May 12, 2019
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
This past week, I was listening to a discussion on the radio in which one of the broadcasters was relating a story about his attic and he said, “My attic has those drop down stairs, you know the ones that you can pull down that turn into steps… what do you call them?”
The other speaker said, “I don’t know. I think they are just called drop down attic stairs,” and then he added, “But I bet the Germans have a word for it. They have a word for everything.” Sure enough, a listener wrote in to say, “You are right. We Germans do have a word for them — they are called Zugtreppe. You’re welcome.”
German is one of the more precise of our modern languages and for the ancients, Greek was the champion of precision. With its many verbal forms and declensions, Greek can hold nuances that are not immediately evident in English which makes it hard for the English translators to convey the proper meaning of the original text. Here in the opening chapters of the Book of Revelation is a perfect example of that case. In the opening of Revelation, John sets up the context for the vision he is about to impart and he uses a deliberate and extremely important grammatical construction that we cannot see in our modern English translations. Most of the time such nuances of language are interesting but not that important but I would argue that in this case, the grammatical construction John uses that is invisible to us affects everything that follows, and because we can’t see it, American readers get off on the entirely wrong foot in their interpretation of this complex book.
John’s vision begins with an address to the “angels of the seven churches” of Asia Minor, today western Turkey.
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus,” he says, “write: “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance,” and continues with a litany of compliments and criticisms to the other angels of the other seven churches. Because our experience of church is that of a collection of individual Christians worshipping together, we subconsciously imagine John’s vision being read to a congregation sitting in the pews and our imprecise English allows us to make this subtle shift in our imagination because we hear all of those “you’s and your’s” as plural: When John says to the angel of the church at Ephesus, “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance,” we are seeing the members of the Ephesus church sitting in their seats nodding to one another as John says, “I know your (plural) works, your (plural) toil and your (plural) patient endurance.” Obviously, we think, John is complimenting, or in other places criticizing the discipleship of those individuals who comprise those churches, people who each in their own way are living out or failing to live out the gospel. Consequently, we believe that this entire book is a call to the individual Christian to look into his or her heart and repent so that he or she will live up to God’s call and be saved. It is this reading of Revelation that leads people to adorn their cars with bumper stickers that say, “In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned.” It is this reading of Revelation that makes John’s words all about me or all about you, and about which of us will be called up in the last days.
But that is a misinterpretation of this book. John’s vision wasn’t addressed to me or to you walking our individual paths of discipleship. It was addressed to the angels of the churches, and while we are picturing the letter being read to all of those Christians in their pews, 1 the precise Greek pronouns keep the emphasis on the angel:
“I know your (in the singular) works” — John’s talking to the angel of the church, not to the people in the pews — “I know your (singular) toil and your (singular) patient endurance.” John’s vision isn’t addressed to youse guys but to the angel of each church, and it is the angel of that church which has either been faithful to God’s call, or has failed in God’s call. In biblical times, people didn’t think of angels as lovable little cherubs with wings but as powers that served God. They believed that God had placed over every church, every institution, every government, and even over every nation, a ruling angel that controlled the nature of that corporate body in its charge, and those angels persisted in that duty even as the human beings in their care came and went, were born and died, as mortal human beings are wont to do. They also believed that those angels were agents of independent moral choice, capable of serving God well or of going astray and the ones who failed to serve God were thought of as fallen angels; the particularly rebellious ones were demonic angels. The entire vision of John that we have in the Book of Revelation is not addressed to you or me individually, but to the angels that rule over our churches, over our nations, and over all of our institutions, calling those angels to get in line with their original vocation given to them by God. John applauds the ones who have remained faithful and condemns those that have turned against their holy calling. In the book of Revelation, the battle for the redemption of the world is a cosmic one between all of the ruling powers and our job as individuals is simply to make sure we are on the right side in the end.
We may think that this view of angels ruling over things is a very archaic way of thinking about the world but in fact, I believe that the book of Revelation, when read correctly, describes the world very accurately and becomes a powerful indictment of the powers we see at play right here in our own times because what the book of Revelation called angels, we now refer to as institutional or corporate culture. We have seen in our own experience that the corporate life in our institutions is often greater than the sum of the individuals that comprise it. We have seen how assumptions and values can persist over time in an institution even as generations are born and die, and how those world views can become entrenched in that organization regardless of the individuals passing through it. And we have certainly seen that when you try to change that corporate culture, or battle institutional injustice, it feels like you are fighting cosmic powers.
