Monday, October 18, 2004

A Second Round with Apocalypse -- Now

OK, Br. RAR (or is that Br’rar?), this one is for you: Tonight is my final class on Revelation (the Apocalypse) of St. John, and I shall miss these Monday classes – as well as my self-disciplined preparation for them. I have learned an enormity; I have gained a new teacher in Prof. Craig Koester; I have a valuable addition to my library in his book REVELATION AND THE END OF ALL THINGS.

Tonight, we finally get around to Armageddon (actually, we dealt with that last week, too) and the New Jerusalem. In anticipation of the class, I set out a couple of my insights from my reading in the Apocalypse and in Koester’s book. (These are not original ideas of my own, although Prof. Koester should not be blamed for them. His book has helped lead me to where I end up, but I’m not claiming that he intended that I should arrive where I land.)

I am excited – and, justly, horrified – to realize that the battle of Armageddon is a present realty. You’d think that all my training in law and gospel in Lutheran theology would have taught me that. And, to be sure, I have always recognized the on-going, current struggle of faith. But I have never seriously read the Apocalypse to realize that that is its insight, too. And my great interest is “eschatology” has not, so far, led me to the Apocalypse of St. John – which I tended to dismiss as “apocalyptic” versus “eschatological” preaching. So I am embarrassed that my training is so narrow.

To some extent, the apocalyptic crowd – Hal Lindsey, the LEFT BEHIND folks, and how many others? – are correct: Apocalyptic battles are already occurring. To the extent that even the most problematic interpreters of the Apocalypse raise that alarum, they are correct. To the extent that they anticipate only a future and final battle somewhere beyond historical time, they do not carefully read the book, I think.

In John’s visions, the battles between the forces of evil – symbolized by Satan, the beast, the dragon, the harlot – and the force (note my deliberate use of the singular) of righteousness occur even as we read the book. But these battles are not military battles in the sense that we ordinarily – and especially in this time of the “war” on terror – take. I am surprised to have pointed out to me (because I have never recognized the fact) that the ONLY weapon carried by the force of righteousness is the sword that issues from the mouth of Christ – in other words, not a “weapon” at all, but the Word of God. The weapon of righteousness is not a literal sword – let alone a tank or a missile or a nuclear bomb – but is the proclamation of the Word – i.e., the reality and will – of God. It was proclaimed originally by Messiah Jesus, and is now announced by his successor prophet-proclaimers, the Church.

The contemporaneity of the great battle(s) is mightily important, as is demonstrated by the juxtaposition of the opening chapters (the letters to the churches) with all the battle scenes. What is the scene of the battles – even of the great, culminating battle at Har Megiddo? It is the local parish setting – i.e., up close and personal to the lives of believers. What is the cause of the conflict – i.e., over what is the battle fought? It is lackadaisical faith commitment, consumerism, too much accommodation to (indeed, assimilation into) the surrounding culture. Those are battles facing the Church in every place and every age. And to that extent, at least, the Church in every age is in the final conflict for the “end of history.” (For that reason, I wonder – and perhaps Koester will deal with this – whether Armageddon is not so much a picture of one final-and-for-all-time as it is a symbol for the great, current, existential battle that the community of faith in a particular time and place faces for itself. And, on this view, then, Armageddon is not one battle, but several throughout history.)

Prof. Koester speaks beautifully of the “end” of history. He helped me to see that we must use the word “end” carefully and deliberately. For the Apocalypse deals with the end of history, not in the sense of “end” as conclusion, but in the sense of “end” as goal, as “telos,” as fulfillment. History’s “end” is not a nuclear explosion – which could very well bring the history of the earth to a temporal end, I admit. History’s “end” – i.e., its goal or its point or its fulfillment – is in the gathering of the tribes and nations to worship “around the glassy sea.” John’s concern, then, is not to forecast or describe how the earth’s history will cease, but it is to describe how the Creator’s work of art is fulfilled when faithful recipients of his grace offer their praise and worship. Today, then, can as well be the end of history as some future point (whether vague or pinpointed). For Christians who place their ultimate trust in God-revealed-in-Messiah, history has – in a penultimate sense – reached its end, even if it does not stop.

When I gather with my congregation to sing God’s praises and to meet him face-to-face in the Eucharist, history has “ended” – i.e., be fulfilled. That there will be some final fulfillment beyond the contemporary is suggested by the language of the “first” and “second” resurrection. I’m not sure that that is an apt way to read that passage, so I have a question in mind for tonight’s class. For me, however, it fits.

