Heaven is a multitude

We don’t know what to do with Revelation [Lectionary reading: Rev 7:9-17]. “Whenever we enter the apocalyptic … territories of the Bible, we suddenly become disoriented tourists who don’t know the language, who stumble over the customs, who are made queasy by the diet, and who can’t find our way back to the hotel.”[1]

We don’t know what to do with Revelation. It “remains for many Christians not only strange and difficult but also theologically offensive - a book with ‘seven seals’, seldom read, seen as a curiosity in the Bible, and at most quoted very selectively.”[2]

We don’t know what to do with Revelation, unlike some of our brothers and sisters who, poring over maps of the middle east and the latest news about ISIS, are piecing together the puzzle – again! – and counting the days. Their reading of the text seems bizarre to us, but so does the text itself. We know that “apocalyptic poetry and historical prose are usually not commensurate. When Scripture says, ‘The stars will fall from heaven and the sun will cease its shining; the moon will be turned to blood and fire mingled with hail will fall from the heavens,’ we don’t expect the next phrase to be ‘the rest of the country will be partly cloudy with scattered showers.’”[3]

We don’t know what to do with Revelation, because its “apocalyptic language … does not appeal to our logical faculties but to our imagination and emotions. It is mythological-fantastic language - stars fall from heaven; the world becomes a palace with three stories: heaven, earth, and underworld; animals speak, dragons spit fire, a lion is a lamb, and angels or demons engage in warfare.”[4]

We wonder if we’re offered a snippet of Revelation on the first Sunday in November because it follows Halloween, a night of ghouls, ghosts, and gargoyles galore, and all in good fun. On Halloween we make fun of all that frightens us, especially the dark and the master of all fear, death. We make fun of our fear to remind ourselves and each other that the ultimate horizon of life is not fear, but heaven. Halloween and All Saints go hand in hand because remembering the saints who have gone before us we also remember that the way of Christ is the way of light and life. Remembering the saints as the earth turns into the dark winter months helps us to see our lives in Easter light.

Revelation does the same thing. It’s a letter of comfort and encouragement to Christians in dark times. John was a Christian leader, banned by order of Rome to a small island in the Mediterranean. Jerusalem was gone; the Romans, tired of the protests and revolts in the volatile province of Judaea, had destroyed the city and demolished the Temple – a pile of rubble was all that was left. Rome’s soldiers had brought peace to the troubled region, PAX ROMANA that is, the Roman variety of peace: submit or else. Christians were suspect because of their refusal to honor the gods of the empire. Violent persecution wasn’t the norm, but many Christian leaders were executed or imprisoned, or, as in John’s case, banned. He found himself far from home, a prisoner on Patmos, a small island off the coast of Turkey. The world around him was falling to pieces, and he knew that across the sea, in the cities of Asia Minor, where arrests and executions continued, his friends were struggling and suffering. They were losing hope: Rome had surrounded them with demands and expectations that turned just about every step toward the kingdom of God into an act of rebellion against the empire.

Acclaiming the emperor as Lord and Son of God was part of their duty as citizens and subjects of Rome – but how could they do that without denying the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God? How could they praise the emperor as Savior of the World when they confessed and proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? The “great ordeal” of Revelation’s first audience was not state-sponsored persecution on a large scale; soldiers weren’t going door to door rounding up any who refused to curse the Lord. But those who did not participate in the Roman imperial system found themselves increasingly marginalized, socially and economically. The pressure was growing to deny God’s claim on their lives and to submit instead to Rome’s.

John, in his letter, placed their struggle into a cosmic frame of reference, and in the passage we heard today he offered them a glimpse of heaven: There was a great multitude, more people than anyone could count. There was no limit to the scope of this multitude, be it geographic, ethnic, numeric, or linguistic. A multitude, dressed in white, waving palm branches and shouting out joyful praise to God on the throne and the Lamb. Angels were there and elders, too, twenty-four of them, as well as four living creatures, which John had described earlier. One looking like a lion, one like an ox, one was some creature with a human face, and one was like a flying eagle. John’s imagination was steeped in scripture, his letter contains more than five hundred references to the Hebrew scriptures, especially the prophets. Their words were the material he used to paint the scene in which all the residents of heaven sing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen!” What was Rome’s demand for the allegiance of God’s people against such a magnificent backdrop of heavenly praise?

“Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” asked one of the elders, only to answer a moment later, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal.” A multitude, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages! Most Christians today are aware of themselves as members of an international community, numbering hundreds of millions, with a venerable history that reaches back through the generations and the centuries. But imagine what the members of John’s churches at the end of the first century were looking at: their congregations were small; on the margins of society; politically suspect; without impressive buildings, institutions, or respect from their neighbors. John’s vision encouraged them to embrace their identity as God’s own and not to give in to pressures that let Rome claim the heavenly throne.

In a context where other powers claim ultimate allegiance – and who can name a context in which powers other than God do not claim ultimate allegiance? – in such a context, Christian worship is fundamentally an act of resistance. Christian worship, this weekly gathering, is a subversive practice that keeps others, including ourselves, from claiming the throne that is God’s. “What the powers desire most from human beings is our worship,” writes Charles Campbell; “they claim to be the divine regents of the world and to offer us life if we will only serve them. In this context, it is not surprising that the fundamental practice of the redeemed community in the book of Revelation is worship. There is no more subversive act where the powers are concerned than praising the God of Jesus Christ, who has exposed and overcome them.”[5] Standing next to the throne in heaven is not the general of the great army that conquered the world, or the brilliant technologist who invented the greatest gadget of all time, but the Lamb who loved the world and continues to love it through the church.

It is good for us to remember that heaven is not some Disciples Hall of Fame for the great athletes of piety. Heaven is a multitude, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages – all dressed in white because of what the Lamb has done. Heaven is a multitude and its unity lies in the love of God.

Kathleen Norris tells of a Benedictine sister who was keeping vigil as her mother lay dying in a hospital bed. She ventured to reassure and comfort her by saying, “In heaven, everyone we love is there.” The older woman replied, “No, in heaven I will love everyone who’s there.”[6]

Heaven is a multitude drawn together by the love and faithfulness of God. Let us worship God then, or, in the words of Saint Augustine,

Let us sing alleluias here on earth, while we still live in anxiety, so that we may sing it one day in heaven in full security ... We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend. God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung in anxiety, there in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live forever; here they are sung in hope, there in hope’s fulfillment; here, they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country. So then ... let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do - sing, but continue your journey ... Sing then, but keep going.[7] 


[1] Thomas G. Long, “Imagine There’s No Heaven: The Loss of Eschatology in American Preaching,” Journal for Preachers, Vol. XXX, No. 1, Advent 2006, 22.

[2] Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World, Proclamation Commentaries, 6.

[3] John Barton, cited in Long, 23.

[4] Fiorenza, 27.

[5] Charles Campbell, The Word before the Powers, 142.

[6] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, 367.

[7] Saint Augustine, cited in Norris, 368.