12 ‘See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. 13I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’
14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. 15Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practises falsehood.
16 ‘It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.’
17 The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; 19if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
20 The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.
This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.
The verses selected for the lectionary this week did not include ALL of verses 12-21, which I just read for you. They were chopped up into smaller chunks, skipping some verses. I’ll give you a few wild guesses which verses the lectionary cut out. But one thing I know about us is that we are a community of faith that talks about hard things. So we are going to start today by going straight for some of those skipped verses and digging in.
John of Patmos, the one recording this vision, describes the city of God in these last words of his letter to churches. In his description, he says, “15Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practises falsehood.” I know many of us could share stories about how verses like this one have been used to shame us or other people, to exclude beloved children of God from the family of faith. I’m sure this room is thick with those stories. But, believe it or not, there are two things I want you to know about these often abused words that point us towards a good word for this day.
The first thing I want you to know is that John of Patmos is not imagining in this list of people outside the city gate the people that Christian culture has taught us to imagine. I heard lists like this re-quoted in churches growing up to basically exclude anyone from the church who was not straight, white, or who did not fit neatly into the male/female gender binary. I’ve heard verses like this deployed against all kinds of people, from those fighting for reproductive justice to trans children to women like me who were learning to be a feminist. And if you are here today, a person who has been the recipient of that kind of attack from the church on your very being, hear me say today that you are a beloved child of God exactly as you are and there’s not a single church or Christian who can tell you otherwise.
What this list actually describes, in the words of theologian M. Eugene Boring, are “sins that… were particularly associated with participation in the emperor cult…” (M. Eugene Boring, Revelation: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, pg. 217.) Those outside the city gate are those in the process of acting out their allegiance to the Roman emperor. The emperor was OK with people worshiping Jesus as long as they were willing to also pledge their allegiance to Caesar, to call him Lord and God. It was a handy political tool. The more people you could unify in worshiping you as a god, the more territories there were to exploit, the more wealth you could hoard, the more military power you could shore up for more exploitation and hoarding. It is the worship of this empire of domination, a death cult, that is described in this verse the lectionary skipped over. And when John calls out “everyone who loves and practices falsehood,” he is speaking specifically of a “lack of courage before the Roman courts, lack of truthfulness in making the declaration of their Christian faith regardless of the consequences.” (Boring, Revelation, pg. 217.) Here, John is giving churches what M. Eugene Boring calls “the severe reminder of the either/or call to decision by picturing again the two groups into which humanity is divided by its choice of whom to worship/obey.” (Boring, Revelation, pg. 225.)
When I thought about those in active worship of the empire of domination, I could not stop thinking of every senator who continues to bow to the altars of the gun lobbies paying for their campaigns while 19 students and 2 teachers lay dead from the very guns those senators refuse to regulate. I could not stop thinking of the ones who are perfectly comfortable regulating women’s bodies if it means firing up their base in time for midterm elections. I could not stop thinking of the politicians who have worn like a badge of honor their words about people who are homeless needing to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps because they know that this rhetoric is what many people in Cowlitz County want to hear. And I could not stop thinking about how so, so many of the people offering this worship to the empire are in their own church building somewhere this morning, also claiming to worship Jesus, that brown-skinned rabbi without his own house who was beaten by the police and executed by the state.
I know that in many respects, I preach this morning to the choir. And to leave things here would be despair. And that’s where this second thing about this verse comes in: None of these “sins” listed are permanent characteristics of people that will necessarily keep them out of the holy city forever. As M. Eugene Boring puts it, “John does not say… that anyone who has ever been guilty of these failings is prohibited from participation in the Holy City, only that no one will bring these sinful practices with [them] into the Holy city. The list,” Boring writes, “serves to characterize life in the city of God, not a limitation on who will finally be there.” (Boring, Revelation, pgs. 217-18.) In fact, if we read a chapter earlier, John tells us that this holy city’s “gates will never be shut” (Revelation 21:25). To John, there are no bad people and good people. There are no permanent outsiders or insiders. What John wants us to know in this passage is that while the decision of whether or not we will worship a death-dealing empire is life or death, we are always only a breath away from coming home to the holy city of life. In these last words of his letter to the church, John wants us to know that not only are the gates still open, but Jesus is doubling down on the invitation: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.” Thirsty. That word caught my attention because it is such a creaturely thing to thirst. We all need water. This repeated “come” is not a demand to those opposing the ways of life. It is a truth-telling invitation that reminds every one of us, even and maybe especially those actively worshiping the empire, that underneath all their fear-mongering and power-hoarding is the root of their longing – a deep thirst to be safe, seen, and loved. We are all thirsty for that. If we can tap into that thirst we all share, we can tell everyone that they are invited to drink deeply of the water of life.
I saw this invitational spirit of Jesus embodied this week when I heard the story of Bridget Holbert. Bridget is a white woman living in a rural community north of Buffalo who, until a few years ago, would have said that white nationalist ideas like the replacement theory touted by the man who shot 10 Black folx who were grocery shopping would have been easy for her to buy into. “Being raised evangelical… persecution narratives are extremely powerful,” Bridget said in an interview. “It’s me against the world. It’s us against the world.. they hate us because of what we believe. But we are right. It’s the same narrative for white supremacists and for evangelicals,” she said.
But those beliefs started to fall apart for Bridget when she started seeing her friends making jokes on social media about the killing of Philando Castille, a Black school cafeteria manager who was murdered by Minnesota police. “That was the moment,” Bridget said, “that I went, dear God, this is hate, and this is hate that – it’s based on hating people because they’re Black.” That’s when some other white folx showed up at Bridget’s door to remind her how deeply thirsty for real life she was. Around this time, she had her first contact with organizers from SURJ – Showing Up for Racial Justice, and they drew her into their work to organize white people to resist white supremacy. Just two years later, when there were rumors that the KKK was going to show up at a local festival in her area, Bridget showed up to protest. (Adrian Florido, “In the fight against white nationalism, white people are key.”) Those SURJ organizers showed Bridget the ways the empire was draining the life from her and all God’s children. They showed her that the gates to the city are always open, and that the thirst-quenching water of solidarity is waiting for all of us.
Believe me, friends, if you have felt hopelessness overwhelm you in this time, I’m right there with you. The good news is that we are a thirsty people who know how to get to the water, and the gates to the holy city will never shut. There’s still time to organize our neighbors away from the empire’s cult of death and to invite them into God’s city of justice, compassion, and peace, and the time is now. May we never, ever, ever stop inviting even our adversaries – who are just as thirsty as we are – to drink deeply from the water of life that is a free gift. Amen.