This morning's scriptures for World Communion Sunday are Isaiah 25:6-10a and Revelation 7:9-17.
Visions, like the Revelation of John, can be even more difficult to comb out. They aren’t literally happening, but they aren’t just stuff your subconscious makes up in its free time while you’re sleeping. They aren’t really predictions of the future, but they aren’t just recalls of the past or analogies of just the present either. They are hard to figure out and don’t have just one direct meaning for all time because in them, the future, the present, and the past all overlap and weave together.
In both our passages this morning – Isaiah 25 and Revelation 7, we see a suffering people. They are people undergoing persecution because of their racial and religious heritage, in the case of these passages. In Isaiah – it’s the Jewish people, in Revelation, it’s the early Christians. The Jews in Isaiah are already suffering persecution and oppression, but the Christians in John’s community are warned that it’s coming. The people in the throne room of God in Revelation - the people dressed in white – are those who have come through great persecution.
John’s vision isn’t about the persecution, however. It’s focal point is how God does not allow this persecution to go unchecked. There is hope for the persecuted. There will be an end to the suffering. They will have shelter in God’s throne room, they will have a feast set before them so they won’t have to ever worry about being hungry again. They will see death swallowed up! Their tears will be wiped away and they will be clothed in new garments.
They aren’t dressed in white because they are holy or because their persecution made them special. Suffering doesn’t redeem anyone. Rather, these persecuted people are redeemed from their suffering by Jesus who makes them as good as new. The are clothed in his holiness.
John says that this persecution and salvation from it are going to happen, even though God has already won. This is where the future and the present get all tangled up in the way that we understand things. That’s where we have to be careful not to look at passages like this as a straight historical timeline. That’s not the point of it. The point is not to warn the people about some exact thing that is going to happen to them, but rather to say generally, “Yes. Persecution is going to happen. Suffering is out there and you are not exempt from that. But God cares. God will shelter you. There is a bigger hope, a bigger concern, a much bigger picture, and a brighter future than what is happening here and now.”
The point is this: God will protect those who have suffered. God will shelter the persecuted. God did not just create everything and walk away, intervening only when the whimsy strikes. God did not just get mad at humanity and step out for a while until some arbitrary date at the end of the world. God is there, protecting and sheltering, caring and intervening. It just doesn’t always happen on our timeline. We’re not offered a justification of God’s timeline here, but we are assured that God provides in God’s time and that our hopes are to be founded on this eternal picture of holy worship.
This is a busy weekend for worship. Yesterday, we held our first ever blessing of the animals. This is a sort of service with a long history in the Christian tradition. It goes back all the way to a friar named Francis from Assisi in Italy who was active in the late 12th and early 13th century. He is the author of the words of “All Creatures of Our God and King” – one of my very favorite hymns ever. He’s known for his deep appreciation for all of creation and all of God’s creatures. The first weekend of October is often dedicated to his memory and protestant and Catholic churches alike mark it by offering prayers of thanksgiving and blessing for their animal friends.
Today is World Communion Sunday, where we celebrate our brotherhood and sisterhood with fellow Christians around the world. All around the world, churches are celebrating communion today as a sign of peace and community. This is one of my favorite Sundays of the year knowing that there are church families just like ours celebrating communion this morning all around the world.
When we think about the beauty of creation, about the beauty of our fellow Christians, it’s often tempered by the thought that people can be rotten to one another, to creation, to animals. Because I support the local animal shelters and rescue centers, I see a lot of news about animals who have been treated cruelly and neglected. And we don’t have to look far to see evidence of people being terrible to other people. Just this week, there was another mass shooting in another school – this time a college – next time perhaps another high school or elementary school or a mall or who knows, but there are so many any more they seem to blur together. Christians around the world are being persecuted for their beliefs –jailed and tortured and killed because of their beliefs. There is out and out genocide happening in places like Syria and Iraq.
What can we do when we are faced with this sort of awful disregard for the beautiful people that God has created and placed around us? How do we respond to cruelty toward animals and misuse of the resources creation has to offer us? What is the Christian response to violence and terror and abuse and oppression? To the sort of human-inflicted suffering and persecution that the early Christians had to endure?
N. T. Wright says this about Revelation 7:9-17:
Yes, God is rightly angry with all those who deface his beautiful creation and make the lives of their fellow humans miserable and wretched. But the reason he is angry is because, at his very heart, he is so full of mercy that his most characteristic action is to come down from the throne and, in person, wipe away every tear from every eye. Learning to think of this God when we hear the word, “God”, rather than instantly thinking of a faceless heavenly bureaucrat or a violent celestial bully, is one of the most important ways in which we are to wake up from the nightmare and embrace the reality of God’s true day.
When we lose sight of the already but not yet scene that happens here in Revelation, we lose sight of God. When we look only to the suffering around us, we find ourselves overwhelmed by the hopelessness of it, which is why Isaiah and John both offer us these beautiful pictures of hope and joy. While God’s people are certainly called to care about the suffering around them and to do all in our power to help the persecuted and oppressed and to take tender care of all God’s creation, we are first and foremost called to bring glory and praise to the God who not only reigns from the throne, but who invites us into the throne room for shelter.
Part of what we’re doing at communion is celebrating the ultimate reality – that eternal hope that while we may have to walk through some serious garbage now, there is something greater to place our trust in. In communion, we are lifted up to the throne room. And that all those who have gone before us celebrate with us as we gather. Past, present, and future from all around the world all collide and weave together as we celebrate this table this morning.
Wright, Tom. Revelation for Everyone. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011., 76