This is the message I shared at Camas Friends on Revelation 5.
[Painting by Francisco de Zurbarán — “Agnus Dei”]
Fear, Desire for control and Violence are some of the main qualities that tend to show themselves when our lives feel like they are spinning out of control.
When we first learned about our daughter’s allergies I felt all three of these responses. I was afraid because I didn’t know what it meant for our family. What changes would we have to make? What kinds of things would L. miss out on as a kid? How might this affect her emotionally, psychologically, spiritually? What if she was accidentally given peanuts when she was out of view or away from home: could we lose our child to something like a peanut allergy?
Then as a reaction to fear – a desire for control sets in. How do we control this? How do we manage it, so that we can ensure that nothing bad happens to her? Even if we know it is misguided, we still as parents desire to control the situation as much as possible.
Finally, violence can often come into play. It is easy to lose patience and “fly off the handle” because the stress of a situation that induces fear. Blaming and scapegoating are also violent responses because they demean the soul of another. Many families have been ripped apart because of unstable and chaotic issues: diseases, the loss of a child, the stress of an unstable financial situation.
When things become rickety and unstable, or we find ourselves in times of wilderness, I think it is our first response as people that we get afraid, we try to control the situation, and violence & scapegoating crop up.
Revelation addresses these same issues of fear, control and violence in its portrayal of the “two religions:” the religion of empire and the religion of creation, that is the religion of the lamb that was slain (Cf. Wes Howard Brook “Come Out my People“).
One religion is based on violence, coercion, suspicion, and fear.
The other religion, the religion of the lamb that was slain is, the one that proclaims that Jesus, who was killed, is alive and that victory cannot be guaranteed but only discovered and experienced through courage, patient resistance, sacrificial love and nonviolence (these are the three contrasting elements to the three offered above).
In Rev. 5, John the seer finds himself having an apocalyptic vision of God seated on the throne. The question is raised, who is worthy to open the scroll of their sacred text. It dawns on John that no one on heaven or on earth is worthy to open, to handle, or to even read the sacred story of God’s people.
No human hands, no special techniques, no amount of orthodox belief, right living, power or economic status qualifies anyone
to break open the scroll.
All of the ways I mentioned earlier that we try to “manage” do not work on the divine. They are utterly useless here.
Just as we all weep when we realize our own brokenness, our own incapabilities, our own powerlessness, John also weeps.
He is confronted with his own lack of power, he realizes that the pivot point of the universe is not us and is not in our control, that there are mysteries bigger than his understanding and in this experience he is humbled by that mystery.
“Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”” (Revelation 5:5 NRSV)
Now I think when John hears these words: Lion, David, Conquered…he hears something like: “there is to come a great mighty warrior who is stronger than any empire, and any emperor and he will crush God’s enemies.”
But what John hears the elders saying, and what he sees with his eyes do not match up.
“Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…” (Revelation 5:6)
John hears the elders say there is a powerful lion, a warrior like David, but what he “surprised” to see a slaughtered lamb.
We cannot downplay the shock and irony John would have experienced receive by seeing and hearing this juxtaposition. To see a slain lamb, alive standing by the throne of God is sheer bafflement.
The religion of Empire is rooted in fear, control and violence. It waits for powerful heroes.
The religion of the lamb is in complete contrast to this. And it is, I believe the central, controlling image of the book of revelation – the phrase appears 28 times. Everything else can be understood and interpreted through the lamb that was slain as a filter.
It is not afraid or suspicious of “the world,” “enemies,” and strangers. Instead of forcing people into labels, ghettos, and into hiding, the religion of the lamb is about turning strangers into neighbors, and extending a hand to enemies.
The religion of the lamb knows that it cannot force victory, it cannot predetermine outcomes, but instead through patient endurance, a constant refrain throughout Revelation, we are called to be patient in faithfulness rather than effective at all cost.
The power of the lamb comes not through a show of power but of nonviolence and sacrificial love – that the lamb was first killed enabled him to unveil the lie that might equals right and reverse our understanding of what God wants from all people.
The lamb that was slain is God’s revelation to us that God is in fact not the violent God of empire but the nonviolent God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. All of the militaristic imagery and violence of revelation is a result of the violence of the empire that crushed and silenced much of humankind at the expense of its own survival. The lamb of God gives us an alternative vision of how the world was meant to look.
The fact that it is an image of sheer irony and bafflement should capture our imaginations and draw us toward the second religion.
Nonviolence and the Dignity of Humanity
The Mennonite John Howard Yoder, writing on this passage, says:
“The lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power! John is here saying, not as an inscrutable paradox but as a meaningful affirmation, that the cross and not the sword, suffering and not brute power determines the meaning of history. The key to obedience of God’s people is not their effectiveness but their patience (cf. Rev. 13:10).” 232
If Yoder is right about the cross here then “the cross is not about getting ones way,” which I take to be at the root of the empire of religion. If the cross is not about getting our way then we have less to fear, there would be far less for us to control, and no need for violence within society.
If the lamb is central to our Christian imaginations then our entire orientation toward one another and the world shifts.
Jesus demonstrated that the cross is in fact about giving up the right to control the outcomes, to die to our own personal causes, and to force others to accept our positions on things. This is why we usually use words like “surrender” and “sacrifice” when we talk about the cross.
- What would it look like for us to surrender or sacrifice in long-standing family feuds?
- What would it look like for us to give up the need to control the outcomes in our dealings at work?
- What might it look like for us to not try and get our own way when it comes to how we conduct ourselves as a church?
If the cross is about practicing this kind of nonviolent love, which I believe it is, then it isn’t primarily just about renouncing physical violence, but something far deeper and insidious:
“The compulsiveness of purpose that leads the strong to violate the dignity of others.” 237
And Parker Palmer puts it this way:
Violence is any way we have of violating the identity and integrity of another person.
Nonviolence is a commitment to act in every situation in ways that honor the soul.
How do our fears, our desire for control get manifested in compulsions that violated the dignity of those under our care, those in our family, and those with whom we interact at work, in the public and as a nation?
Can this blood-stained image of the lamb that was slain baffle us enough to radically transform our imagination as the church, radically shift our orientation toward one another and the world in ways that reflect not the religion of empire, but the religion of the lamb?
- How might we live, interact with, adjust our expectations, even ask questions in ways that better honor one another’s soul?
- How might we strengthen our commitment to being a fellowship where everyone is safe enough for their soul to show up?
- How might we live in such a way that we affirm our belief that every soul has that of God within them and is worthy of honor?