First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Easter 3

William Loader

Easter 3: 5 May  Revelation 5:11-14

The imagination of worship. John's vision pictures God in the context of a royal setting, a common image when human beings seek to portray the greatest and most wonderful people they can imagine. For John as for many, the greatness of God is best portrayed using such images. God sits on a throne. People bow before the throne. They acclaim God with songs. Power and glory matter most. It is what might one imagine in an eastern royal court transported into the heavenly realm.

How does one express awe? How does one acknowledge the god-ness of God? Some might do so with colour; others with images taken from nature; others with experiences drawn from intimacy and love. Here we have the most common: the imagery of rulers. Perhaps memory and tradition preserved the impact of experiences of awe when such kings paraded with great armies or great fanfare. There is something impressive about pageantry and the grand style of opulent monarchs and their courtiers. There are modern equivalents. The great Russian May Day parades. Huge numbers impress. For some of us the nearest we come to receiving such indelible impressions is in massive sports stadiums or the openings of Olympic Games.

In Revelation 4-5 we move with the pageantry of power and before us parade mysterious beings, elders, living creatures, thousands upon thousands of angels. It is awesome. The poetry of the images evokes wonder or, at least, that is its design. It is so overwhelming (and strange) that we can easily forget that it is imagery. It is imagination's movie crafted to express and reflect the wonderful being of God. Awe before another human being is not at its best an issue of subservience but of love and respect. It is acknowledging the holiness of the other in wonder. With God it is no less. It is letting ourselves have space to meet and engage God's being.

 For some the body posture will follow the contours of court obeisance because that is the language we know. For others a body posture of a different sort may emerge expressing openness and love. We are moving among the languages today and exploring alternatives to court models, not least because they have not in reality been the place to find the best people and sometimes they have implicitly celebrated power rather than compassion. That has negative consequences for our understanding of God and negatives consequences among those who imitate such ideas of God and strut power instead of sharing love in their exercise of leadership. The court imagery is seriously flawed and too often reflects what human beings have adored and not what Jesus taught us to adore.

The image of Jesus has a way of subverting such systems. Our passage is heavily influenced by the scene in Daniel 7:9-14) where a human figure, "one like a son of man", who represents and leads the people of Israel comes to the holy throne of God which is surrounded by countless hosts of angels, to receive a kingdom. Much of Revelation is a recycling of biblical motifs which come to us through the dreamlike images of the writer. In this case the one to receive a scroll from the God is announced first as the lion of Judah and the root of David (5:4-5), but enters the scene as a slain lamb. It is an extraordinary violation of the norms of power and dignity. The one most highly honoured is a lamb looking as if it had been been slaughtered - because it had been (5:6)! Something quite bizarre! The lamb receives the scroll whose seals control all that matters (5:7).

The scenes which follow show all these royal dignitaries and heavenly courtiers celebrating this powerless figure who has now been given all power. This is a subversion within the court discourse, almost a parody of power. Using celebratory language drawn from Israel's worship (especially 1 Chron 29:11-12, but also from elsewhere) the heavenly entourage hail a new hero or anti-hero. The slain lamb was the liberator (5:9). All creation in heaven and earth acclaims the new god-image or image of God. It is a very, very odd scene. It remains in the world of royal discourse, but it twists it to a point of absurdity which invites us to start again.

"Worthy is the lamb!" opens for us the opportunity to turn our thinking and our living upside down. The mythical magic of the scene invites its own undoing and might ultimately cause the whole construction of elevated dignity to collapse. "Worthy is the lamb" is perhaps something we should whisper to each other in the darkness of Gethsemane. We will know the meaning of Amen when we find God's being in the broken images and the brokenness of earthed compassion.

See also Worthy Worship? A Theological Reflection on what we do.

First Reading: Easter 3: 5 May  Acts 9:1-6 (7-20)
Gospel: Easter 3: 5 May  John 21:1-19


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