A Meditation on the Expansive Love of God

This morning’s reading in Morning Prayer was from Rev. 7. Verses 9ff are as follows:

I saw before me a huge crowd which no one could count from every nation and race, people and tongue. They stood before the throne and the Lamb, dressed in long white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, “Salvation is from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb!”

This translation caught my eye. The translation I usually use identifies this as “a great multitude.” That’s one of those Bible phrases that has become so commonplace in my brain that it has lost its meaning. “A huge crowd which no one could count” expresses the same idea in a way that caught my attention.

And this got me thinking about how the Revelation expresses the innumerable plenitude of the church. John typically describes it in multiples of thousands. For instance, the fullness of Church is expressed as 12 (the twelve tribes of ancient Israel) times 12 (the twelve apostles of the New Israel) times 1,000. To John the Revelator that expressed both inclusiveness and expansiveness.

To us moderns, 144,000 is a rather paltry number. For those of us who remember Carl Sagan on public television, we’re accustomed to thinking in terms of “billions and billions” (now that’s a number I can’t wrap my head around). But 144,000? I suspect some mega churches in the Bible Belt or Korea have congregations approaching 150,000. In our modern world of bigness, hundreds of thousands is a number we can deal with.

Along those same lines of thought and in absolute contrast to how John used it, the Jehovah’s Witnesses use that number (144,000) as the sign of their exclusiveness and of the limits of God’s grace. John used that same number as a sign of God’s expansive grace. Could this be a difference in ancient and modern sensibilities?

I suppose all this comes to mind because of school. The Bible classes are organized around the Westminster Shorter Catechism and last week the Bible Teachers got started on the topic of predestination as defined by the Westminster standards. I try to tie my History and Geography lectures into the themes they are learning in Bible Class. I was struck this week by how many cadets missed the point of the catechism and turned the doctrine of predestination into an assumption that the Church is an exclusive club. What some of them learned this week is that God’s love is limiting rather than expansive. (And this implies the “unbigness” rather than “bigness” of God.)

This is a wonderfully attractive heresy because it implies that we can be part of an exclusive club. It’s no surprise that some cadets would glaum at the idea that since they were Christians they were therefore in some sort of exclusive club; the reason many of them are here is that they have been marginalized by society and are, as a result, acting out in response to that marginalization. Some of them are using the doctrine of predestination to turn the tables. I tried to disabuse them of this idea; I don’t know if I had any success. Unfortunately I didn’t have Rev. 7:9 on the tip of my tongue at the time.

If we continue to read Revelation 7 we find a glorious motivation for evangelism.

All the angels who were standing around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures fell down before the throne to worship God.

At this point I’ll interrupt to observe that the angels and elders, along with the four living creatures are joining this “huge crowd which now one could count” in praising God.

They said: “Amen! Praise and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving and honor, power and might, to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

Wouldn’t it be good to make that heavenly choir as large as possible rather than keeping it exclusive and small?

Frederick Faber (best known for his hymns) grew up in a strictly Calvinist household. In college he abandoned the strict Calvinism of his youth in favor of the more traditional (and expansive) views of John Henry Newman, the leader of the Oxford Movement within 19th century Anglicanism. (Both later converted to the Roman Catholic Church.) I’ve always suspected that Frederick Faber was taking a shot at the very narrow sort of Calvinism of his youth when he penned his well-known hymn: “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy / like the wideness of the sea; / there’s a kindness in his justice, / which is more than liberty.” And even more pointed is the eleventh verse: “But we make his love too narrow / by false limits of our own; / and we magnify his strictness / with a zeal he will not own.”

In Faber’s experience, he worried not only about exclusiveness in favor of expansiveness, but also zeal for God which trumped the praise of God. With that in mind, it seems fitting to close this meditation on the expansive love of God in praise of God, using the final (the twelfth) stanza of Faber’s poem: “Was there ever kinder shepherd / half so gentle, half so sweet, / as the Savior who would have us / come and gather at his feet?”

And what is it that we do at the feet of the Heavenly Shepherd (or Heavenly Lamb, as Rev. 7 describes him – after all he is both at the same time)?

They said: “Amen! Praise and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving and honor, power and might, to our God forever and ever. Amen.”