9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
11And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, 12singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ 14I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.
I was reminded this week by theologian and activist Nicola Torbett that it is best to “turn off the lights and read the first chapters [of Revelation] aloud by candlelight, the way the earliest Christians would have read it, in underground cells, meeting in secret, knowing the empire perceived them as a threat, and whispering these words to each other as life-giving secrets.” (Nicola Torbett, The Word Is Resistance Podcast, “Episode 105: What Wondrous Love Is This? 5.12.19” transcript.)
In the context of wild and overwhelming times, we find in Revelation wild and overwhelming imagery to match the moment. This brings us to a lamb on the throne whose wounds are so deep that the blood flowing is used to wash the robes of those around the throne until they become strangely white.
It’s important to note that this throne image is all about who we pledge our allegiance to. Nicola Torbett reminded me this week that this “throne would have been occupied by the Roman emperor, who was worshiped as a god and whose throne was conceived to be the very center of the world toward which everything else was oriented. The emperor on his throne,” Torbett says, “was the epicenter from which salvation emanated, a salvation that relied upon the subjugation and domination of the entire known world. Rome was the center of the world and the source of the entire world’s salvation.” (Torbett)
So what is a slaughtered lamb doing on the throne in this text? Nicola suggests that “the writer of Revelation is playing with and subverting this [throne] trope.” (Torbett) In the kin-dom to come, followers of Jesus imagined a scene where it is not a dominating lord that is being worshiped, but rather a slain lamb, the body of one who has suffered because they do not and will not fit neatly into the program of the empire. Instead of a world where the one worshiped demands that all beings and resources are funneled towards a few powerful people to generate wealth on the backs of the poor, the slain lamb on the throne says, “No – in the world God is bringing forth, it is a disabled body that is on the throne – a body that won’t fall in line with an economy that demands bodies perform a certain way to produce labor to make a few people rich, a body that will not cooperate with systems that destroy.”
Our society would have us actively look away from bodies like the slain lamb, bodies that do not easily produce the labor needed to make the 1% rich. But in this text, it is a body that won’t play the empire’s game that is at the center, with the whole community focusing their attention on the suffering the lamb has experienced at the hands of the oppressive systems that had it crucified. Not only does the slain lamb hold their gaze, but they wash their robes in the lamb’s blood, shed by unjust suffering. As Nicola Torbett puts it, “Resurrection starts there, by refusing to look away and instead by moving toward those who have been disfigured by the dominant systems and structures of which we are a part. And we are going to get bloody in the process.” (Torbett)
This blood-washing-of-robes image is meant to jar us into remembering that we will get messy when we stand in solidarity with oppressed bodies being crushed by forces of domination. And yet somehow, according to this text, that blood will make us clean. When we center the bodies of those who cannot or will not cooperate with the empire, our text tells us we will be led on the path toward abundant life for all. “…the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” It’s almost as if caring for being in solidarity with oppressed bodies, even our own, will set every last one of us free.
Stacy Milbern, a disabled, LGBTQ person of color, tells the story of how she and her friends banded together at the beginning of the pandemic to produce “nearly 100 anti-coronavirus kits” to be distributed to folx living in homeless encampments near them in Oakland, California. (Matthew Green, “Coronavirus: How These Disabled Activists Are Taking Matters Into Their Own (Sanitized) Hands,” Mar 17, 2020.) Milbern is quoted in an article about her work, where she says that “many in the disabled community are all too familiar with feeling isolated and surviving in crisis mode… when resources and support are in short supply.” Milbern’s small group, the Disability Justice Culture Club, “wanted to use that DIY know-how to help their own community and other underserved populations… Often times, disabled people have the solutions that society needs,” said Milbern. “We call it crip — or crippled — wisdom.” It is such a painful experience to be left behind or disregarded,” she said. “I have experienced feeling neglected by systems and society, and I don’t want that to continue. If I can use my skills developing care networks to keep someone a little more safe, it was all worth it.” (Green article) Folx like Milbern have always known that they need to embrace a web of interdependent, mutual support to survive. And when a disabled body is at the center of how we build a new world, when a disabled body is on the throne, it changes absolutely everything about how we treat each other and the world we build together, a world in which a pandemic hits and the first instinct is to care for those who cannot shelter in place because they have no home, a world in which everyone finds relief from the scorching heat, a world in which springs of water quench every thirst and we are truly shepherded by the slain lamb who longs to bring us into life.
We are surrounded by forces that want us to rush back to a normal that has always oppressed the bodies that didn’t fit the empire’s program. In this context, slowing down for intentional rest and solidarity with suffering bodies is resistance. What is your own body telling you about the ways it needs to stop producing labor and start resting? What would change in our lives and communities if we practiced letting go of the lie of individualism and instead invested in community care, which has always sustained those living on the margins? What would happen if we truly lived as if what is happening to the slain lambs in our communities was happening to us? In Revelation, the slain lamb is on the throne. And if we let it, that reality has the capacity to change everything, creating a world where everyone is fed, where everyone is sheltered, where everyone thrives near springs of clean water, and where the God alive in community helps us wipe the tears from each other’s eyes. Amen.