I can honestly say there were only two occasions when I was away studying this winter that I felt homesick. One of them was when I was walking along St. Giles Road in Oxford and a woman with dark hair and blue eyes walking a spaniel came by, and obviously we all know who I was missing: My wife and my dog – in that order! The second time, however, was much more dramatic. I went into Keble College, which has a great affinity – many of you may not know this – to Timothy Eaton Memorial Church. Those of you who bought a copy of the wonderful book by our Sanctuary Guild on stained glass windows would know from reading it that Keble College has a magnificent reproduction of Holman Hunt’s Jesus, the Light of the World.
For those of you who are listening on the radio or on the Internet today and cannot see it right before you or have never visited Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, at the very end of our aisle, at the very height of our Chancel, is an incredible stained glass window of Holman Hunt’s Jesus, the Light of the World. When I looked at it in that college I felt melancholy. Why? Because every single Sunday and every single time that I come into this church I gaze at that window for a moment. I do so because I think it was placed there by the builders of our church to be a living reminder of Christ’s constant invitation in our lives. The window of Christ knocking on the door and holding the lamp is a reminder from the Book of Revelation that Christ stands at the door of our lives and knocks wishing to be part of them, wishing to be invited into them, wishing to be and to share the love that he has for us.
I never tire of this window because I never tire of the reminder of why we are here. We are here at Christ’s invitation. But not every church is able to have the magnificence of these windows, not everyone can have the iconography of the stained glass. In fact, many churches that I visited, particularly over the last few months, have been rather plain, maybe a little “Cromwellian” even, where any sign or vestige of glamour had been removed a long time ago. I went to one such beautiful reform church – it was beautiful in its own way – but nevertheless on the wall there was a reproduction of a painting of Raphael. In this very plain and basic church there was a piece from the Stanza della Segnatura, and it was on the wall. It was the depiction in two forms of the heavens and the earth. I stood and I gazed at it.
Like the Holman Hunt painting, which is taken from the Book of Revelation, so this magnificent painting by Raphael was also taken from the Book of Revelation, but from today’s passage, a passage that speaks of the relationship between heaven and Earth, and the image in that incredible stanza is of heaven and Earth as one sphere. In the sphere below are the great philosophers, and thinkers. Alongside them are the disciples and the tribes of Israel. And in the middle, like the Roman Catholic tradition, there is the centre of the Holy Table with the sacrament. It is in celebration of the sacrament that Raphael painted this. But it is also a sign of Christ being at the centre of all these disparate people here on Earth. The second sphere, above it, is more majestic. It is the picture of heaven, and there is no gap between heaven and Earth. In the middle of the heavenly picture again, is Christ, and alongside him the four creatures. Then, there are people robed in white, and the saints and the martyrs and the heavenly host, and they all seem full of praise, and joy. It is a magnificent painting! When you look at it, it brings the two spheres of heaven and Earth together in one central, glorious depiction of the majesty of God.
Here we are in the period right after Easter, which celebrated the Resurrection. We have celebrated the glorious tradition of the saints, Christ appearing to the disciples. For the last few weeks we have celebrated the glory of the Risen Christ. Today, we celebrate the Christ of Heaven, the Christ who was not only on Earth, but was on Earth to bring us to heaven. I cannot think of an image that is more fitting for the world than the one in the Book of Revelation. John, who wrote this, probably about 95 AD, some thirty years after the main writings of the Apostle Paul, some sixty years after the Resurrection and the Ascension of Jesus. He is writing it to a persecuted people. In fact, John is on the island of Patmos because he would have been persecuted if he had stayed on the mainland.
He was writing to Christians fleeing the persecution of the Emperor Domitian. We do not know the nature of the tyranny that Christians faced, but we do know that they suffered greatly for their faith. In one of the ironies of the time, people were fleeing persecution on the mainland and going to the islands of Patmos and Crete to find safety. They were getting on boats to find that safety and security. John is writing to Christian refugees who had to go to the islands because they were being martyred on the mainland. Ironic, isn’t it? He is writing at a pertinent time to a people who are suffering for what they believe in. He was writing them a vision, a vision that God had given him of the aspects of the goodness of God.
The picture he gives is of an enormous kingdom. The day that they were experiencing was a day of suffering and turmoil, and the vision of heaven, the vision of joy, the vision that there will be no more weeping, no more hunger, none of the things that plague us in this life. Apocalyptic simply means “an unveiling”. What John is unveiling to the people is an affirmation of their faith, an encouragement that even though they might be suffering now, there will be a greater day. The problem is that those people were actually martyrs. They were martyrs who were fleeing from persecution, but many of them were still suffering, and were left behind, unable to get to the islands for safety.
Martyrdom today carries with it so much weight and baggage. Not long ago, I was talking to a young man who was questioning the whole notion of martyrdom and saying how silly it is, and how, in fact, it is almost immoral. I listened to him go on for quite a while about this, and he questioned whether Christians should ever celebrate their martyrs. He wondered why in the Christian tradition we elevate our martyrs, almost to the point of sainthood. “Why do you do that?” he said, “When martyrdom is so dreadful?”
Now, of course, his notion of martyrdom was reflecting a notion that is prevalent today. You see, he understood a martyr to be somebody who would go out of their way to have their own life taken, by taking the life of somebody else. His notion of martyrdom was someone who would strap a bomb to themselves and enter into a marketplace for the sake of what they believed and destroy other lives. Martyrdom for him was pejorative.
