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The Vicar writesJeremy Fletcher
Revelation, the last book of the Bible, has been much on my mind. As I write it’s April 23rd 2018, and you may have seen that a futurologist had said that this would be the day predicted in Revelation when the world would end. I’m confident that it didn’t!
The Apocalypse, to give the Greek title of the book, is on my mind, however, not because of this. Readings from Revelation feature at Evensong this year in the Sundays after Easter, and I’ve been preaching on them. A commentator says that Revelation is “one of the most extraordinary pieces of literature ever written…remarkable…endlessly fascinating.”
In the medieval world most major churches depicted Revelation in wall paintings or stained glass. York Minster, where I worked up to ten years ago, is perhaps the supreme example: the Great East Window, the largest expanse of stained glass in the country, contains fifty such scenes, and I spent seven years gazing at it. I’ll do so again as I attend an Evensong in May celebrating the £19m restoration of the whole of the East End, with “the Sistine Chapel of Stained Glass’ at its heart.
Much of the imagery and meaning of Revelation is lost to us now, and as such it is fertile ground for conspiracy theorists. The subjects for our Evensong readings are reasonably safe territory: letters to seven real churches in what is now Turkey. The language is still visionary, but the reality faced by these new churches is familiar. There are internal disputes, and external pressures brought about by a mixture of persecution and complacency.
Thyatira, Pergamum, Ephesus and their four fellow churches are under attack from within and without. Some of them are directly challenged by hostile non-believers. Some face the challenge of existing in a place where other faiths jostle for attention, or where life is so comfortable that many don’t see the need for rigorous belief in the Christian God. I’ve been saying in my sermons that the situations faced in those churches are not unfamiliar now.
Some of the churches are commended for the solidity of their belief, but criticised for being so certain that they judge first and fail to love. Others are so accommodating to their surrounding culture that they fail to offer any distinctive Christian message at all. Two churches, Smyrna and Philadelphia, receive no criticism. What seems to characterise them is that they feel poor and weak: they know their absolute need of God’s strength and support. The greatest danger is self-satisfaction of any kind.
A common theme of all the letters is that they need to remember why they follow Christ, as well as how. Our mission action and vision process will need to take that lesson to heart. Revelation puts Christ at the centre of life, death, and new life. If Hampstead Parish Church was to receive a letter like one of the seven churches in Revelation, I think we would be commended for remaining faithful, and challenged to both include with love and proclaim with confidence. To use Revelation’s famous phrase, “let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches”.