Now we don’t mind people living with their delusions as long as they don’t affect or interfere with us. And that’s where these Christians – these followers of Jesus – went wrong according to the world. They didn’t keep the delusion to themselves. This wasn’t just a new piece of knowledge to have. This wasn’t something just for Sundays. This didn’t just affect them privately and personally. What those first disciples got a glimpse of during Jesus’ 40 days on earth before his ascension was more and more aspects of the resurrection reality. This event – this one event pointed to the completion of Jesus’ rescue on the cross – he did finish the job – humanity is saved – and consequently life – living, relationships, death and taxes, family, work, politics, the economy, health, disease has changed. The world’s right in that these things haven’t changed out of recognition but their impact on us, their shaping of us, their control of us, their purpose for us, their meaning will never be the same again – because Jesus has risen from the dead. Jesus told his followers that they were witnesses of this new world, of new creation breaking into the world – and they learnt – as each generation does – what this means practically for their time and place.
And this is what the world notices. Christians not only believe that Jesus is alive but live as if he is – in the same world but not marching to the world’s drum. ‘We forbid you to speak of this Jesus’ demanded the Jewish officials. ‘We charge you with atheism for you are disloyal to the empire because you refuse to worship the emperor’ cried the Roman Empire. And there are countless variations on these messages. To which the Christians replied, ‘We must obey God rather than man’. The resurrection reality is that these followers of Jesus are troublesome – independent – they pick and choose when they conform to this world – group – country – political party – tribe – guild – union – family. So the first century world found the followers of Jesus to be good workers, honest, compassionate – ‘teams players’ in society at times (after all, they paid their taxes to Caesar) but they would also break boundaries – they ignored class, guild, even family at times – and seemed most genuinely concerned about their ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’. And then they could also be the most obstinate of nuisances – and nothing would budge them if they refused this or that action – said they were following Jesus – and if the fear of death has been removed from them, then what can the world do?!
Now it is easy to describe following Jesus in such terms – syllables in the air – talk is easy – but it is always very very hard to do. Sort of like taking up a cross … and no generation wants to be the one that specifically suffers persecution for the faith but each generation needs to realise that this world isn’t our home and the world will only tolerate Christianity and Christians as long as we conform to their expectations of whatever standard or issue or ethic is the ‘matter of the moment’. That is why for us of the affluent West who live in the 21st century to imagine Christians living in the first three centuries is quite difficult for we live in the trajectory when Christianity became legalised in the Roman Empire early 4th century and within a few decades had become ‘mainstream’. Back then the Church’s difficulties were just as real but harder to see as church and state merged more and more – and it is so commonplace for us now, that we too have difficulties working out how to be church in the world.
And so to give us a perspective to remember what the resurrection of Jesus means – and to provide comfort and, I think, challenge for Christians in the first century and beyond, Jesus gives to John a revelation for the Church – ‘Write what you see’ John is told – which we know today as the Book of Revelation. This is John as scribe, secretary, eyewitness reporter – not dramatist, author, or poet – for he is receiving what Jesus has to show him. This is John towards the end of the first century or it may have been a few decades earlier, on the island of Patmos ostensibly because of Christian persecution – again, we don’t know the exact details of John’s situation or whether we are in the aftermath of Emperor Nero or later in the time of Emperor Domitian.
We do know that the Christians have suffered persecution in these first decades – and first centuries – not in a sustained way across the Empire but as one deals with violent storms that blow into a certain area or region and cause mayhem and destruction, dislocation and new beginnings. They lived in an empire that claimed to be the most powerful and most noble – and when it was good, it wasn’t bad, but when it was bad, it was evil. The Emperor called himself Autocrator (ruler with absolute power) and the Christians tried to just get on and live peacefully and quietly with their neighbour. But it wasn’t easy.
So on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, John in worship hears a voice and turns around. That’s the action of our second reading! That’s it. Being a Christian meant knowing tribulation, enduring patiently, and being a member of a kingdom trying to live in an Empire – always tough with competing allegiances. As he looked out at a tough world, something is behind him. No, this isn’t a pantomime! – and naturally – we all would too – he turns and sees … reality – the resurrection reality – the spiritual truth that is hidden in this physical world – Jesus is standing in the midst of the Church! He is standing among the lampstands. He was dead but now he is alive. His voice is like a niagra of rushing water. He is dressed in glory and power – brightness, fire, light emanates from him. He isn’t remote like some ancient force unable to sympathise with individuals. No on the contrary, he knows people individually – he knows what’s going on.
The sight is too much for John – who falls as though dead – who faints before God’s glory and yet the one who holds the Church in his hand, now uses that hand to lift up, revive, support, and encourage one individual. ‘Fear not!’ or ‘Do not be afraid’ are also words often said to us – meant to comfort, encourage, embolden – but totally rely on the speaker. Not anyone can say ‘Don’t be afraid!’ – not really. But Jesus can. I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. He is Lord of the living and the dead.
Of course John writes this experience after the event. How long does it take to hear something and turn around? And yet it has taken John one chapter to write it all down. The book of Revelation is like that. Time is almost meaningless as John writes scene after scene that he sees – messages for the Church – all with the same foundation. The Lord Jesus stands in the midst of the Church. The Lord Jesus reaches out and supports each Christian. That is the resurrection reality.
Back in first century, the Roman Emperor claimed to be Autocrator (an absolute ruler). Today we have other people and powers claiming similar status in the world and over people. John declares simply that God is almighty – Pantocrator. God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – He Who Sits on The Throne (Rev 4:8; 11:17) – He who is the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last is Pantocrator (he has all power in heaven and on earth … even over the Autocrator!). Jesus also uses the terms ‘First and Last’ – indeed he is the firstborn of the dead – and often acted with what appeared divine presumption on earth. Of course, the world rejected him but his followers know the truth – Jesus is Lord.
Those who follow Jesus thus learn about God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who has acted to rescue us and who can be trusted, no matter what storms may rage in our lives. God sustains his people through words, water, bread and wine and so we follow him each day as we live in our relationships in this world. Jesus is Lord and he sends us back into this world to serve – no matter what the world does to us.
- Revelation 1:4 - 18