A Provocation: Second Sunday of Easter: April 28, 2019: Revelation 1:4-8

Revelation 1:4-8
1:4 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,

1:5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood,

1:6 and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

1:7 Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

1:8 "I am the Alpha and the Omega," says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

There is plenty to provoke around Easter. Three years ago, I found the resurrection scene in John 20 poking me, so I poked it back. You can read that Provocation at https://tinyurl.com/ProvocationSecondEaster

A Question or Two:

  • The final word in this passage is παντοκράτωρ, translated as “Almighty.”
  • Does it matter that the phrase “Almighty God,” in Jewish Scripture, translates the phrase “El Shaddai,” which is best translated as “God the Nursing Mother?” Asking for a friend.

Some Longer Reflections:

This year, the text from Revelation caught me. This text, and the call and response that I heard repeatedly on Easter, in church and all over social media: Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed.

The first thing I notice is that John speaks grace and peace from three interwoven sources: from God, from seven spirits in the Divine Presence, and from Jesus Christ. This origin is not simple.

The three-fold origin of the blessing will make Christians salivate: this must be the Trinity! And maybe we are right to respond this way. But three-step patterns are as much rhetorical conventions as they are theological doctrines: in either case the rhetoric emphasizes the wholeness and completeness of the bestowing of grace and peace. Besides, the traditional trinitarian pattern is lacking here: there is no reference to a Father or a Son, and there are seven spirits.

But this is still more complicated. The first step in identifying the source of grace and peace also involves a three-fold pattern: it refers (in the NRSV) to “him who is and who was and who is to come.” This looks like present, past, and future, but the Greek is better read as “the One who is, who was, and who is coming.” The last participle is in the present tense, and thus does not point to a future arrival, but to a practice of continuously arriving. This echoes an argument made years ago by C. A. van Peursen in his book, Him Again. The unpronouceable Name of God, van Peursen argues, is indeed a kind of verb form. But it isn’t some kind of “present tense,” which would identify God as the One who exists (“the One who is”), and it isn’t a kind of “past tense,” which would tie God with the Deity narrated in past stories (“the One who was”). The Name of God (YHWH) is a kind of “iterative tense,” used to name each new eruption of God in human history. As in “Oh, it’s Him again.” This intriguing interpretation actually works well in both the gospel of John and the revelation to John. God DOES keep popping up, after all.

But what the “seven spirits?” There is surely more to be said about them later in Revelation, but for now, it matters that πνευμα means breath, and in a Jewish context (like Revelation) it means the breath of life that God blows into every human breath. In a Christian context it means the breath of life that God blew into the crucified messiah, thus restoring life that had been murdered. Before the throne, there is the πνευμα, the breath of life and resurrection. Specifically, there are SEVEN breaths, one for each day, breath enough for all days, since seven is the number of totality.

After these complications, the reference to Jesus seems easy. Sort of. Customary popular theology spends its time waiting for the “Second Coming.” Of Jesus. But notice that the phrase “One who is coming” is not applied to Jesus. That probably matters. Jesus is identified as “the witness.” He is “the faithful one.” And he is the “the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” These identifications have their own complexity.

First of all, the NRSV makes it a three-fold (again with the threes!) identification by linking the first two terms, witness and faithful. This is surely workable, though not all editors of Greek testaments agree. If, as I read it, the terms are separate, Jesus is still a witness, but he is also faithful (πιστός) which, in a Jewish text means that he was Torah observant: he kept kosher; he lived an orderly life; he shaped his existence to point to the God who creates, redeems, and loves the Cosmos. I think this is important.

The next step calls Jesus the “the firstborn of the dead,” a clear reference to his resurrection. But it is more than that, of course. The reference to “first-born” implies that this is not simply a “one off” event, not a circus trick. Resurrection is what ALL of Creation waits for (“with eager longing” says Paul). Jesus begins the process of the return to life.

If you translate as I do, this leaves a fourth step to the progression. Jesus is also the “ruler of the kings of the earth.” This rhetorical structure (three steps leading to a climactic fourth), says Amos Wilder, makes the fourth step the consequence of the first three. Thus, Jesus is the Ruler of rulers because he is a witness, who is an observant Jew, who is the beginning of God’s restoration of life to all Creation.

This is why the Easter call and response (Christ is risen / Christ is risen indeed) caught my ear this year. These words do not proclaim the miracle of a single escape from death. They state that it was messiah who is the firstborn out of death. Messiah is not simply an individual. Messiah is the promise of Hope, the hope for Justice, the justice that lets us live together in peace. It is hope that dies. Indeed. Hope often dies. It is hope that rises. It is about time.

Grace and peace from the hope that rises even out of death.

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