Think of one person in your life who you just can’t believe is so wrong-headed about living in this modern world as a Catholic. That person whose politics make you wonder if they ever encountered Jesus in the gospels. That person who just… who just… “It doesn’t matter, I’m not talking to them anymore. It is a waste of time.” Hold that thought.
No book in the Bible has provoked more controversy, esoteric speculation, or sheer stupidity than Revelation. As late as the fourth century, Chrysostom and Eusebius hesitated to include Revelation in the canon. Martin Luther described it as “neither apostolic nor prophetic. My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book.” John Calvin wrote commentaries on every book in the New Testament except Revelation. In Eastern Orthodox churches today, Revelation is the only book that isn’t read in their public liturgy. Part of the challenge is that Revelation is an example of “apocalyptic” literature that’s inherently difficult to interpret. As a genre that flourished from about 200 BC to 200 AD among both Jews (cf. Daniel 7–12) and Christians (cf. Mark 13), apocalyptic literature is characterized by visions, symbols, numerology, surreal beasts, and sea monsters, like a gigantic red dragon with seven heads, ten horns, and seven crowns.
Departing from Martin Luther and John Calvin, many of their Protestant and Reformed heirs have made a cottage industry of interpreting the scripture called Revelation. Some among them have a calculus of interpretation that predicts the end times and the date it all ends. What they share in common is that their calculus always fails. What they share is a hubris that while Jesus himself said that he didn’t know but only the Father, our end times prognosticators give that short shrift and make one wrong prediction after another. So focused on some unknowable future that they miss Revelation’s lessons in the here and now.
In her story “Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor tells a tale of a vision of salvation being encountered by the narrow view of the “like-me,” smug Mrs. Turpin. Her idea was that heaven was an exclusive banquet with just a few guests. The story tells of her unpleasant encounters with the “unsaved” (aka “not like me”) during the day as she went about her small town encounter and having to mix among those back-sliding, church skipping, Saturday night boozing, no count, no good, wrong thinking others. Thanks be to God she could find safety in the assurance of salvation from her Lord and Savior and her four-square stance on the foundation of the Bible.
Later while sitting on her front porch at sunset, Mrs. Turpin is granted a vision from God. Despite all her self-assurances and beliefs, she was about to discover that God’s invitation is for more than just her and those she deems of sufficient moral character and behavior.
vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. (Rev 7:9)
Mrs. Turpin sees a whole parade of the most unexpected and motley people all clapping and leaping and shouting hallelujah – and she was bringing up the rear of the parade. Her idea of heaven’s limited invitation and exclusive nature was roughly shorn away in the great reversal — “Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Mt 20:16)
Mrs. Turpin lived another form of hubris taking on a role of judgment, living a life without empathy or compassion, believing this life was the constant battle between good and evil people – and the enemy was everywhere. It was a religious and moral tribalism fueled by a compassionless passion.
St. Peter denied Jesus – just another backslider. In last week’s gospel, Jesus didn’t ask Peter about his moral purity, he asked if Peter loved him. Jesus commissioned Peter to shepherd the flock.
Today’s gospel tells what it means to be a shepherd. It means getting right there among all the messiness of life and people. You don’t get to spend your life in smugness on the front porch. Next Sunday we’ll hear: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
Remember that person from the opening paragraph. They bring out the Mrs. Turpin in all of us. They tempt us into the hubris of judgment. They blind us to our own moral laxity. They make us forget that in our baptismal promises we have a shepherding responsibility to others in the flock. They narrow and partition our capacity for love. They should make us wonder if we are truly disciples.
That person… infuriating as they may be, is loved by God. The Mrs. Turpin-question is whether they are loved by us. It will be a great multitude, which no one could count. Like Mrs. Turpin we may be surprised who is in line ahead of us.
But that’s ahead of us. What about the here and now. How will you love that unlovable, infuriating person you are no longer talking to? The one who matters to God, but not you.