A natural implication to draw from that is the recognition that Christians are not called to be violent participants in some kind of armed conflict (in the sense that the world understands that) – or even to relish the idea of violent Goetterdaemerungen. Rather, Christians are called to be non-violent resisters to the evil which the Word of God takes on – suffering servants, proclaimers and trusters of the Word of God, witnesses by their resolution to the faithfulness of God who promises not to abandon us. As I noted earlier, the armies of heaven are not armed, but merely (?) accompany the One who rides the White Horse. Those who face battle are not called to do battle, but to resist – to wear their white robes (bleached by the suffering of Christ) and to resist forces of violence, nihilism, hedonism, economic misdeeds, sexualism, “modernism,” less-than-seriousness, and all the other problems identified in the book as the works of the antagonists of God.

When I first met Stanley Hauerwas – one of the most combative and consistent pacifist theologians one is likely to meet or read – he autographed one of his books to me, encouraging me to faithful service in the “Army of God.” I questioned his use of a military term to refer to the life of faith. He responded that the people of God ought not to let others set the terms of discourse or to claim exclusive right to the use of certain well-established terms in the Christian lexicon. His point was that the Scriptures (especially the New Testament) speak of the army of God without in any sense intending to portray them as militarists. While there is a war to be fought, the weapons of that war are not swords, guns, or missiles; rather, the weapons are the Word of God (on our part, at least). I now see that he has a most apt apocalyptic view of the life of faith.

It was that that encounter with Hauerwas that set me to rethinking my feelings about the BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC. Last week, Prof. Koester made much of that hymn. He pointed out that that hymn is really just a retelling of the Battle of Armageddon (more evidence that the Church best sings some of her theology). But even before hearing him say that, I had “rehabilitated” the hymn for my soul, with its warrior and conflict imagery, for the Church’s use. (Actually, I WAS REHABILITATED for the singing of the hymn by Prof. Hauerwas.. And, because the hymn’s call for and reassurance of justice has always gripped me in the voicebox and tear duct when I sing it, I am happy for the transformation.) Knowing that by singing the hymn, I am singing the Book of the Apocalypse makes it just that much better.

Resistance – the modus operandi of the Church – is exercised in numerous ways, I suppose. (That would make a really good topic for a series of adult fora in congregations: How can we avoid the Spirit’s indictments of the seven congregations at the beginning of the Apocalypse?) But military might (including individual armaments) is not one of them. On this I think the testimony of the Apocalypse is clear: Christ’s word is the sword; faith is the defensive breastplate; love is the battle plan – strategic and tactical.

That insight feels delightful: It confirms my political stance against Star Wars missile defenses, against apocalyptic-inspired warmaking (sometimes called “preventive war”), against reliance on military might for our “defense” (a political position I arrived at primarily on the witness of the Sermon on the Mount, but which now seems to have an even broader base). In the Church, promoting and/or justifying war, et. al., ought to be out-of-bounds thinking, so Christians ought also to vote against the same, I think. Blood-stained uniforms are not the dress of Christians – white linen baptismal gowns are. Only Messiah wears a blood-stained alb, and his is stained with his own blood, not that of his victims – sacrificial blood, not defensive-wound blood. (After reading this book, the Church ought to reflect on Lady Macbeth’s lesson: The stain of unrighteousness blood is indelible. And I have to say that I never expected to invoke the good – er, bad – Lady in any theological reflection!)

Just-war thinking: Are you next for the indictment of the Spirit?

In any event, thank you, Professor-brother Craig, if you happen to read this. You have excited me in a long-neglected (at least by me) aspect of the faith – one I shall be working on for a long time.

This last book in the Bible is a beautiful thing. We ought all to know it better. Happy reading, brothers and sisters.


Anonymous said...

Br. DJP,

Good stuff in this post - interesting and thought-provoking. I'll have to read Koester's book on Revelation.
Might we look forward to an Adult Forum series from you on the Bible's last book and the lessons it has for the faithful?? I, for one, would certainly attend.


Dwight P. said...

You know, Br. RAR, I had not considered it: In recent years, we've had brief forays into millenialism and into the Left Behind movement. It might be fun to plagiarize Br. Koester's perspective and do a little Bible Study at the same time. (Why do we do so little Bible Study in our parish, anyway?)

I'm certainly not ready to undertake it right now. I want to read some more (I can hear my wife: "MORE books? Arggh!). But I might like to correlate some things. It seems that the best way for me to figure something out is foolishly to volunteer to lead an adult forum about it.

We must see. But thanks for the encouragement (or what I took to imply encouragement, anyway).

Peace, brother.

Anonymous said...

You read my encouragement correctly, Brother. Go for it!

Anonymous said...

If I may...

Yes, we don't do enough bible study in our parish (although that can change--I have ideas), we do often have hymn sings. Brother Dwight, you could certainly engage Brother Mark or Sister Joyce to sit at the piano during adult forum and teach us about singing Revelation. I'd certainly be there!

Sister Dash

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