A Hard World Communion Sunday to Preach: Revelation 7:9-17

[Author's note: Two things make me doubt the goodness of God: Cancer, and mass death by gun violence. On the week of World Communion Sunday, I had encountered both. The one more pressing for my sermon was the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. I knew I had to address it in my sermon, but I didn't really know how. I have strong thoughts on the gun lobby in the United States, and how we Americans all basically have blood on our hands because we are unwilling to stand up to the NRA when our sisters and brothers, neighbors, and our kids are shot down in cold blood by deranged white men with guns. But my thoughts are out of kilter with the context I preach weekly in. I have been blessed to preach weekly since March at a small Presbyterian Church in rural North Carolina. The people I accompany in ministry are good people, and although we are different in many ways, we have come together to worship the Lord. I can't let loose my vitriol against the gun lobby during the preaching moment, because in my opinion that would abuse the power of the pulpit. So on the night before World Communion Sunday, I sat down to reedit my sermon in light of what took place in Umpqua. This is not my best sermon, I would go as far as to say it isn't exactly a good sermon. But as I preached it, I cried, the first time I have ever shed a tear from the pulpit. I do think the Word of God was proclaimed, and I think these words of mine were used for good, Godly purpose. But I simply struggle--what can we say in light of violence except point to the cross and the truth of the revelation contained upon it?]

Today is World Communion Sunday, so I think it of some importance to explain just what this means. It is a Sunday where we take time in our worship to emphasize the unity of all churches around the world in our Lord Jesus Christ, despite our differences. It is a Sunday where we point out that those who claim Jesus Christ as Lord and those whom he claims as God’s children are one in him. And we emphasize on this World Communion Sunday that not only are we one on a heavenly level, but, ideally, we are one on an earthly level as well. All churches that claim Christ as Lord are Christ’s body on earth, and we all are called to try to live into Christ’s desire for us that we be one. This is what we celebrate on World Communion Sunday.

One of the scriptural cores of World Communion Sunday is found in the Gospel of John. In John chapter 17 verses 20-21, Jesus prays for us, his disciples. He prays that we may be seen by the world as one in him so that the world can see and believe through our unity that God sent him into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world. “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (NIV, throughout). Our unity is a witness to the truth of the Gospel. But when we look back on church history we can see that we have not always been one. Far from it.

Protestants and Catholics spent a lot of our mutual history hating each other, going as far as to killing one another. Now a lot of that has faded away, to the extent that even Pope Francis can get a rapturous welcome in the United States only fifty years after John F. Kennedy was openly asked if he could legitimately be president because he was Catholic. The assumption was that as a Catholic he would be loyal first not to the stars and stripes, but to the Pope in Rome. But our disunity in our history wasn’t only a Catholic-Protestant thing. During the Civil Rights movement in our country, some churches were pro-segregation, others pro-integration, and such terrible division had tremendous impact on our witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Things are not perfect today by any means, but in the past forty or fifty years or so, Christian unity has been propagated and emphasized in ways that would seem unimaginable to someone living a hundred years ago.

Yet, there is much that still divides us. On World Communion Sunday we emphasize the strides we have made, while remembering the journey that we still have to go, so that the world will recognize that we are all one in Jesus Christ, just as Jesus and his Father are one. We strive for unity, we emphasize our cooperation, and we do this because it part of our witness to the truth of good news about Jesus, who is the son of God, son of man, savior of all humanity.

But our passage today, Revelation 7:9-17, seems to strike a different note than the John passage I read a few minutes ago. It is not a prayer of Jesus, but instead a vision of reality with Jesus. I want to talk about this vision, but let’s take a second to talk about the book of Revelation: what it is, and what it isn’t, and how it connects into our theme today of World Communion Sunday.

The book of Revelation was written around 80 to 90 AD by a man named John exiled to the island of Patmos, a Greek isle in the Aegean Sea. And here on this island, John had a vision. John was a prophet. And the book of Revelation is a book of apocalyptic prophecy. “Apocalypse” doesn’t mean the end of the world. It is a Greek word that means a lifting of the veil. In other words, an apocalypse is a revelation that depicts reality as it is, as it has been, and as it will be. For a time, the book of Revelation was called The Apocalypse of St. John.