In England, there are two churches a few miles apart from one another built on the coast where one thousand years ago the Danes invaded Britain. The two churches are small and struggling and the Bishop has repeatedly tried to merge the two congregations into one but the people have consistently refused to merge. Finally, the Bishop said to the presiding Elder of one of the churches, “You’ve given me many reasons why you don’t want to merge with the other congregation but frankly, none of your arguments seem very convincing. I’d appreciate some honesty from you. What is the real reason you won’t merge with them?”
The Elder replied, “Well, Bishop, if you really want to know, they didn’t warn us that the Danes were coming.”
One thousand years later, those two churches continue to nurse their resentment of one another. They pass it along to their children and make it a part of their corporate identity. How many churches have we known like that who, regardless of a long line of changing leadership and membership, continue to remember old slights, and rehearse old fights creating a fundamental character that persists over time? This character is what Revelation calls the angel of the church, and fortunately, the angel of a church can also work for good as well as for bad. While we know churches whose angels have developed a toxic character that harms the world and its members, so too we also know churches — and I hope that ours is one of those — which develop a character of welcome and grace that endures even when some of its individual members may act in small minded ways. The character of a church will persist in spite of variations within its individual members because the stories of the past are rehearsed, repeated, woven into doctrines and policies, and published on websites. That character informs the way the individuals think and creates the corporate culture which comes to dominate its decision making. Any individuals who don’t initially fit in with that corporate culture will either conform to it or will eventually leave because it is the angel of the institution that determines the character of that organization for good or for ill.
What goes for churches goes for all of the institutions in which we live out the human experience. In the past fifty years in America, we have become acutely aware of the power of institutional cultures to persist over time. People who have been pushed to the fringes of society because of their color, their gender, or their sexuality are fully aware of how entrenched a culture of oppression can become in our corporate life. It is this difference between the individual and the “angels of our institutions” that makes our discussions of racism and sexism and the other isms in today’s world so confusing. When a person of color says that racism remains a prevalent force in America, a white person might look at their own heart, find it free of ill will toward those of color, and reject that indictment, but racism is not just about individuals, but is about the character of the angels of our institutions. A person of color may be treated well by the individuals with whom he works; he may be able to form meaningful relationships with white men and women, and, if he lives in the right place, he may find that the majority of people he encounters do value him as an equal human being, but at the same time, he knows that he cannot count on the system to treat him as equal to a white man. The angel of the system is the racist one. My son John, who is Black, often receive a warm welcome from white strangers, but if he is stopped by the police, he cannot count on the system to regard him without suspicion. Racial justice, sexual justice, gender justice, is not about you as an individual treating another person fairly; it is about ensuring that the system is just — that the angels of our institutions live up to the vocation to which God called them. The prophets of the Bible recognized that sin can become so entrenched in our corporate culture that it cannot be overcome simply by good people being good; it has to named, challenged, wrestled, and thrown down with the vigor of St. Michael wrestling the dragon.
Reverend Jane Wolf, a pastor in New York City, tells of a woman in a neighboring church who was abused and beaten regularly by her husband. Many in the church suspected he was abusing her, but anytime he beat her, she would remain out of sight until her wounds healed, and because her husband was a member of a well known family in the community, no one wanted to say anything. The culture of social acceptability was entrenched in that congregation and the angel of the church was all about not making waves. One week, however, the woman attended a bible study at the church in which they discussed the passage of the bent over woman. Jesus tells the woman to stand up and be healed. The story spoke powerfully to the abused wife and stayed with her all week, and when that following Saturday, her husband again beat her, this time she refused to hide in her home but got up on Sunday morning and went to church, her face covered with stitches and bruises. During the prayer concerns, she stood up; stood up with her wounds showing, and said simply, “Pray for me.”
The congregation sat silently in discomfort knowing that the angel of the church had been confronted by the woman’s honesty. And then the woman’s sister-in-law also stood up, and went over to the bruised woman and embraced her. The powers had been challenged; the angel of the church confronted, and called to remember its vocation as a servant of God’s grace and justice.
Next week, we will be recognizing our two graduating seniors and confirming Will and Nolan Tormey and as our young people enter into the adulthood of their faith, I think it is an appropriate time to talk about how we as Christians can challenge the corporate sin of our institutions; how we go about changing the world. Next week: Redeeming the angels.
1. They wouldn’t, of course, have been sitting in pews in the first century but that’s how we picture it