GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
After saying “Peace be with you” again to them, he says these very important words: “As the father has sent me, so I send you.” Now why are those words important? Well, when Jesus says, “As the father has sent me”, he uses the Greek word apostellō
(which means “to send”), and we get the word “Apostle” from that Greek verb. So this is so crucial for us to see that part of the Good News of the Resurrection isn’t just that Jesus is back from the dead, but that the power, the authority, and the mission that Jesus himself had from his heavenly father, he is now bestowing on the Apostles (bestowing on the twelve).
Why are they called “Apostles”? Because they are “sent” by Christ. They have (this is so crucial) the authority from Jesus himself. And you’ll see this elsewhere (like in the gospel of Luke) where Jesus will say, “He who hears you, hears me. He who rejects you, rejects me.” That’s really serious. That shows the fullness of the authority that Christ is giving to the Apostles, so that as he sends them out into the world to bring the Good News to the ends of the earth, he sends them out with authority. In fact, the same authority (so-to-speak) that he himself had as the one sent by the Father. In other words, according to the Gospel of John then, Jesus is the original Apostle, because he’s the one sent from the Father. And so when he sends out his Apostles, we can’t treat their authority and their teaching as if, “Well, that’s different than Jesus. It’s not as if Jesus said that, Peter said that” or “It’s not as if Jesus said that, only Matthew said that” – no, no, no, no, no. They have the same authority to come preach the Good News, same power that Christ has from the Father. In fact, in the Gospel of John, Jesus says to the Apostles, “Greater works than I have done, so will you do.” Of course, which must have bowled them over. I mean, what were they thinking when they heard those words (that they would do greater works than Jesus)? So,the Gospel of John here is very clear about the authority of the Apostles.
And in that context (of being sent out), Jesus says these words to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven. And if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now, what is this about? This is the foundational text for the power of the sacrament of reconciliation. Notice I said the “power” of the sacrament of reconciliation. While it’s absolutely true here that Jesus does not say, “Here’s how you’re going to hear confession. Now first I want you to sit down, then I want you to tell the person to say ‘Bless me father for I have sinned, it’s been these many days since my last confession’”. He doesn’t give the details of the rite. That’s not in the text. But what he does give is the power that’s in the sacrament, because he says to them, “if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven,” and conversely, “if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”. Now, in a 1st
Century Jewish setting, this is a staggering bestowal of authority, because as we see from elsewhere in the gospels (like in the gospel of Mark), when Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic, they say, “This man speaks blasphemy. Who can forgive sins but God alone?” It’s a divine power. It’s a divine prerogative to forgive sins. And amazingly, now Jesus gives that divine authority and that divine power to the Apostles. And so, it’s very crucial here to stress that in order for them to both forgive and to retain someone’s sins, the implication is that they would somehow know what those sins are. So again, although the act of confessing sin isn’t explicit in the text, it’s implied by the very command given by Jesus to the Apostles, because otherwise, how are they going to know what sins to bind or what sins to forgive? And you’ll see this is going to develop in the early Church (the implications of this power), but is a very, very, very important text.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
So when John hears this command to write this vision down, he then turns to hear who it is that is speaking to him. So he says:
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me…
And on turn, he has this vision. Now… if you try to interpret this literally, you’re going to come away with a pretty bizarre image of Christ. I like to encourage my students sometimes to actually take the book of Revelation and try to draw it. It’s impossible. You’ll end up with the most bizarre images if you try to take the words and draw them out on a page. And that’s because it’s not meant to be interpreted literally. The things that John is seeing are symbolic images; they represent other realities. So he’s seeing these things, but they’re symbols of other things.
And you can actually see this in the very first thing he says. He said:
… I saw seven golden lampstands…
Pause there for a second. Although you and I, when we hear those words, might imagine seven candlesticks or maybe seven oil lamps, for a first century Jew, when you talk about seven lampstands, the first thing that would come to mind is the seven branched candelabra of the menorah that was in the temple. It’s in the book of Exodus chapter 25. God commands the Israelites to build a seven-branched candelabra, which in Hebrew is called a menorah. The menorah is the candlestick that illuminates the inside of the holy place in the ancient tabernacle of Moses and then eventually in the temple of Solomon as well.
So when John turns to see, turns to look and he sees seven golden candlesticks or seven golden lampstands… to a first century Jew, that would mean John is in the temple. That’s the only place you see the menorah, is in the temple, the seven-branched candelabra.
In fact, even to this day, you might think, “Well, wait. I’ve gone to my Jewish friends’ house, and they have a menorah in their house.” That’s true, but it’s eight branches, not seven. The seven-branched one was reserved for the temple alone.
Press pause for a second; we’re going to come back to that vision. But if you go down to verse 20, I read that final verse of the chapter in order to just give you a little help with reading the book of Revelation. So when John sees Christ and Christ begins speaking to him, Christ is going to say some different things to him. And one of the things He says at the end — which isn’t in the lectionary but which is important — is He’s going to explain the meaning of the symbol. So verse 20, it says:
As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
Okay, so notice here… it’s not just me
that the imagery in Revelation isn’t meant to be taken literally, that it’s symbolic. That’s not what the point is. It’s Christ Himself telling John, “What you saw was a mystery” — in other words, it points beyond. It’s a visible sign that points beyond itself to something invisible. It represents something else. It symbolizes something else.