Contrary to popular opinion and the Left Behind books, the book of Revelation does not predict the future. Prophets don’t predict the future. Prophets name reality. And so the book of Revelation witnesses to God’s reality: the reality where every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess, to the lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world, Jesus Christ. Revelation uses metaphorical language to paint pictures with words. It is a vision of God’s reality, our reality, as things truly are and will be.

And so this brings us to our passage. I’m going to read it now.

The Great Multitude in White Robes

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying:

“Amen!
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever.
Amen!”

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.15 Therefore,

“they are before the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”

This is the Word of the Lord.

The world is scary place. We know this. Christians don’t live in a dream world. They see things as for how they truly are: war in Syria and Iraq, bombings and battles in Afghanistan and Ukraine, drug cartels in Mexico, school shootings in Oregon. According to initial reports, this past week, when an evil man went into the school in Oregon, he targeted Christians. But so what? When we get down it, what we are left with at Umpqua is yet another massacre by a deranged man with too easy access to a gun, a gun that leaves kids dead on the floor and all I can shout, and pray, and cry out is, “How long oh Lord!” How long!?” We have tolerated such violence for way too long, but the sad news that is if Americans can't see to it to pass comprehensive gun control after the Newtown, CT massacre which left twenty elementery school kids dead, why would we do so after college kids are massacred in Oregon? "Too long Lord, too long."

And then I remember: there is something distinctly wrong with the human condition. And only Jesus can fix it.

When we celebrate communion, as we will in a few moments, we remember our Lord’s death when Jesus fixed things, rejoice in his resurrection where he offers us the promise of new life, and look forward to his coming again where and when God will wipe away all tears from all our eyes. We give thanks that Our God is a God of resurrection, and we proclaim that in him we Christians, no matter where we are or what we look like, are united—are one—in him. That's the point of World Communion Sunday. In him and only in him, we are the body of Christ.

We are the Church, for what is the Church but the people sent by God to go into the world and be his body, to be his hands, to be his feet, to be his witnesses to a hurting, broken world? All around the world, throughout time and space, we are united together—Catholic, Protestant, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Methodist, Black, White, Latino, Asian, Indian—all of us united with our Lord who calls us to be his disciples, our Lord who invites us to take up our crosses and follow after him, come what may. This is what we celebrate on World Communion Sunday.

Our brothers and sisters, targeted in Oregon, massacred in Syria, persecuted in Egypt, slaughtered across the world, they are one with us and we are one in them, as we are one in the death and resurrection of Jesus. When you kill Christians, it is only the body that dies. We worship a crucified messiah, who is the power of resurrection. Easter Sunday shows that you cannot kill our Lord. Why? Because of God’s love for us. And when we eat the bread, and we drink from the cup, we remember this truth—this reality—that is so beautifully and poetically captured in our reading for today. All of us, around the world, past, present, and future, we will gather around the throne, and worship our Lord who has saved us. And

‘Never again will we hunger;
never again will we thirst.
The sun will not beat down on us,’
nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be our shepherd;
‘he will lead us to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.’

Whenever we partake of Communion, we are saying to the world: Jesus’s got this. Jesus has got us. And Jesus has got you too. That’s what we say to the world—Jesus loves you. Christians know we are broken, and we know the world is broken. But Christians know that Jesus is making all things new, that Jesus is binding up the broken hearted, that Jesus is working his resurrection power even now. So we remember our brothers and sisters across the world, we remember those who suffer for the faith and in the faith. We remember and rejoice that we are one. And when we gather around this table, we recall, we remember, and we look forward to gathering around the throne. All of us from every tribe, tongue and nation, when we will worship gathered all together Jesus Christ, the lamb who sits on the throne—He who loves us.

And lo,

before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

==================================

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