Sunday, March 23, 2008
Otis Moss Jr., Guest Lectionary Commentator
Pastor, Olivet Institutional Church, Cleveland, OH
Lection - Revelation. 1:17-18
(New Revised Standard Version)
(v. 17) When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed
his right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last,
(v. 18) and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive for ever and ever;
and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.’
Suggested Scriptures in addition to the text; Matthew 28:1-10, Mark 16:1-7,
Luke 24:1-12, Acts 2;24, and I Corinthians 15:1-11, 50-58.
Also see the Other Sermonic Suggestions section of this commentary for
a different homiletical approach for use of the lection text.
I. Description of the Liturgical Moment
Resurrection/Easter and Christmas are the most universal celebrations in Christendom.
The term “Resurrection” appears in the New Testament some forty times and the word
“Easter” only once in Acts 12:4, as an incorrect translation for Passover. Biblically,
the word Resurrection is preferred, whereas the word Easter has a traditional usage.
The word Easter has adaptability to commercial and/or marketing forces. However, Easter
comes to us through suffering, sacrifice and service. It does not come by way of shopping malls, sales and supermarkets.
In the African American religious experience Resurrection (Easter) is a powerful
and enduring presence from generation to generation. The resurrection of Jesus Christ
is the central event and experience in the Christian faith. Without this event and
experience the Jesus reality in history becomes a short lived Broadway tragedy.
It becomes a movement born in excitement and perishes in bereavement.
The Resurrection/Easter Celebration brings to an oppressed people a boundless universe of hope and victory.
Resurrection is at the core of the African American religious experience.
Resurrection is our enduring hope. It is the eternal flame that cannot be put out.
More than 500 years of oppression, slavery, apartheid, injustice, genocide,
massacres and holocausts have not been able to extinguish this eternal flame.
In the midst of crisis after crisis, terror after bleeding terror, and stony
road after stony road, we have proclaimed “Victory, Victory, Victory.”
II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: Rev. 1:17-18
Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter
In my childhood days in LaGrange, Georgia, Troup County, Easter was a special
celebration – new life, hope and assurance after a long winter of agony and struggle.
We came to Easter Sunday after having cast away our worn-out shoes and patched and re-stitched
garments wearing new outfits and new uniforms. We came prepared for the speech, recitation
and short poem affirming a resurrection reality that no one could successfully veto.
Nature kissed our Easter/Resurrection moment with dogwood, myrtle, honeysuckle and dozens
of other blossoms. All of these were accented by birds, bees, beetles and butterflies.
Our pained and frostbitten life was renewed and transformed by God-given survival,
heavenly-inspired revival and Christ-centered arrival.
I can still see a little boy or a little girl having been pushed from the platform of
humanity into the alley of three-fifths of a person coming to the stage of Alpha and Omega.
Here we are standing in the presence of the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life,
declaring to us: “I was dead, and see I am alive forever and ever.”
Part Two: Biblical Commentary
The text from Revelation 1:17-18 is chosen as a Resurrection/Easter focus. In preparation for
preaching from this text one must look at its historical context. What was the Roman Empire
like in the latter half of the first century C.E.? Who were some of the Emperors? Why did
they lynch, burn, imprison and persecute the followers of Jesus? What was the status of the
Christian community in the first century? Why was this small company of Jesus Christ’s
disciples such a threat to an empire of power and military might?
Why did the violent armies of Rome fail against the non-violent army of Jesus Christ? Why was
Rome so afraid of people who would not kill, steal, hate, bear false witness or seek revenge
against their oppressors? The Christians had no weapons of mass destruction
They were not overt or covert terrorists. They had no weapon but love. Their greatest testimony was
Easter/Resurrection: A living Jesus who is alive forever and ever.
The Patmos pastor has a mystical and transformative experience while in the agony of exile.
The living Christ puts his hand on the prophet of Patmos. This is the miraculous experience of
an exiled apostle on a lonely isle sentenced to hard labor in the company of convicts both innocent and guilty.
In such a place and circumstance, Easter breaks forth unrestrained by the trivialities of bunnies,
jelly beans and commercialism. John’s testimony stretched across the mighty waters of the
Mediterranean and landed in the ports of Palestine; and was shared in Judea,
Samaria, Antioch, Egypt, and Damascus.
On that tortuous Isle of Patmos, John experienced Easter/Resurrection, and I think his fellow
prisoners and prison guards must have been baffled, as were those who visited the empty tomb in that
early morning of new life and victory.
Howard Thurman in one of his books of sermonic meditations titled: The Growing Edge
All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born;
All around us life is dying and life is being born.
The fruit ripens on the tree;
The roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth.
Against the time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit.
Such is the growing edge.1
Resurrection teaches us some basic and enduring lessons out of which emerge everlasting victories…
Victory Number One
: Death is not the worst thing that can come to a human being. Our ancestors
understood this with great insight and foresight. Some things are worse than death: slavery;
oppression; daily dehumanization to name but a few. When I was a boy in the country I learned
the worst thing you can do to birds is not to kill them but clip their wings and bruise their
tongues. To leave birds in a state of agony where they can neither sing nor fly is worse than
death. To rob the birds of their bird integrity is worse than death. However, to reclaim the
song and reclaim wholeness with a new song, a new body and a new life is resurrection. Victory
Number One is victory over the threat of death.
