+ Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Rev 7:13-14
I remember him well. He was a policeman, and was engaged in the serious sort of study required of those who wish to be ordained. The class had been wrestling with an awkward bit of the New Testament and suddenly he asked: “Right then, what does it really mean?” When I began, “Well, that depends …”, his frustration got the better of him. “Teachers, you’re all the same! There’s never a straight answer to anything!” My heart went out to him. Here was an honest man, seeking to answer the call of God on his life. Just when he thought he was secure in his faith, clear about his vocation and ready to flourish in his training, he was faced with questions on every side.
Of course, for those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the benefits of the academy, my response may not seem so odd. We are accustomed to considering shades of meaning and weighing differing opinions. But this man’s working life was dominated by questions of fact: was that car exceeding the speed limit or not? Were the fingerprints of this young man to be found on the knife flung aside after a burglary? Was this young lady telling the truth when she said that she hadn’t meant to take goods out of the shop without paying for them? Establishing the truth about things was very important to him.
And so it is to us as people of faith. The problem of meaning in the New Testament, of intelligibility, is an ever-pressing issue. Tonight’s texts give us a wonderful set of examples to tackle. The Acts account of the death and raising of Tabitha a.k.a. Dorcas, seems straightforward enough, until we give it closer attention. Perhaps we should begin there.
As always with Luke, we need to remember that although his primary thrust is historical, it isn’t ‘history as we know it, Jim’. Luke is shaping and moulding his material to demonstrate his belief that human history is the arena of God’s activity. He isn’t really concerned with a straightforward narration of the facts. His main focus in part 2 of his work (Acts), is with the orderly and unstoppable spread of the Gospel from Jerusalem to the uttermost parts of the earth (Rome). As Acts comes to an end, Paul is in the imperial city, proclaiming the Gospel without hindrance. So, as we approach the story set for today, we need to ask why Luke tells it: what is its place in his history?
Well, this section of Acts has two tales running in parallel, that of Paul and that of Peter. The chapter begins with the account of Paul’s conversion and early ministry in Damascus, his unseemly departure from that city and attempt to join the disciples in Jerusalem. It requires the intervention of Barnabas to win acceptance for Paul, who then stirs up a storm of opposition before being sent to Tarsus.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Peter has been going about here and there among the believers. He heals a man who is paralysed, and many find faith through this. Then Tabitha, one of the saints, dies and is prepared for her burial—that is to say, make no mistake about it, she was really dead. Peter responds to the call to come without delay to Lydda and raises her. The tale spreads like wildfire, and many more folk come to faith.
This seems straightforward enough, but we need to remember that in part 1, the Gospel, Luke has shown two similar miracles of raising the dead: that of the son of the Widow of Nain, and that of the daughter of Jairus. These two miracles bear striking resemblance to the doings of Elijah and Elisha of old. So in our tale, Peter is doing what Jesus did, and Jesus does what the great prophets do before him. But it goes beyond that, for Jesus also teaches in Luke that the only sign that will be given to those who refuse belief is that of Jonah, who is raised whole out of the whale’s guts. That is to say, the sign for the generation is the resurrection of a beloved child; the resurrection of God’s anointed one.
What we have in the tale of Tabitha, then, is more than a little incident involving Peter that places him in the line of the prophets. We are expected to see the event as part and parcel of the core proclamation of the faith. Christians are those who stand up for the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ—none more so that Tabitha, who literally gets up, proclaiming the good news in her flesh. It isn’t surprising that such a faith spreads everywhere.
Where Acts seems clear enough to one who will work at it a little, Revelation seems opaque. While we can see a bit of what is going on, there are few straightforward markers in the text to aid interpretation. On any scale measuring intelligibility, this work scores fairly low down the scale. The text begins with a rather bald “after this,” which seems o.k., but The ‘this’ is the sealing of the 144,000 souls from the tribes of Israel who belong to God. “Ah … right …” I can hear you say, “so what does that mean when it’s at home?” Well, to answer this, we need to step back a bit, because we’ve come in too close to a big scene. We’ve been looking at the little brush strokes and we need get further away from the images if we are to see the whole picture.
