Priest and painter, Rev Adam Boulter, who is currently chaplain in Poitou-Charentes, France, reflects on the lectionary readings for this Sunday, especially focusing on Ezekiel 37.1-14 and Revelation 21.10, 22—22.5.
The book of Revelation is rife with references to the book of Ezekiel, and yet they have some important differences. They both have wonderfully rich visions, that simply do not make sense if taken out of context, and so they have both produced strange interpretations. Rather, for both, we have to see the whole picture, what is sometimes called the ‘gestalt’ – we need to grasp the entire text and its myriad of images all at once.
When we read Ezekiel and Revelation in this way we see something much more coherent. Ezekiel spends much of the first two thirds of the book remembering his warnings to the people of Israel that they have deserted God and disaster is coming. The book then pivots around the fall of Jerusalem and the story of the valley of dry bones, and changes tone and direction. From then onwards we have a message of hope in the rebirth of the people of Israel restored to their land and flourishing in worship of God. This narrative arc is summed up in the story of the valley of dry bones: God can resurrect out of utter demolition. This is a story of how God re-creates out of a vandalised and annihilated situation. This is a deeply powerful message for those Christians who have seen their loved ones killed for their faith, but it is not the situation for most Christians in Europe.
The valley of dry bones, from the ‘wilderness’ series of paintings by Adam Boulter.
In Europe we do not generally have active attempts to kill us for what we believe. Rather we suffer under a kind of cultural sterilisation, the culture we live in has its values and virtues, and these are all pervasive to the extent that it is hard for the Christian Virtues to take hold and flourish. This is more like the kind of situation that the author of Revelation is writing into, for although it was not adverse to violent suppression from time to time the Roman Empire’s main hold over the people it subjugated was via its all-pervasive culture. This culture was defined by their virtues: Strength, Wealth, and Respectability, which were unquestionably upheld. Our society here in Europe is steadily adopting those Roman virtues, and doing so in a way that makes it seem ridiculous to hold to the Christian faith, partially because Christian virtues are so different: Faith, Hope and Love. That Roman culture was sterilising the situation that the early Christians were living in, and Revelation is about how God recreates out of a situation where the Truth is ignored or ridiculed, as well as attacked and killed. For us who do not face the violence of Rome, but only ridicule and irrelevance, in some ways this is an easier situation to live in, but in some ways it is harder, as it wears our faith down and corrodes our confidence in God.
Revelation gives us, a model of how God deals with this sterilised situation. In a nutshell that is: God does not work like this world appears to work, in fact even this world does not work as it appears to. We are being told that Power, Money and Status matter, but God is what matters. As Christians we will be told we are being unrealistic, but in truth we are the realistic ones, because we accept what God is and what God is up to.
In Revelation we have an amazing image of God as the lamb, the powerless one who rather than having money is itself a commodity to be bought and sold, who has no status, nor respect. We are told that this lamb is the all-powerful God which everything comes from and must bow to; that the virtues the Romans are upholding are false virtues, that their culture is built on a lie, the real culture belongs to God. So Revelation calls us to live by Christian virtues and build a Christian Culture of Faith, Hope and Love, that was dangerous and radical then, and it still is now. To really live by Faith, Hope and Love, is deeply countercultural. If you doubt this ask yourself: how do I decide what job to take? What to do with my money? Do we do these in the light of the Gospel? Which virtues do we as a Church live by? When it comes to difficult discussion does our institution seek Faith, Hope, and Love, or power, money and respectability? These are not easy or comfortable questions, but Revelation demands them of us, because God’s rule is breaking in and the ways of this world are an illusion.