Here is the first part of my sermon, “Lamb People, Lamb Power (Rev 7:1-17),” delivered at Union Baptist Church on January 17. The pastor of the church is a former student, Rev. Dr. Al Hathaway, and it was an honor and pleasure to be there.
He was a man of deep conviction… of fervent passion. A man of vision and of visions. His vision was of a beloved community that included people of all nations and races. A vision of unity and equality.
He was an eloquent speaker and gripping writer, with a gift for words like few people of his time. A man who gave speeches and wrote texts sprinkled with allusions to Scripture, words that challenged the system and gave great hope to the oppressed. Words of comfort to the afflicted and words of affliction to the comfortable. Words of a prophet.
He was a teacher, a preacher, a leader of The Movement. Some claimed he was a subversive. Some claimed the whole movement was subversive, dangerous.
He was a man of power. Not ordinary power, but power nonetheless. The power of conviction, the power of powerful critique of the powerful, the power—ultimately—of God, the power of the Spirit, indeed, the power of Jesus. His was the power of suffering love, the power of nonviolence, the power of faithful witness and resistance.
He was, therefore, a threat. A great threat. A threat to the status quo. A threat to the powers-that-be and that were and that are. So the powers, of course, took him out of commission, or so they thought. They put him away. But even there he dreamed and he had visions and he prayed and he wrote—he even wrote a now-famous letter, a classic epistle full of his vision and his visions, full of his passion and his passions, full of his convictions and his convicting words to the churches and to the civil authorities, full of his own hope and his words of hope to those he had had to leave behind.
Today, we remember his legacy, and we celebrate his vision, his passion, his commitment.
His name, of course, is John. John the Seer, John the Revelator, John of Patmos, John who penned that famous visionary letter that concludes the Scriptures: the book of Revelation from which we read a portion, chapter 7, together. John the servant and witness, as he calls himself (Rev 1:1), John the exile, banished by government authorities because of his faithful preaching of the word of God and his faithful witness to Jesus (1:9). John the subversive and troublemaker.
You, of course, thought that I was speaking, not of John, but of Martin, of Dr. King. I was not, and yet I was. For you see, John and Martin have much in common. They are both visionaries inspired by Jesus with a vision of God’s desire for the world and given power in and by the Spirit to articulate that vision for their peers and for all who come after.
It is easy to forget 40-plus years later that Dr. King was not merely a political figure but also a spiritual figure. Indeed, he is recognized by the Episcopal and Lutheran churches as a martyr, a witness to God and the Lamb who paid the ultimate price. And it is easy to forget nearly 20 centuries later that John—like Paul and like Jesus—was not merely a spiritual figure, but also a political figure. His was the politics of God, and that meant that the politics of Rome were in trouble. His vision was of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:9-10 NRSV).
“What’s so threatening about that vision?” we might ask, and understandably so. Here is what’s so threatening, very simply: it is not Rome’s vision! Rome imagined itself as the bringer of salvation, and the emperor as the Savior. Rome had its own plan for obtaining and maintaining peace and security and unity throughout the empire, and it had nothing to do with a foreign deity or a crucified lord from Israel, from the east, which the Romans thought to be the source of most cultural scum and political sedition.
John’s vision was also his power, it was the power of the Lamb, the power of suffering love, the power of nonviolence, the power of faithful witness and resistance. The power of the Lamb that was slain.