May 12, 2013 - The Seventh Sunday of Easter

The Violence Within
Easter 7
May 12, 2013
Pam Birrell

Acts 16:16-34
Psalm 97
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21
John 17:20-26

"It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star."
The Spirit and the bride say, "Come." 
And let everyone who hears say, "Come." 
And let everyone who is thirsty come. 
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. 
The one who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." 
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! 
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen. 

With these words the Bible comes to a close. We are done and can start a new book now—done with the Bible. Done with the Bible?? Blasphemous words indeed! Can a person or a people ever be done with their Holy Scripture? Why not? After all, don’t we know all the stories now? The Parables? Paul’s sometimes beautiful and sometimes turgid prose? Why can’t we be done with it? Start something new? 

Perhaps that’s the wrong question. We can easily be done with the Bible and many people are (especially those who don’t know it very well). But the truth is that the Bible isn’t done with us. It is a special kind of book. It tells us of a peoples’ struggle with the divine and with themselves, and gives us a mirror and lens with which to view ourselves and the world. The Bible is not about historical accuracy or physical precision. It is about us, our human condition, our longing for the divine, and the nature of that divinity. Not all of the Bible is “right” in the sense of historically accurate or even good prophecy.

The best example of this is this last book, the Revelations of John. John of Patmos was one crazy dude. His visions are psychotic to say the least. But perhaps they are psychotic like the Saturday breakfast guest we had a few years ago. This particular guest was ranting and raving—talking to unseen people and describing visions of violence and anguish. He was freaking out the teenager working the condiment table with me and the other guests, giving him a straight shot at the gravy and salsa. But there was something about him. I had been brought up with a schizophrenic uncle living in our house and had worked at the State Hospital. I knew crazy people.

So I got his attention. “Hey!” I said. He looked at me with some surprise. “You’re not any crazier than I am and you’re scaring people. Cut it out!” And much to my relief, he did. He sat quietly, ate his breakfast and left.

I suspect John of Patmos was that kind of crazy… someone who saw visions for sure, but someone who had an agenda. His agenda was not to get to the ketchup, but to speak to persecuted Christians in a very uncertain world. It is unfortunate that John’s visions have ever been taken literally since they are so clearly a mirror of his own mind.

I decided that the way to deal with my problems with Revelations was to finally sit down and read the whole thing all at one time. Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near, it says in verse 3. HUMFH! I doubt it, I said to myself. There’s no blessing in all this mayhem. 

It both appalled me and surprised me. As you all know, it is a fascinating and violent vision, with angels and elders, six winged creatures, the 4 horsemen of the Apocalypse. There are also rivers of blood, plagues of locusts, giant hailstones, giant red dragons, and a beast with 7 heads. The earth and its inhabitants are destroyed at least several times over. Scene after scene of death, destruction and chaos are enough to turn even a strong stomach. 

But there was a blessing! The blessing I received reading Revelations was to understand, at a deep level, the violence of human nature. It is important to remember that these were John’s visions, not those of Jesus, and they show how deeply divided and violent our inner worlds can be. Although most of us do not see rivers of blood and dragons falling to fiery destruction, we are inwardly violent with ourselves and with each other. Our human state is to live in a world where consciousness is divided against itself.

The way that we as humans, know things, is to divide up reality. This is what Adam did during creation when he named all the creatures. He took a seamless and living reality and divided it up—one species of critters from another, one type of plant from another. It’s only a small jump from here to seeing others as different from us, and separating our own individual psychic worlds up into pieces. And this splitting of reality is accompanied by a kind of violence—the violence of comparison and judgment. 

Am I the only one here who has said to myself, “I can’t believe I did that. I’m so stupid!”

But I’m sure I’m not the only one who has said, “What a jerk!” to the driver who just cut me off.

And maybe I’m not the only one who has taken it further to decide that all people who vote differently than I do are ignorant know-nothings. It is not far from here to the kind of violence we see in the world—a violence of judgment and exclusion—a violence of hatred and division.
These may seem like innocuous examples, but they are the roots of violence in our world. The 4 horsemen of the Apocalypse are not Conquest, War, Famine, and Death, but Judgment, Comparison, Separation and Prejudice. Because when we set others and parts of ourselves apart, we do violence to the seamless reality of eternity.

The vision of Jesus is very different than the visions of John of Patmos. Jesus saw and lived a vision closer to that of R.M. Bucke, a 19th century psychiatrist: “All at once without warning of any kind… there came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness... I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life. It was not a conviction that I would have eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life then; I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any doubt all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love…” 

What a beautiful description of the Kingdom of Heaven which was the core of Jesus’ teachings. This is the kingdom that belongs to the poor in spirit, the kingdom that is like the yeast in the dough and the mustard seed, the kingdom that we must become like children to enter. It is not the streets of gold described by John of Patmos, but a vast spaciousness, including everything, without judgment and comparison, a space of only love. A spaciousness available to us, within us and among us, available to us now if we can transcend our human tendency to divide, and escape our prisons of judgment and comparison.

Revelations, and the Bible, ends with a promise. In the midst of this inner violence, if we pay attention, a star rises in our hearts—a star, a dawning, a promise of water for the thirsty and peace for the world. Jesus prays that we too would know this vision of oneness, of wholeness, of peace—that we would know that we are one with him and the Father. He prayed that we would break out of our prison of separation into a world of compassion, unity and love.

Let us make that our prayer too.