It was the summer of 1994 and about 10 friends and I sat huddled around Bibles in my friend’s living room. It was a “scripture party.” The lights were dim and the air was full of anticipation and mystery. We did not know what God might reveal as we opened the book of Revelation and read it out loud, in community, in one night.
This bears resemblance to the way the early church would have read the scripture. They were an oral culture, not a written one. The Hebrew Bible was written on scrolls that were read aloud to congregations. Most of the New Testament was written as letters to the worshiping bodies of whole cities (i.e. the saints in Ephesus, the church in Philippi, the body in Corinth, etc.). When received, the letters would be read out loud to the whole church community and received as God’s instruction revealed through the apostles for the edification of their communities.
Imagine being one of the very first followers of the Jesus “Way” (Acts 9:2).
Imagine being a persecuted religious group. You have to use code — the sign of the ichthys — to identify yourself to other believers for fear of religious persecution. Only when you are gathered together in secret can you speak openly about your faith. Only then can you be fully known and appreciated for the whole image of God that lives inside of you.
Imagine huddling in a secret meeting place and reading the Apostle John’s Revelation of Jesus Christ for your nascent faith community in Ephesus or Smyrna, or Pergamum, or Thyatira, or Sardis, or Philadelphia, or Laodicea (Revelation 2-3). Imagine living in Ephesus and reading Paul’s prayer for your church to understand its hope and inheritance (Ephesians 1:17-2:22).
And imagine being rich in the early church and hearing James’ letter warning: “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your field, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
Imagine hearing it all for the first time. It all feels so real. The call to holiness feels so urgent because God feels so present.
This week marks the final week of the fast of Ramadan. Ramadan is the month when it is believed the prophet Muhammad received the revelation of the Qur’an. Throughout the month Islamic communities around the world fast, pray, and gather together each night to listen as the entire Qur’an is read aloud over the course of the month.
A dear friend in New York City knew that I was going to be in town earlier this week and invited me to her parents’ home for their Iftar dinner — the late-night dinner that breaks the daily fast. We sat at table and her father and mother, both educators, shared the significance of each part of the meal. The father asked me to read the hundredth chapter of the Qur’an which would be read at the mosque that night. My jaw dropped when I read:
“Verily, towards his Sustainer man is most ungrateful – and to this, behold, he [himself] bears witness indeed: for verily, to the love of wealth is he most ardently devoted. But does he not know that [on the Last Day,] when all that is in the graves is raised and brought out, and all that is [hidden] in men’s hearts is bared – that on that Day their Sustainer [will show that He] has always been fully aware of them?”
Then the family — grandfather, grandmother, mother, and teenaged son — went into the living room, laid out their prayer mats, and prayed.
It was beautiful. The whole family bowed together. The whole family followed the lead of the grandfather’s prayers. The whole family exercised intention to worship God with their whole heart, body, mind, and soul. I watched and wept.
Later, my friend took me to a small community prayer room on the campus of Columbia University where her cousins and other family members were gathering to pray and hear the recitation of the final chapters of the Qur’an — in Arabic. After that she took me to one of the largest mosques in New York City, the 96th Street Mosque. We sat and watched.
In one night, I witnessed a family, its immediate community, and the larger Islamic community in New York City gathered together, in each case, with utter devotion to God and absolute gratefulness for the revelation of scripture. It reminded me of that night in 1994 when I sat with my own faith community huddled around the Book of Revelation, reading it aloud.
My friend shared that people in the Muslim community usually don’t want Ramadan to end. It is such a holy time of year. With the spiritual disciplines of fasting, community, giving, prayer, and reading the word, God feels so present. This devotion is hard to sustain throughout the year.
I re-read John’s Revelation to the church at Ephesus this morning. Ephesus was the capitol of the Roman Empire in Asia Minor (present day Turkey). With more than 250,000 residents, it was ethnically diverse, it was political, it was one of the greatest hubs of commerce in the world at the time, and the church was persecuted to the point where people had to speak in code using the sign of the ichthys to identify themselves as Christians. To this nascent and persecuted church, John said:
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” (Revelation 2:2-4)
In times like ours we are tempted to devote ourselves to many things. Some are tempted by money. Others are tempted by power. As I watch political candidates slinging mud, twisting truth, and spinning lies; when legislators lunge to protect tax cuts for the wealthy and toss vulnerable families to the lions of poverty, I am tempted to devote myself to justice. I mistake justice for God. Justice is not God. God is God. God alone deserves my devoted heart.
Ramadan is a time of revelation. This is what it revealed in me: I miss the devotion of my youth — scripture parties and all.
Lisa Sharon Harper is the director of mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author ofLeft, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politicsand author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat
Book of Revelation photo, Stephen Orsillo / Shutterstock.com