And in this case, the mystery of the seven lampstands is that they represent the seven churches. And the mystery of the seven stars that Jesus is holding in His hand and John sees in the vision, isn’t that Jesus has gathered together seven balls of gas from the cosmos and put them in His hand. It’s that those seven stars, the vision he sees, represents the seven angels of the seven churches.
And this is a fascinating aspect of early Christianity. In Judaism at the time of Jesus, the book of Daniel and other texts testify to the belief that each people, each nation (like the nation of Israel) has an angel set over it to govern it, to guard it, to watch it, to keep it. And that gets translated into the early Church with the belief that each church and each different city has an angelic guardian, an angelic patron, an angel that governs it and guides it, protects it.
And this is where — sorry, I can’t help but share this. This is where we get the idea of heavenly patrons for parishes too and dioceses. So I go to the church of St. Mary Magdalene. I go to the church of St. Philip Neri. I go to the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help or whatever it might be. This is rooted in an ancient tradition of naming some kind of heavenly or angelic patron over a body, over a group of people, over a church.
Okay, so Jesus Himself is telling us that the image of the lampstands is a mystery, and so as you go back to read the description of what John sees, keep in mind each of these things is a mystery. It represents something. It’s meant to reveal some hidden truth about who God is, about who Christ is, and what John is seeing. So in this case, the vision — what does John see? If you back up, he says:
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw...
…seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands…
… one like a son of man…
Who’s the son of man? That’s the heavenly figure from the book of Daniel, who comes riding on the clouds and receives the everlasting kingdom. Number three: he sees the fact that the son of man is:
…clothed with a long robe and with a golden girdle…
That’s a little funny. This RSV is a little antiquated here. We don’t usually think of girdles as something men wear. It literally means a golden sash, so a band of cloth striped around it. Well, what are those? Those are the garments of the high priest. In Exodus 28, the high priest has to wear a long linen robe and a golden sash.
…his head and his hair were white as white wool…
Wow, evidently Jesus went gray after He went to Heaven. No, this is a mystery. Who in the Old Testament has hair white as wool? Go back to the book of Daniel. When Daniel in chapter 7 sees God — the ancient of days he calls him — seated on the throne, says his hair was white like wool. So this is a symbol of the antiquity of God — of the ancient of days is what Daniel calls him. And yet here the image is being applied to Christ. Very interesting.
So he sees the menorah and the middle of the menorah is the son of man, and the son of man looks like a son of man, but he also looks like the ancient of days. So is he the son of man or is he the ancient of days? Is he the high priest or is he the king? You’ve got to think of this as layer upon layer of mysteries in the imagery that is given. And then the lectionary skips here down to verse 17 where it says:
…I fell at his feet as though dead.
But I wanted to add in these other verses just for a second when it says:
… his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters; in his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth issued a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
So each of these is a mystery, each is symbolism. And usually — here is the tip for you. When you’re reading the book of Revelation, if you encounter something weird, strange — which you will, like a sword was coming out of his mouth — it doesn’t mean that Jesus has an actual sword made of steel coming forth from His mouth. It’s a mystery. It’s a symbol of some spiritual reality. And in this case, in Revelation, the key to unlocking the spiritual mystery is usually found in the Old Testament.
So what does it mean to say he’s got a golden sash and a robe? It reveals that He’s the high priest. What does it mean to say that his head and his hair are white as wool? It means that He’s the ancient of days, not just the son of man. What does it mean to say that He’s got a sharp sword issuing from His mouth? Well, if you go back to Isaiah 11, it says that the Anointed One (the Messiah) will destroy the wicked with the breath of His mouth — the word itself is a weapon for the Messiah, the Word of God. When finally, it says:
…in his right hand he held seven stars…
In this case, Christ Himself actually interprets the mystery. He says:
…the seven stars are the angels …
So Christ has authority over the angels of those seven churches to whom John is writing. So I just give that to you as an example of how to slow down, unpack the book of Revelation, and realize if you want to understand it, you have to understand the Old Testament.
Now with that said, you can understand why when John sees all this — like the sword coming out of his mouth and the stars in His hand and His hair white as wool and His face like burnished bronze — John’s response is to fall at his feet as though dead.
Now this is striking, because in the tradition, the author of the Gospel and the author of the Apocalypse of John (the book of Revelation) is the same John. So it’s a striking difference between John’s reaction to the earthly Jesus and John’s reaction to Jesus in glory. And the earthly Jesus, John the beloved disciple lays his hand in the bosom of Jesus, on the breast of Jesus at the Last Supper. But when John the apostle (the same John) sees the risen Christ in power and glory, his response is not to lay his head on his bosom; it’s to fall at his feet as though dead. He’s overwhelmed by the glory. He’s overwhelmed by the vision.
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