The readings are from the Catholic lectionary for daily mass while the headlines are meant to keep my thinking real:
SECTARIAN VIOLENCE THREATENS SHIA PILGRIMS IN SYRIA
REVELATION /APOCALYPSE 3:1-6,14-22 ©
I, John, heard the Lord saying to me: ‘Write to the angel of the church in Sardis and say, “Here is the message of the one who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: I know all about you: how you are reputed to be alive and yet are dead. Wake up; revive what little you have left: it is dying fast. So far I have failed to notice anything in the way you live that my God could possibly call perfect, and yet do you remember how eager you were. when you first heard the message? Hold on to that. Repent. If you do not wake up, I shall come to you like a thief, without telling you at what hour to expect me. There are a few in Sardis, it is true, who have kept their robes from being dirtied, and they are fit to come with me, dressed in white. Those who prove victorious will be dressed, like these, in white robes; I shall not blot their names out of the book of life, but acknowledge their names in the presence of my Father and his angels. If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
‘Write to the angel of the church in Laodicea and say, “Here is the message of the Amen, the faithful, the true witness, the ultimate source of God’s creation: I know all about you: how you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were one or the other, but since you are neither, but only lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth. You say to yourself, ‘I am rich, I have made a fortune, and have everything I want’, never realising that you are wretchedly and pitiably poor, and blind and naked too. I warn you, buy from me the gold that has been tested in the fire to make you really rich, and white robes to clothe you and cover your shameful nakedness, and eye ointment to put on your eyes so that you are able to see. I am the one who reproves and disciplines all those he loves: so repent in real earnest. Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share his meal, side by side with him. Those who prove victorious I will allow to share my throne, just as I was victorious myself and took my place with my Father on his throne. If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”’
I began to look at the “letters” of The Revelation in yesterday’s blog. There are many guesses about what they are: real letters sent to the churches separately but added to the book of visions? compositions directed to the churches but included in the book of visions from the start, and circulated as part of it? fictitious letters designed to provide focus for the cosmic visions to follow? completely separate works by the same author or a different author, added to the book of visions by a later editor? These are some of the possibilities. I tend to favour the third option above in that I judge the letters to be part and parcel of a carefully designed book rather than “real” letters; their vocabulary and theology are identical to those of the book of visions and unlikey to come from a different author; and they suggest that the cosmic battles are being fought there and then in the Asian Assemblies of Jesus.
The Assemblies fight for good against evil; and good is defined by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who speaks to his people through John, his prophet. The voice of Jesus is therefore a distinctive creation of the author, who imagines it and voices it for his readers. Its tone is sharp, authoritative, stern and loving. We might think that church assemblies under persecution deserved more sympathy, but the author’s Jesus knows that overmuch sympathy will weaken them. They are engaged in battle, even if they don’t know it, and must be summonded to obedience and courage.
The one who holds theseven stars, that is, who gives the Holy Spirit to believers, tells the assembly in Sardis to put on white robes, which means to stand firm against the pressure of persecution and to put their lives at risk. Or rather, they are urged to see that failing to give a clear witness of faith is a way of death, whereas readiness to suffer means victory and eternal life. In a time when numbers of people are being perverted into suicide bombings we can see the relevance of a non-violent faith that is nevertheless ready to suffer for God’s love.
The one who is the Amen, the ultimate souce of creation, gives the Laodicians a savage portrait of themselves as arrogant, comfortable, corrupt believers who are neither cold nor hot. Their lukewarm faith is memorably rejected by Jesus, who spits them out. They are advised to purchase the true gold of persecution, and the true elegance of the martyr’s robe. But then the voice becomes tender. “Look, I am standing at the door knocking”. The knocker at the door may in fact be a persecuted believer looking for shelter or a Roman official looking for believers. That is how the faithful and true witness arrives to break bread with his people. It is the shared suffering of the Lamb and his people that leads to victory.
If, as I do, you live in a society where believers are not persecuted, you should always be grateful for the blessings of civil rights and comparative peace, that persecuted belivers so eagerly desire. We should keep aware of what is happening to brothers and sisters in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, and support them in every way we can. But we should also reflect on their example and use disciplines that maintain our own courage and readiness for self-sacrifice.
Luke 19:1-10 ©
Jesus entered Jericho and was going through the town when a man whose name was Zacchaeus made his appearance: he was one of the senior tax collectors and a wealthy man. He was anxious to see what kind of man Jesus was, but he was too short and could not see him for the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus who was to pass that way. When Jesus reached the spot he looked up and spoke to him: ‘Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I must stay at your house today.’ And he hurried down and welcomed him joyfully. They all complained when they saw what was happening. ‘He has gone to stay at a sinner’s house’ they said. But Zacchaeus stood his ground and said to the Lord, ‘Look, sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody I will pay him back four times the amount.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.’
Zacchaeus was a rich thug. He was a Jew working for the Roman conqueror, a collaborator, who would certainly have been a legitimate target for the Resistance. As a senor tax official he would have been able to send out other thugs to demand payment of Roman taxes plus all the additions which were needed to pay his collectors and line his own pockets. I can see why such people were detested by the native population; and what Jesus was risking by association with them.
In this case Jesus’ assocation is achieved by inviting himself to the offender’s house, which of course, offends most decent people. We should note Luke’s careful story-craft. Zacchaeus tries to climb up to see the holy man, but finds that the holy man will come down to his level, by entering his house. This a model of what God does for humanity in Jesus: he offers to live in our “houses.” He gives us an advance of trust and honour.
In this case Zacchaeus responds immediately to make himself worthy of Jesus’ presence; he “turns his life round” by giving away half his wealth and promising restoration to those he’s cheated. The rescue (salvation) which has come to this house, is as much human response as it is divine initiative but without Jesus’ intervention nothing would have happened. Here too, Jesus knocks at a human door; here too genuine self-sacrifice is required; here too is a victory of God’s love.
(Those who are interested in studying the biblical material on God’s dwelling / house (Greek oikos) can find some help at emmock.com/oikos)