Readings: Acts 9:36-43, Revelation 7:9-17
Before the sermon proper, I invite you, for the span of four hundred words and a few aesthetic observations, to step into the strange world on the front of your order of service. It’s the most famous panel of a twelve-panel altarpiece by the Flemish artist van Eyck. Called “The Adoration of the Lamb”, it’s a fifteenth century take on the scene from Revelation 7. Centre of the scene, the focus of every character’s line of sight, is the Lamb – standing proudly on a platform directly under the sharp shafts of light from above. At ten o’clock and two o’clock respectively you have batteries of elegantly dressed clerics and colourful posh people arriving. They’re painted with movement in the hems of their garments – they’re only just arriving on the scene. The established crowd, those who have been there a while - and who have the best view of the Lamb - are in the foreground. In the very front row (five o’clock, separated from the Lamb only by the angels) are a row of people in white robes. They lack the pomp and ceremonial colour of the latecomers. They’re barefoot, quite plain and kneeling – very humble, but really well positioned.
Who are they?
That’s the big question posed in Revelation chapter seven: who are they? The question comes out of the blue to poor old John – who’s suffering this series of vivid visions. It comes from someone “in the heavenly know”, and it goes like this: Who are the people in white robes?
In the narrative, John doesn’t even try to answer. He merely says to the questioner “Sir, you are the one who knows”. Whereupon, as if eager to share a secret, the elder speaks: “Who are they? These are those who have come out of the great ordeal.”
For John, and for his audience, the great ordeal was the persecution of ordinary Christian people by the Roman Empire. Ordinary men and women – my aunt, your brother, our parents, the woman at the Post Shop. Barefoot, non-colourful, ordinary people whose attention had been caught by something in the new and fragile faith – and who because of it were run over by the great big crushing machine of Empire which demands exclusive loyalty. These are people to whom the Empire said “who do you think you are”, before using execution to tell them that they were nothing. Losers, victims, the powerless, the dead.
But now, in this scene from Revelation, who are they? They are those who have come through the great ordeal. Alive; front row; beholding the Lamb. That is who they are.
Peter is called to the seaside town of Joppa to attend to religious duties at the house of someone who has died. Who does he think he is? In Israel, religious functions were the preserve of qualified people - the rabbis. Rabbis had received training in theology, in community ritual, in pastoral care. Peter was a fisherman. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a fisherman – certainly, if you like eating fish. But it wasn’t his role to be tending to the dead. Every society, every community, every family exists within certain settled, fixed arrangements of who’s meant to do what. Teachers teach, judges judge, cleaners clean, doctors heal. Things work because people do what they’re trained for, what the community trusts them to do. Peter’s stepping outside his proper role of fisherman and intruding in the work of the professional religious practitioners. Who does he think he is?
Here, though, is an even more dramatic transgression. Suddenly Peter has put the people out of the room with the body in it. Now he’s talking to the body and telling it to get up. If society has a whole lot of conventions about proper order, how much more ordered is nature! In the natural order you don’t expect to be able to walk on water. You don’t expect small amounts of bread to feed large groups of people. You most certainly don’t order corpses to get up and walk around. Does Peter think he’s bigger than the natural order? Who does he think he is?
(Who were the people in white robes? They were people who overcame the ordeal and behold the Lamb.) Peter is someone who knows society, and who knows the natural order, but has seen the Lamb – who three years before had said to him “come and follow me, I’ll make you fish for people”. Peter will never again merely be what the world, what the machine says he has to be. Now he is someone who has been through the ordeal of being asked “who do you think you are”, but who knows who he is from the perspective of God’s love. In this post-Easter dispensation people don’t stay put in the roles that society and nature require. They become the free Easter creatures prefigured by the Lamb who died but lives again. Essentially, first and foremost, Peter is someone who has seen the Lamb.
Tabitha. Who does she think she is? She’s introduced in the Book of Acts as a disciple. It’s the only time in the whole New Testament where the word “disciple” is used of a woman. In the gospels it’s always the “disciples and the women”. But here we find Tabitha, a disciple in her own right, being the central person in what appears to be a lively social welfare system for widows. This the kind of role which traditional societies of that time would have restricted to the men – but here she seems to be in charge of it. Who does she think she is? I’m reminded of the young nun, Mary McKillop, arguing with Bishop Lawrence Shiel and winning the argument until Shiel excommunicated her for insubordination. (Why won’t you play the role assigned you? Who do you think you are?) I’m reminded of fourteen year old Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai, arguing with the Taliban that girls ought to be allowed to go to school – and getting shot in the head. (Why don’t you play the role assigned you? Who do you think you are?) Like Paul the fisherman, Tabitha the welfare officer isn’t staying put where the machine tells her she should. Who does she think she is?
(Who were the people in white robes? They were people who overcame the ordeal and behold the Lamb.) Tabitha is someone who has seen the Lamb – the Lamb who has called her by her community to care for the poor – regardless of what the machine says about her sex. Tabitha will never again merely be what the world says she has to be. Now she’s someone who has been through the ordeal of being asked “who do you think you are”, and who knows anew who she is - from the perspective of God’s life. In this post-Easter dispensation, she’s become the free Easter creature prefigured by the Lamb who died but lives again. First and foremost, who is she? She is someone who has seen the Lamb.
I guess, in his time too, they said to Jesus “who do you think you are?” That’s the question behind Pontius Pilate’s questions during the sham trial: “are you a king”, “then you are a king”, “who are you?” When you’re asked these questions in a counterfeit trial, when the machine is programmed towards your condemnation, it’s the same as saying “who do you think you are”. And you would have to confess that this whole business of calling him the “Lamb of God”, naming him after a sacrificial animal, isn’t helping. Maybe if he had an army or called fire and brimstone down, then he’d be someone in the eyes of the world. (Please some show of power!!!) What’s he doing, in a world of Kim Jong Un and Boston bombers, trying to woo the world with parables, with non-violence, and with letting himself win by losing? The political laws of power and influence say he should stay in Galilee and be a carpenter. What’s he doing, stepping into the role of Messiah? Who does he think he is?
(Who were those people in white robes? They were people who overcame the ordeal and beheld the Lamb.) Jesus has come through the ordeal of the machine telling him that God is in the sky, and the earth belongs to unfriendly religious experts and the corrupt. Jesus has come through the accusations that he is not loved by God, not called to live for others. And having come through the ordeal, he has prevailed. He is someone who, in understanding that he is to live for others, that he is not to kill for others, but to die for others, has seen the vocation of the Lamb – and become it. In the Jesus universe, nobody stays in lifeless roles – they move away from death and into life. First and foremost, Jesus has become the Lamb who welcomes those who’ve come through the ordeal.
It’s almost time for this sermon to end. Just one last question. Who do you think you are? The world might tell you that you are skinny or fat. It might tell you that you are ordinary, and won’t be able to do much with your life. The world may tell you that any hope or faith you feel is silly. (The world might tell you that you are deviant, strange and unlovable.) Please stay, (it will say) for the sake of mechanistic order, in the shackled role that the world has assigned.
That’s what it will say. But who are you - really?
You are someone who has seen the Lamb – seen that God is on the side of faith and life. So don’t let the world crush you. Don’t let it force you to be a smaller version of what you are called to be. In seeing the Lamb, you have seen what is “small and sacrificed” become the living One to whom all people look – and receive life.
Who are you? You are alive, in the front row, beholding the Lamb.
Rev Dr Matthew Jack