Icon of Extreme Humility (source: Creighton University)
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, 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, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. (Apocalypse 1:4b-6)
OK, I'm odd. As though y'all didn't already know that. I have a fondness for the Apocalypse (or Book of Revelation) while not being a rapture-obsessed prophecy freak. I was raised on this latter and have spent lots of time studying the Apocalypse not only to refute the endless crap that folks spew forth about the book but also to be able to provide some nourishing food to the faithful and help them see this book as one of hope, not fear-mongering.
Notice how the message does not begin with Jesus telling the angel to tell John, "Behold, I want you to scare the hell out of all mortals" nor "I can hardly wait to slay the godless, woohoo!" No. The message begins: "Grace to you and peace." Same way Paul began his letters. It is a book about grace and a book intended to stabilize our hearts in peace. Bad readings and sloppy readings clearly proclaim neither grace nor peace but a careful reading offers both.
This grace and this peace come to us from the One who is and was and--where we expect to read "will be" we find instead "is to come." Obviously the One in whom past, present, and future are united is God but God, as known in the Hebrew Scriptures, is not abstractly present throughout and beyond the dimensions of time but also concretely present and active in human lives and in history. This is the God who comes, who comes to people and delivers them, who comes to people and speaks to them, who comes to people and saves them, who comes and is known as Immanuel: God with us.
The shift of phrasing in the future tense not only signals God's movement towards us but also orients us to the future, for it is the future aspect that is altered and thus emphasized. We no longer live in the past, the present moment is fleeting, yet God will come to us in the future. [Please note that the affirmation of God's coming in the future does not negate God's coming in the past or present. We are dealing with pastoral emphasis here, not philosophical definition.]
The fullness of the Spirit is expressed as "seven spirits." One need not take this out of context, isolate it, and postulate seven spirits distinguished from the Spirit of God. A seven-fold Spirit is seen in Isaiah 11:2:
The (1) Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—Next named as a source of grace and peace is "Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth." Jesus is here identified as Messiah (Christ = Anointed), the faithful witness, firstborn from the dead, and ruler of earthly monarchs. The Apocalypse begins with a clear orientation to the same Jesus proclaimed by apostles and evangelists.
the (2) Spirit of wisdom and (3) of understanding,
the (4) Spirit of counsel and (5) of power,
the (6) Spirit of knowledge and (7) of the fear of the LORD
For a persecuted people living in terror of imperial power and despairing of God's reign, Jesus stands before us as the faithful witness even as we must also be faithful witnesses. To those risking death by their very faith, Jesus is the firstborn from the dead, the one who takes away the sting of death. When the Roman emperor (or any tyrant, and you may supply your own names) seems all-powerful, we are reminded that Jesus is the ruler of earthly sovereigns, the one and only King of kings and Lord of lords. The groundwork of the seer's message of encouragement and exhortation to faithfulness is being laid from the start of the Apocalypse, a groundwork that is trinitarian (even before the doctrine of the Trinity was formulated) and in full continuity with what has been taught before.
Next we hear of Jesus' love, a love that acted to free us from sin by his blood and makes us a kingdom of priests. We who strayed far from God are reconciled, forgiven, and united with God and each other so that we may now serve, all of us called and appointed for priestly ministry--assembling the people, making sacrifice, offering prayer, proclaiming forgiveness and blessing, nourishing and equipping the people from the riches of Christ's grace, serving God.
Yes, the symbolism of the book soon becomes exaggerated and bizarre, its structure and message complex, but we must keep in sight the clues laid out for us from the beginning. What will be revealed to us is grounded in what we already know of God, of God's love, of Christ's saving work, of the Spirit's activity in the world.
Spoiler alert: if you want to know what the Apocalypse is about, I will happily summarize it for you in two words: God wins. The longer version is that no matter how mighty and oppressive earthly powers may be and no matter how dire the plight of the faithful may be, the victory is ultimately God's and those who hold fast to God and remain faithful will share in God's victory. All the rest, as they say, is commentary.
This is a book written from a pastoral perspective to people in times of persecution and affliction, a book designed to strengthen faith and give hope, a book that calls us all to repent and turn from the ways and values of the world and hold fast to God.
At this point in the life of the churches and American politics, I would affirm that gay marriage, one of the hot-button issues, is not some evil example of the ways and values of the [godless, secular] world. It is a manifestation of God's love, a living of the values of God's reign, and--for LGBT Christians--a carrying out of baptismal vows in the context of committed intimacy. For any two people to love each other in deep commitment and mutual vulnerability, regardless of their gender configuration, is a rejection of the world's values of isolation, refusal to commit to others, exploitation, and self-indulgence. Lives of mutual comfort, challenge, and joy that embody forgiveness, mutual submission, healing, and hospitality and that grow together in grace over the years are a slap in the face to the world's values. Those who wish to assume the graces, responsibilities, and blessings of marriage are hardly a threat to anyone else's marriage. To the fear- and hate-mongers out there I say: get a grip and stop feeding people's ignorance and fear. The world does not need more false prophecy and outright lies. If someone else's happiness and growth in holiness threatens you then get professional help. There is no shortage of adultery, spouse abuse, irresponsible behavior, and downright misery in the marriages that already exist and are legally and ecclesiastically recognized that we don't have to invent threats that don't exist. Sane and healthy people are not threatened by other people's happiness.
For your Name's sake, O LORD, forgive my sin, for it is great. (Psalm 25:10)
Ain't none of us dares claim to be an example of holiness yet none of us is despised or forgotten by God. Let us hold fast to God, in faith and hope, in faithful witness to God's goodness and to the grace that is all around us.