The Rev’d Carlos de la Torre
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Octave of Michaelmas)
September 30, 2018
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Not far from the Island of Patmos, where Saint John received his vision from the exalted Christ, is the Island of Delos. Sacred to the Greeks because in a story known all too well to Saint John and his community, Delos is the birthplace of the Greek god Apollo. The mother of Apollo, Leto, fled there to escape the dragon Python, who wanted to kill the newborn son of Zeus. Instead of being killed, Apollo returns to Delphi and kills the dragon himself.
Eugene Boring, professor Emeritus of New Testament at Brite Divinity Schools, comments, “This Greek tale captures how the forces of darkness, disorder, and death rebelled against the divine king of light, order, and life attempting to overthrow the divine order, kill the newborn king, and seize the kingship and establish the rule of darkness. This story, like all such myths, is an expression and interpretation of the human story as part of the cosmic conflict between good and evil. And it expresses the common experience of humanity that there is always a new day after the darkness of night. The darkness, the dragon, attempts to destroy the sun god, but is himself killed as the new day dawns. Roman emperors found this myth politically useful. Apollo was understood as the primeval king who had reigned over a “golden age” of peace and prosperity. August, the first emperor, interpreted his own rule in terms of this tradition, claiming that his administration was the Golden Age and casting himself in the role of the new Apollo. Nero erected statues to himself as the god Apollo. There were coins on which the radiance of the sun god emanates from the emperor’s head.”
Saint John takes up this story and recasts the whole thing, providing new identities for the characters. And giving the early Church multiple ways to come to terms and process their current condition of suffering and persecution. Saint John’s hearers, members of the Church of God in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, needed no help finding themselves in the story. They needed no help imagining who was the dragon, the source of corruption, evil, and death, which Saint Michael and his army of Angels were sent to defeat. Saint John wanted to expose these rulers for what they were – agents and embodiments of the powers of evil.
The old myth is retold in such a way that the events and institutions of Saint John’s own day echo through its retelling. The mythical story reflects and evokes images and events experienced by those early Christian hearers, allowing them, and allowing us, to see their struggles in a transcendent context. Giving them permission to see their current struggle and suffering, through and within the very suffering and passion of Christ. Giving us the permission to view the brokenness and pain of our time not apart from God’s work of salvation, but within God’s redeeming work.
The human systems, powers, and institutions that exist to promote sin and death, stand in battle against God, his angels, and his saints. Think of the countless ways in which human lives are put on the line in our society, from war, to the prison industrial complex, to drug addiction, to systemic racism, all these forces of Satan stand in opposition to the will of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. Who says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 NASB).
In Saint John’s telling of the story, Saint Michael acts as a counterpart to God’s saving act on earth in the event of Christ. The war in heaven described by Saint John, in which Michael and his angels fight against the dragon, serves as a metaphor for what’s already taken place on the cross. Saint John is merely reminding the Church -- the Church in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, and the Church here in New Haven, of the passion and triumph of Christ.
But the war in heaven illustrated by Saint John has not only taken place here on earth, in time and space, but a victor has been determined. Christ has exposed the empire, its corruption, its hunger for power, and its denigration of human life. Even as we use imagery of war to speak of the victory of our God, we know that the victory we speak off was not won by violence or sword. Rather, the victory we proclaim this day, the victory we proclaim every Sunday and at every mass, is the victory of the cross where Christ offers his body. On the cross, Christ has exposed humanity’s capacity for evil, not as a way to shame or abandon us, but to diagnose us and offer us a cure. Offering us a way forward as the human family of God. And the source of the antidote is found in what was once a symbol of the venom of death, the cross, which no longer stands as an emblem of death, but as an indication of new life and new possibilities.
We live in a city, a country, and a world which knows sin and death; disunity and evil, all too well. It can sometimes be easy for us to fall prey towards ambivalence or grow towards a disregarded for the suffering of the world.
Every day I walk my dog through the streets of New Haven, and every day I run into individuals battling with addiction and untreated mental illness. Every week I pray for the dead through the Intercession paper of the Guild of All Souls, an Anglican guild of prayer for the dead, whose patron is none other than Saint Michael. And every week, I am reminded of death – the death of loved ones from sickness and old age, the death of the innocent and victims of violence.
And in the face of all these evils we can either choose to stand idle, disconnected, and unmoved, or we can turn 180 degrees towards Christ. Christ crucified, risen, and ascended.
Amidst the suffering, persecution, and death, experienced and witnessed by those early Christians, Saint John turns to the cross and what lies behind it. For it is on the cross where we see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. It is on the cross where we see the battle with sin and death come to a halt. It is on the cross where we find our salvation, and the salvation of the world. It is on the cross where we find the love of God exposed and stretched out for the life of the world.
While sin and death roam among us, depicted in a dragon or embodied in an earthly system, ruler, or judge, we can turn to Christ along with Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, Uriel and all the angels and saints, and sing a victory hymn in the face of evil and death to proclaim the reality of the salvation, power, and empire of God in Christ.
The most Christ-like act, the most powerful stance, we can take in the face of evil and death is stare it square in the eye and proclaim the victory of our God. Whatever the battle or struggle ahead of us may be, we are not promised that it will be made easy, but that Christ will be with us.
Christ has fought the battle, he has seen death, he has reached down to the corners of hell, and set a path forward for humanity to be free. The question is whether we’ll join Christ, his angels and saints, and sing hymns of life, love, and victory in the face of death.
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God
and the authority of his Messiah.
Rejoice then, you heavens
and those who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
for the devil has come down to you
with great wrath,
because he knows that his time is short!”
(Revelation 12:10,12 NRSV)
Thanks be to God who gives us the Victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
 Boring, M. E. (2011). Revelation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. 151.
 Ibid, 152.
 Fiorenza, E. S. (1999). Revelation: Vision of a just world. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 81.