Let’s start at the very beginning. After the opening chapter of the Apocalypse sets the scene, a series of seven short letters have been read which concern the strengths and weaknesses of various churches. The congregations are warned to be on their guard against those things that seduce them away from their faith. As Revelation 4 begins, the prophet finds himself in the throne room of heaven, where he sees intense worship offered to God by the whole cosmos. This includes worship of the slain and resurrected Lamb (a thin disguise for Christ). In his turn, the Lamb inaugurates the events of the last days as he opens the seven seals on the decisive scroll.
As the seals are opened, the four horsemen ride out, the souls under the altar pray for redress and creation is irrevocably changed. Now comes the interlude before the opening of the last (seventh) seal. The righteous must be marked as belonging to God; it’s for their own protection. As John observes this event, it seems that only a small remnant of Israel is guarded. But, as our section begins, the symbol shifts and becomes a vast hoard that is beyond counting. They are dressed like the redeemed, and they sing equal praise to God and the Lamb. They join with the whole of creation singing a doxology.
Now an elder challenges John: does he know what he is seeing? John challenges the elder in his turn and wins an explanation. These are the souls ransomed and raised by means of Christ’s blood; they have held to their faith through thick and thin. It is their privilege to worship God continually. Then, echoing Isaiah, we have a beautiful passage confirming their blessed state. They no longer suffer, the Lamb becomes shepherd, guiding them to the water of life, and God becomes comforter, wiping away all tears. It is no wonder that this passage is often read at funerals. Only, what does it all mean?
John shows us a vast flow of events. His text is littered with allusions and symbols, some of which we can pick up, and others of which remain puzzling even after intense study. What we must always remember is that the events that are narrated are meant to serve as encouragement for those who are listening. The prophet is trying to ensure that they are strong and clear-sighted, so that they can hold to their faith throughout the ordeals that are to come. Although the visions are heard one after the other, and some parts of the material are numbered, we mustn’t assume that John is offering us an orderly and chronological account of the end of time. We need to share John’s experience: no that matter where he looks, he sees something significant, something beyond proper description. What takes place in the Apocalypse stands outside of time; the prophet does his best to make an orderly account for us. The truth is that everything John sees is eternally present before the face of the Almighty; any sense of time and order (before this … after this) in the text is imposed for the sake of our understanding.
This suggests that we are correct in thinking that Revelation is there is something other than a strictly intelligible and scientifically coherent document. It calls for a different kind of handling, because it bears witness to a different kind of truth. The Apocalypse purports to be an unveiling of the mind and purpose of the Almighty. In unfolding this to us, the Seer is touching something that is ultimately beyond both him and us: God is only marginally and occasionally accessible to our senses and our intellects. By definition, God is beyond us. So John is showing us something that is essentially a mystery, and mystery it must remain. We are reaching out to the Lord who is mostly beyond our apprehension; we can’t grasp God entirely. But that is all right. We’re human, and what John is trying to show us is that if we cling to the bits we know, then the Almighty will do the rest. God will comfort, Christ will save, and build us into a kingdom, and priests, the divine will holds us when our grip fails, and will raise us up to life at the last day.
Now where does all this leave us in the light of Easter, and in the light of a tragic death? Well, I think we find ourselves in a profoundly helpful position. We don’t need to deny the resurrection because it doesn’t make scientific sense. We can legitimately state that we are on a different kind of territory. When we work with out texts, we are exposing a different kind of truth. Humankind, we may rightly assert, would be much poorer without the possibility of resurrection, veiled in ambiguity as it is. It is our task and delight to accept, proclaim and rejoice in this glorious mystery, of the resurrection of our Lord and of each human being.
Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, alleluia! Amen.
Rev’d Canon Dr. Marilyn Parry, Oxford Diocese Director of Ordinands
29th April 2007