Preached at evensong at the Cathedral Church of St Paul in Detroit, MI on the Feast of St Michael and All Angels at the occasion of the Acolyte Festival of the Diocese of Michigan.
Revelation Chapter 5. Link to audio recording here.
What is it about the apocalypse that scares us so?
What is it about the end of the world that is so terrifying?
Apocalyptic thought was around long before Jesus.
The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek word meaning disclosure, or unveiling. A revelation – hence the book, Revelation.
But in postmodern parlance the word “apocalypse” has come to mean more than that – more than a glimpse into the future. Through films like Apocalypse Now, or TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or books like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we’ve come to understand the word “apocalypse” as synonymous with “the end of the world.”
And this is scary. Most people I know don’t want the world to end.
When I talk about the end of the world, I’m not talking about the end of this planet. Nor am I talking about the end of the human race. Neither of these is the “world” that I’m talking about.
What I mean when I talk about the end of the world, I’m talking about the end of your world – your everyday reality. The world as you have made it.
What it looks like to you. Who is in it. How you relate to them and how they relate to you. The places you go. The things you do. Your routines, your habits, your preferences. Your opinions about right and wrong. Your ideas about how this whole thing works. Your concept of God and your relationship to God. Your family. Your friends. Your identity. Your church.
And, most certainly, your ideas about yourself.
This is the world I’m talking about. It’s personal. And most people I know do not want their world to end.
The Revelation to John is a fantastical vision of divine proclamation.
And it’s personal. It’s almost as if John is reporting from the front lines of some grand cosmic event on another plane. It’s almost as if we were there with him.
Seeing the one – dazzling and bright, like a many-colored jewel… seated on a throne, a sea of crystalline glass before it, surrounded by 24 elders in white robes and golden crowns… lightening flashing, thunder pealing, wind whooshing across our skin
Seeing the 4 living creatures stalking around the throne – the lion, the ox, the flying eagle, and the creature with a face like a human.
Smelling their skin – breathing it in. Hearing their movements, their many different feets stalking the ground around the throne.
Listening to these creatures sing gloriously day and night in unceasing praise, “Holy, holy holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”
And then we see it too – the scroll. And we know it, just like John does, that this scroll holds absolutely everything.
It carries eternity. It contains life.
And we want to know, we need to know… what is there. Why are we here? What does it mean? How does the story of our life end?
But we also know, just like John, that we have no ability to bear that truth. We are not the one who can endure the truth. Because we have built this world. And we need to believe in this world and what it tells us about ourselves. Afterall, this is the world we pray to God to keep safe… so that we can continue to know who we are, as if we beseech God to confirm our worst thoughts about ourselves.
We want to know. And yet we don’t believe we can handle it.
And we weep, just like John. We weep bitterly, and with longing.
We weep because we cannot bring ourselves to face the truth.
We weep because we know that we are not alone in this torment, that all of humanity for eons before us and eons after us knows this same agony.
We weep. Because somewhere inside of us, we know the truth – even though we fear it. And we know that the truth will destroy our world. A truth so simple and plain… but yet so powerful that it shatters the alluring, glittery, complicated world we have created.
And we don’t want our world to end.
But from this place of desolation, this place of utter hopelessness, comes this lamb… this slain lamb displaying the perfection of God in the number 7 – its 7 mighty horns, and its 7 sparkling eyes. And this lamb proclaims for us the truth that we have been both longing for and fearful of.
And that truth – is that we are loved.
That truth – that there is nothing in the world that we’ve created that can replace that love.
That truth – that in order to know that love, we must give up our world.
When we cannot tolerate it, when we cannot bring ourselves to witness truth, to witness this exquisite Love , Christ is there, bearing the Reign of God for us.
Bringing us back to life. Resurrecting us from our broken world.
Beckoning us to see, and hear, and smell this truth, this unbounded Love.
Christ bears life for us and for all children of God. Christ holds truth when we cannot tolerate it ourselves.
Christ carries the Love that is the Reign of God – always.
We have this tradition, as Anglicans – as Episcopalians, and we believe it teaches us something. We believe tradition informs our understanding of God and our life with God. Our pattern of worship is most definitely a part of that tradition. And in this pattern, we have priests, we have deacons, we have acolytes. Which is why we are here today. Because we have acolytes.
For many baptized Christians – especially in the Episcopal Church – being an acolyte marks a new understanding of ministry. Most likely because we are entrusted with symbols of Christ. When we come to realize that it’s not just a wooden stick with some metal at the top, it’s not just a ball of smoke on a chain, it’s not just a candle or a book… when we come to realize that these are symbols of Christ, we start to understand our relationship to Christ in a different way.
It gets more personal. Almost as if we’re on the front lines, like John is.
In bearing these symbols of Christ, we come closer to the space where people meet Christ during worship. It’s personal and intimate.
It’s as if we start to tune into a different frequency, one in which we can more clearly hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit, more openly perceive the Reign of God.
And this acolyte ministry inside the walls of this institution we call church is a sacred one – bearing the symbols of Christ – so that people can see Christ in the light of the candle, can hear Christ in the ringing of the bells, can smell Christ in the burning of the incense.
And I, for one, am profoundly thankful for our tradition because of this acolyte ministry. These symbols remind me, and help me to connect to Christ when I cannot bear the weight of the Reign of God because I am too much in the world I have created, because I am too separated from Love.
But like all tradition, we can get lost in it. We can get to thinking that the tradition is an end in and of itself. That church is an end in and of itself. That it’s the tradition that’s important. And we can forget why it is that we have this tradition, why it is we have this church.
Why do we have this church?
Why are we called to be the Body of Christ in this place at this time?
Is it because, we’ve always done it and we don’t know what else to do? Is it because this is how we’ve learned to relate to one another? Is it a preference? A family activity? Is it just something that we’re supposed to do?
If this is all church is to us, then I’d like to suggest that church is nothing more than a part of the world we have created. But we believe that this tradition informs our understanding of God and our life with God. How does God use tradition to call us to a different knowledge, a new awareness? An apocalypse, if you will.
This ministry that we celebrate today – that of being acolyte – more than any other part of our tradition, teaches us how to live out our baptismal ministry in the world – in our community – in a very embodied, real, and tangible way. Because, quite simply, we are all bearers of Christ. We are all acolytes for the world.
And just as bearing the symbols of Christ within the walls of this church is a sacred ministry, what it teaches us to be as the Body of Christ in the world is an even more deeply sacred ministry.
We carry, we bear, we ring, we light, we present… and we witness.
Just like John, who witnessed for us, we stand in the world, but we witness a different reality.
As the Body of Christ, we are broken for the world so the world is not all that we see anymore. And as the Body of Christ, as the church… we are called to stand in a place where we can see the world, and the reality of the Reign of God at the same time.
Pointing to it. Believing in and acting upon the knowledge that the Reign of God is here, present.
That Love is here, present. That Love has always been here, present.
As acolytes for the world, as we carry Christ, as we bear the Good News, let us not be idols of tradition, holding fast to these things we do, fearing the end of our world, the end of our church.
Instead, let us surrender our world and truly bear Christ – who proclaims the Reign of God. Let us offer a revelation for a future of the church – and be the Body of Christ broken so the world can know the Love that is the Reign of God.