I suspect, my friends, that if you talk to most people in our society today, they would have a negative view of what a martyr is, but the early Christian martyrs were the complete opposite of that! They were people who did not seek to end their own lives, but rather had their own lives challenged for their convictions. They were people who believed in Jesus Christ: his life, his love and his forgiveness, that was running contrary to the power of Rome. These martyrs did not seek to end their own lives, nor did they seek to take the lives of others, but rather, they were willing to lay down their lives for the sake of what they believed in.
Ironically, there are martyrs in our world today. In the Middle East, in parts of Africa, and in many parts of the world, there are people who are martyred, and they are martyred as innocents. Not because they have a death wish, or take the life of another individual, not because they run away from suffering. No! People, who by no fault of their own, are losing their lives for what they believe in. If that is not the highest good, I don’t know what is! Martyrdom, as Jesus said, is like this, “greater love has no man than this, than they lay down their lives for their friends.” John was writing to people who understood this sacrificial suffering, but gave them a vision of hope that Christ would be with them, not only in this life, but in the life to come.
I read a rather disturbing article in The Guardian not long ago that suggested that all the Mennonite churches in the United Kingdom were going to pack up and close, that there was going to be no Mennonite denomination, no congregations, no world service because the numbers have dwindled to such an extent. I must admit, even though I am not a Mennonite, my heart was broken by this news. The Mennonites were basically on the teachings of a Menno Simons, a Dutch reformer from the sixteenth century. Simons had, as he rightly said, grown up as an expert in life: he was outstanding in the art of drinking alcohol; brilliant at gambling; and superb at womanizing. He was excelsior – brilliant – until he met Christ. Then he realized that all the things he loved and cherished were the worst of things, not the best of things.
He became a strong Christian, and held strong views. He didn’t believe in the Roman Catholic tradition, that of Transubstantiation, but he believed that in the sacrament Christ was spiritually present, not physically present. He believed that believers should demonstrate a change in their life, not just say they are Christians, but be Christians. He believed in adult baptism. He believed in people being received into Christ based on their own convictions. Most of all, he was a pacifist, a conscientious objector: he believed Christians shouldn’t kill other people. You can imagine how popular he was in the sixteenth century! He was persecuted, and he and his followers were driven from country to country to country, so-much-so that Europe was such a dangerous place that when the doors of North America opened up, many of the Mennonites fled here, and found their security and salvation. Hence the reason why in Canada we still have a thriving Mennonite community. Simons understood that in having convictions sometimes you pay the price. Sometimes it is hard to stand for what you believe in. But he stood for those things, and in a sense, he was a martyr in the same way as the first century martyrs. He didn’t go seeking persecution, but rather persecution found him. Menno Simons should never be forgotten, nor should we forget people like him, for I realize that every generation stands on the shoulders of the generation that went before it.
So often, we have a small vision of God. I like what a very famous writer, J. B. Phillips, wrote many years ago in Your God is Too Small. The Book of Revelation was addressing this notion of the smallness of God by talking about a greater crowd of witnesses, about the nature of the heavenly realm, and that those who have gone before us are still somewhere, that those who follow us will stand on our shoulders, and that we are responsible for lifting them up into the future, and that heaven awaits us all.
So often, our lives and our faith become so individualistic, so tiny and minute, that we lose the grand vision of the Book of Revelation. It is fine to come to a place of worship and bring with us our own concerns, needs and joys. Some have come here today having recently lost a relative, or are in ill health, worries about university exams, uncertainty about where the future lies for them, concerns about their businesses, wondering if the Raptors will win tonight! We all come with something on our minds as individuals. But you know, church and faith, is not just about us! It is about a greater crowd of witnesses. It is about those who have gone before us. It is about those who have paid the price. It is about those who have stayed firm to Christ. It is those who have kept the faith, and have walked the faith, and have lived the faith. It is a greater crowd of witnesses. The picture in the Book of Revelation is all the nations coming to God and Christ – all the nations – just like the Book of Genesis, when Abraham and his descendants would bring the whole world to God, or from the Book of Isaiah, where the great prophet had a vision that all the nations would come to Zion. The Book of Revelation is about all the nations coming and worshipping God, being in God’s presence – a great crowd of witnesses! It is magnificent!
Most of all, the Book of Revelation is about a greater praise. Notice the language that is used: “There are saints in heaven robed in white”. Why white? Purity, sincerity, cleanliness, but more than that, it is a victory. You see, what we don’t realize is that the Roman generals after they had won a battle, wore white in victory. John is saying to those Christians, “You will wear those white robes in heaven! You will hold the victorious sign in heaven! You will be the ones who will share in the victory of God!” And, you know in a fragmented world that while there is a smallness to the minds of many, to the world that is condemnatory to people who are not like ourselves, but who want to put up walls or reject people, or make decisions about other people based on their ethnicity, nationality or language. In a world that is becoming cynical at times, the vision of the Book of Revelation stands at odds with this, for rather than the cynicism of human division and all the horrors that it produces, is a vision of Christ at the centre, where the whole world is brought together; not the Tower of Babel like The Old Testament times, where humanity on its own thinks it can bring itself together. No! It is on the basis of the invitation of the Creator himself.
The magnificence of the Book of Revelation is that it has that very image “Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven” should instruct us all. The vision of heaven is of all creation coming to Christ, all creation being drawn together, all creation in praise, all generations glorifying God, all people on earth being brought to heaven before the Lamb of God. If we, who live on this earth right now, wish to emulate heaven, this should beour goal. The enormity of it all should move each and every one of us. Amen.