My parents were migrant workers when I was born. They later settled in Kettleman City, a rural farming community in Central California, where they became pastors and ministered for over 30 years. They were committed to working among migrant farm workers.
The town had been populated by poor whites and a few African Americans. But by the 1960s it was becoming mostly Mexican and Mexican American. I would grow up, and later serve, in the San Joaquín Valley during a time of significant demographic change. That change created many social challenges. It was in that valley that I first encountered racial tensions and the power dynamics linked to those tensions. But it was also there that I first began to understand what it meant to believe that it was possible for peoples of different ethnic backgrounds to live together as the people of God.
It was in Kettleman City and Avenal, and later in Fresno and Parlier, that I begin to understand that God sought something different among his people than the separations that we tended to live—separations that were ethnic, socioeconomic, and racialized. In my development as a leader, I had occasion to sit on different sides of these separations and realize how deep the divisions were. Yet God had a different dream for his people.
In Revelation 7:9–10 God presents his vision, his dream for the future of humanity. It is written to encourage us and to challenge us to believe in his future. The passage has served me as a vision, a way of thinking about what God is doing through Jesus Christ, what God wants for humanity, and what we as the church of Jesus Christ need to be living today as sign and sacrament of God’s future. This vision has challenged me to work toward God’s dream and has given me a biblical framing for presenting the implications of that dream to others.
Biblical and Historical Context
To understand this passage we need to remember the new thing God had done through Jesus. Jesus called his followers to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:16–20). As the church began to preach in new areas, Jews and Gentiles had to learn how to be one people in Jesus Christ (Eph 2–3).
This was a complicated task. Jews had a low view of Gentiles, something they were sure God had taught them. For example, we run into Peter in Acts 10. He had heard Jesus’ call to preach the gospel to all peoples, but when he is called in a vision to live into the future God is creating, his first answer is No. And when he enters Cornelius’s house, he begins by telling those that came to hear him that it is an abomination for a Jew to enter the house of a Gentile. What a wonderful way to start talking about the good news of the gospel!
By the time John writes the book of Revelation, the church is suffering. Being faithful to the way of Jesus has brought persecution upon believers. In the midst of suffering and martyrdom, some Christians are asking: Is the message of Jesus Christ true? Is there a future for us?
John writes Revelation to offer hope to those Christians. Throughout the book he presents two visions, two ways of interpreting their experience of persecution: one as seen from earth (suffering) and one as seen from God’s throne (martyrs worshipping). The suffering is real. But is the suffering the final word? Is this all there is in relationship to that suffering? According to John both visions are “true.” But which of these truths will guide the believers who are suffering?
Revelation is a message of hope in God’s future in the midst of present pain. Specifically, Rev 7:9–10 presents God’s “dream,” the goal toward which the gospel aims. God’s future is presented to motivate believers to continue to live out the gospel in the midst of their present suffering. The current situation facing believers may be complex, but God invites them to be faithful because God is doing something bigger than what can be seen in the suffering.
The Heavenly Vision
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:9–10 NRSV)
John’s vision is one in which all the peoples of the earth are represented. He is emphatic about this. He presents a vision of people who are different, speaking different languages, from different ethnicities and from different places. Though these people are different in many ways, they have one thing in common. All of them have known God’s grace through Jesus Christ. Jesus brought victory through his death and gave hope for the future.
The people in Revelation 7 have a common purpose and vision that focuses them. They are worshiping God together. Those who had died as martyrs were now able to fully understand what God had been doing. Evil and human divisions would not have the last word in the community God is creating. The communities of faith that were developing among the various peoples that had accepted the message of the gospel were the sign and sacrament of what God wanted for all of humanity.
This is the message we read throughout Revelation. God’s vision of the future will be fulfilled. Human impositions will not have the final word, no matter how powerful. The kingdoms of this earth, good or bad, will all recognize the Lord. Related to that is another important truth: human unity will come as we focus on our Lord Jesus Christ and what God is doing in the world. Humans will not come together by economic, political, or military power, but by the Spirit of God.
“The time had just come when I had been pushed as far as I could stand, and they placed me under arrest. I didn’t feel afraid—I had decided that I would have to know once and for all what rights I had as a human being and a citizen, even in Montgomery, Alabama.”
+ from Rosa Parks (1913–2005), in a 1956 interview. Parks’s refusal to move to the back of an Alabama bus became an inciting symbol of the civil rights movement. Fueled by her vision for equality and her work as a deaconess at the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, Parks continued as an activist and organizer for the remainder of her life.