I’m so glad death can’t do me no harm.
Victory Number Two:
I’m so glad I got my religion in time.2
This victory is to understand the limitations of death. If we understand
the limitations of death we can continue to be creative, productive and redemptive in the face of
death. I see an indelible connection between an Isle of Patmos and Robben Island where Nelson
Mandela was nominated by righteousness in prison to become President of a New South Africa.
I see a mystical and historical connection between the experience and writing of John, the Apostle,
Mandela, Immaculée Ilibagiza’s (for whom the meaning of Easter can be seen in Immacculée’s personal
story, Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust
and in Dr. Martin Luther
King’s Letter From the Birmingham Jail
From time to time it is good and advisable to read
and reread Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From the Birmingham Jail
This letter was
written during the Easter/Resurrection season of 1963. It has outlived the jailers, the police, the
police dogs, the commissioners, the governor and the laws of American apartheid. Most of Nelson
was written on Robben Island during Mandela’s unjust imprisonment.
Dr. King and Mandela were productive in the face of death. Each won a Nobel Peace Prize while under
the threat of death. When it appeared that they were crushed by the crisis of the moment they came
forth as a vision and voice of an era.
When the Roman Empire thought Jesus was dead because they had lynched him and buried him, he placed
his right hand upon the pastor, prophet and apostle and said: “I was dead—I am alive forever and ever(Rev. 1:18).”
Victory Number Three
: The cemetery is too small, the grave is too narrow and time is too
temporary to hold, control, or contain amazing grace, the power of unconditional love and the
mystery of eternal life. This is the meaning of Easter. This is the meaning of Resurrection.
This is the meaning of life in Christ, “For me to live is Christ and to die is
Ask our spiritual ancestors: Does Jesus live? And they will say:
They crucified my savior
And nailed him to the cross
They crucified my Savior
And nailed him to the cross
And the Lord shall bear my spirit home.
He arose, He arose, He arose from the dead,
And the Lord shall bear my spirit home.8
Ask the exiled Patmos Island pastor and prophet, what is Easter? What is the
meaning of Resurrection, and he will answer:
“He touched me with his right hand.
He told me, `Do not be afraid.
I am the first and the last and the living one.
I was dead, and see,
I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys to death, and
Easter is victory. Resurrection is victory. Jesus Christ is victory. In Christ
we have victory over oppression, hate, sin, racism, fear, war, death and Hades.
The descriptive details in this passage include:
The landscape of the Isle of Patmos; the appearance (unshaven and in dirty clothes) of John on
a deserted island; the smiling face of God; the mighty feet of God; and the comforting right hand of God; and
The sound of John fearfully falling before the feet of God and the
reassuring voice of God.
Other Sermonic Suggestions
One could also meditate upon Revelation 1: 17-18 in this manner:
“When I saw him…”
“I fell at his feet as though dead…”
“He placed his right hand upon me saying, do not be afraid…”
“I am the first and the last…”
I am hope before history
Hope in history
Hope beyond history
“I am the living one…”
Emperors, prime ministers and presidents fade away.
They do not come back in three days alive forever and ever – an unending hallelujah.
They do not come back with the keys of Death and Hades.
They do not return with all power, giving power to the weak and powerless. This is what Easter is and does.
Thurman, Howard. The Growing Edge. New York, NY: Harper, 1956.
- I’m So Glad. Negro Spiritual. Online location:
www.hymnsite.com/fws/hymn.cgi?2151 accessed 19 February 2007
- Ilibagiza, Immaculée,
and Steve Erwin.
Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust.
Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, 2006.
- King, Martin Luther. Letter from the Birmingham Jail.
San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 1994.
- Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1994.
- Philippians 1:21
- Nix, Verolga, and Cleveland, J. Jefferson, eds. “Does Jesus Live.” Songs of Zion. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1981, p.168.
Additional Suggested Reading List
The meaning of Easter is deep in the soul of Sally Thomas and her family as told in John Hope
Franklin’s and Loren’s Schweninger’s book,
In Search of the Promised Land: A Black Family and the Old South. New narratives in American history.
New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2006.
King, Martin Luther. The Trumpet of Conscience. Massey lectures, 1967. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1968.
Robinson, Randall. An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution to the Kidnapping of a
President. New York, NY: Basic Civitas Books, 2007.
Taylor, Gardner C., and Edward L. Taylor. The Words of Gardner Taylor. Vol. I.
Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1999. 6 vols, Ch. 31.
Taylor, Gardner C., and Edward L. Taylor. The Words of Gardner Taylor. Vol. 6.
Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1999. 6 vols, Ch. 24.
Thurman, Howard. The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death: Being the
Ingersoll Lecture on the Immortality of Man,
1947. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Divinity School, 1947. See also:
Thurman, Howard. Deep River and The Negro
Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death.
Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1975. (Originally separate books,
but now in a single volume; Deep River was copyrighted in 1945 and 1955 and
The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death in 1947.)