The seal of God is love

  • October 23, 2009
All Saints (Year B) Nov. 1 (Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; Psalm 24; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12)

The Book of Revelation can be a confusing and dangerous book — especially in the wrong hands and with a distorted understanding of its contents. But when it is used with its original intent it can speak directly to the heart and imagination.

It was not intended to provide prooftexts for religious doctrines or to justify war or the use of force and violence. As an example of apocalyptic literature its purpose was to offer hope, comfort and strength to those suffering persecution and struggling with negative powers that seemed invincible. The passage should not be taken in a literal or historical manner but as a cosmic theological drama that touches the heart and inspires the imagination.

Through its portrayal of celestial worship, the symbolism focuses on the sovereignty and majesty of God and God’s saving power manifested on our behalf. God’s power is far greater than the most negative power that our world can produce and we should never think that the rule or power of evil is inevitable or eternal. Heaven does not have a limited capacity and the number 144,000 is certainly not the fixed number of the elect or saved. It signals the expansiveness and inclusivity of God’s salvation — note the countless multitudes from every tribe, nation and language.

Who are those who have washed their robes in the blood of the lamb and who wear the seal of God on their foreheads? We might understand them as those who have endured the struggles and challenges of their lives with their courage, dignity, compassion and justice intact. The seal of God can be but one thing: love. It is impossible to counterfeit and we cannot hide a lack of love behind religious symbols. Either we have it or we don’t.

Being a child of God means becoming far more than our natural human heritage provides for us. The purification that we must undergo does not mean merely keeping a clean record or avoiding sin for we would still be imprisoned by our human shortcomings. It requires an expenditure of energy on our part and a willingness to co-operate with grace for it involves continual spiritual growth and transformation. The heart and mind must be cleansed of selfishness, fear, hatred, pride and a host of other human faults. 

The Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount are often seen as a collection of “nice” sayings — beautiful and utterly unrealistic. But the audience that first heard these words consisted of people suffering incredible injustice and oppression. They were oppressed politically by the Romans and had lost all freedom and autonomy as a people. They were crushed by ruinous taxes and many had been driven from their lands by mounting debts and avaricious landowners. They were long on pain and misery but very short on hope and would have been massively unimpressed and even insulted by soothing and pious words. The Beatitudes were words of inspiration and an assurance that their afflictions were not God’s will or doing and that the situation was going to change dramatically.

Perhaps the most dramatic thing was God’s affirmation and love of a broken and oppressed people. Rather than being cursed or punished they were actually blessed by God. The words were a call to endure patiently and to not let their yearning for the peace and rehabilitation of their nation to wane. If they remained faithful and steadfast they would not be shamed or disappointed. But this would not be accomplished by waving a divine magic wand. The efforts of Jesus the Messiah would be crucial but so would the efforts of all those who follow Him and bear His name.

Non-violence, compassion, humility, peacemaking, a hunger and thirst for righteousness and the willingness to suffer for them are all powerful tools of transformation and the instruments for creating a new world. We suffer from more oppression than we perhaps realize. We are at the mercy of forces that seem far more powerful than we are and it is easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless. Economic, political, social and religious influences shape and mold our lives in countless and unimaginable ways. But when these principles are practised with discipline, unity, persistence and love amazing things begin to happen and we can discover how incredibly free and effective we can really be.