For churches whose preaching is lectionary based, one of the texts for this Sunday is Revelation 1:4-8. It’s a marvelous passage that describes Jesus in some of the most exalted language in all of the New Testament. The “faithful witness,” the “the firstborn of the dead,” the ruler of the kings of the earth,” the one who is and who was and who is to come,” the “Alpha and the Omega.” It’s breathtaking stuff. The risen Christ is described as the source and goal of all creation.
There’s another section of this passage that we are perhaps not so readily drawn to:
“Look, he is coming with the clouds,”
and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
So shall it be! Amen.
We squirm a bit at the “coming with the clouds” language. Maybe it conjures up some of the awful eschatologies we’ve spent years dislodging from our theological framework, with images of Jesus as a conquering hero rampaging down from a celestial throne to settle the score. Perhaps we cringe at the scene of vast swaths of humanity weeping and wailing because they didn’t recognize their king at the time of his first coming and now there will be hell to pay. There’s certainly plenty of language in Revelation, at least on a surface reading, to justify these sorts of misgivings.
But what if the mourning proceeds from a different source? What if the tears are not those of terror but of a kind of desolate relief? What if the weeping is the result of finally seeing who the ruler of the kings of the earth truly is and how he will judge? What if the wailing is due not to the dread of punishment from a king who is no different than the tired procession of power-hungry and violent kings who preceded him, but because the sad truth will come crashing down upon us: we are the ones who pierced the source of our healing and salvation; we are the ones who turned our backs on the very one who offered (and offers still) forgiveness and wholeness.
And what if—impossibly—these are also tears of trembling joy? It’s not the most obvious interpretation, I grant, but whatever else might be said about it, it is anchored squarely and solely in the character of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
There’s a great passage in Dale C. Allison Jr.’s Night Comes that asks us to consider the final judgment at Christ’s second coming alongside the climactic scenes of his first:
[Although] the fact is often missed, in order to [forgive Peter], he has to negate his own somber warning: “Whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (Mat. 10:33). Peter denies Jesus. Jesus doesn’t deny Peter. He rather says to him and his miserable fellows, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19). In the resurrection appearances, the unqualified admonition about denial is set aside, and mercy triumphs over judgment…
What follows? If the Gospels identify Jesus with the judge of the last day, and if they construe his passion and resurrection as a mini-apocalypse, then Christian readers might well ask, Haven’t we seen how the judge once acted when the end came, and why shouldn’t we expect more of the same in the future? If Jesus has rehearsed the end, don’t his followers have some idea of what’s coming? Will the one who repudiated violence and vengeance think better of it down the road and adopt a different policy? Will the one who forgave his enemies once refuse to do so again? Will he finally call a halt to forgiving seventy times seven?
Large parts of the Christian tradition, including a few paragraphs in the New Testament, have imagined that things will indeed be different next time. When the judge appears, forgiving enemies will belong to the past. He will have had enough of the Sermon on the Mount and of turning the other cheek. It’ll be time to revert to an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The sun will no longer shine on the just and unjust, but only on the just. Evil will be requited with evil.
All this, however, requires that Jesus’ behavior in the passion narrative is a temporary strategy as opposed to a demonstration of God’s deepest character. On this view, how Jesus behaved on one occasion says little or nothing about how he will behave on another, or is even altogether misleading. Yet how then will a Christian plausibly insist that the cross discloses the divine identity, or that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever? Is it credible that the figure in the passion narratives is a passing anomaly, that Jesus acted the part of a lamb led to slaughter only as some sort of provisional strategy which will, in the end, be abandoned for some radically different tactic? Does the risen Christ bear his scars as justification for revenge or as a sign of his everlasting character?
I don’t spend a great deal of time agonizing over the logistics of the final judgement, truth be told. I am content to interpret Revelation not as an eschatological blueprint but as a powerful set of symbols that are, at best, approximations of what we can only ever understand in part. I can imagine weeping at the sight of the judge’s coming, but only because the judge and Jesus are one and the same. Tears for the recognition that all of my petty, retributive, scorekeeping views of what God is like have been miserably inadequate. Tears for the way that I have reproduced these views in my own life. And tears for the beauty of hearing—against all odds!—words like, “Peace be with you.”
So it is to be. Amen.
The image above is taken from next year’s Christian Seasons Calendar. It’s by Tim Steward and is called “Enveloped in Gold.”