Living Into the Vision Today
God’s vision or dream of the future is clear. The preaching of the gospel, the making of disciples, the forming of communities of faith from among all the peoples of the earth, serving others in the name of Jesus, living in light of God’s kingdom—all of these are signs pointing toward God’s eschatological future for humanity. God’s vision helps us see the future, even though it does not exist now. It points us in the right direction.
Throughout history, Christians have been able to dream of humans living in better relationships. The early church struggled with how Jews and Gentiles were to be the church together. As communities of believers developed in the Roman Empire and beyond, these groups of believers reflected the diversity of their world and demonstrated new ways of intercultural relations. It was those same Christians in the Roman Empire who protected girl children. And centuries later, it would be Christians that would lead the fight to end slavery and for women’s rights.
During the civil rights movement in the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. told us about his dream. He had a vision of a different way of doing race relations in this country. Most people that heard the speech were convinced that it was impossible. But his dream had a very significant impact on the United States. We still have a long way to go as a country, as we have sadly seen in recent events. But we are in a different place today. Because of a dream, a vision, a new reality could be envisioned and lived into. We have an African American president, and the relationships between races in the United States are much better than they were 50 years ago when Dr. King made his famous speech.
God’s dream in Revelation 7, embodied in Dr. King’s dream, is the type of dream that has guided my life and ministry. My ministry began among marginalized farm laborers, but soon led me to the need of addressing the real differences in the San Joaquín Valley, which usually linked ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and racialization. Even as a young pastor, it was clear that these differences really did divide the churches of my own denomination, the Mennonite Brethren. Ministry would take me far beyond the Central Valley of California, but the issues would continue to follow me, first to intercultural church life in Los Angeles (particularly after the Rodney King disturbances), then to beautiful (and profoundly racially divided) Guatemala, and later back to Southern California.
So how does the son of migrant workers dream God’s dream for communities of faith that reflect both the diversity and unity of the community of believers? My own sense of the task has evolved as I have seen the complexities lived out in different contexts. How does one face the reality of racism and live out of the hope of the gospel?
In the racially and socioeconomically divided world of my childhood and early pastoral ministry, the most important part of the task for me was providing spaces for those who were marginalized. Poor Latinos needed a place where they could be the people of God without being forced into a church model that was completely foreign to them. At times it also meant standing with the marginalized over against the attitudes of those who assumed that they had the normative way of understanding the task of being the people of God. (Of course, those people also seemed to be in charge of all of life in Central California.) But it also meant being a bridge between peoples, helping the various communities begin to interact with each, instead of only reading each other in light of stereotypes.
“Our congregations must reimagine ourselves as more than a house for weekly worship. Our seminaries must become formation pipelines for pastors and Christian leaders who are freedom fighters and champions of liberation of not just the soul but also the body. Can we embrace the notion of our institutional body as a power basis of redemption and agency that can be leveraged to invent and create? . . . What does it mean to create a hope-filled present and future for marginalized people so we may see the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven? Can we preach, pray, and act in ways that disciple our congregants to be open and willing to put their own personal bodies in the fight for freedom through principled nonviolent direct action, mentoring, protest, or any form of physical engagement?”
+ Michael McBride is pastor of The Way Christian Center in West Berkeley, California. Read more from him and other members of the community here.
Moving into the racially divided communities of Inglewood and Compton in Southern California during the 1980s and 1990s raised a different set of issues. How does one work toward racial reconciliation among peoples that clearly do not trust or understand each other, such as the white, African American, Latino, and Korean immigrant communities as they tried to make sense of the killing of Latasha Harlins, the beating of Rodney King, and the riots that ensued when an all-white jury found the police officers involved in the beating not guilty? How does one become an agent for reconciliation in such a charged environment? How do the Christians in each of these communities reach out to each other when their pains are so profound and their interpretations of what happened so different? Even as we developed small group conversations among Christians from the various communities, we found that it was often difficult to find a common starting point. The suffering seemed so much more real than the vision of peoples living together.
Living and ministering in Guatemala for almost nine years brought to the forefront the importance of being willing to speak directly into structural racism. The indigenous peoples of Guatemala are half of the population of the country, yet the vast majority of the wealth of the country is concentrated in the hands of a small group of white extended families. Racism is so overt in Guatemala that one of the worst insults one can call another is “indio.” The indigenous are still almost serfs in many parts of the countryside. How does one walk alongside the oppressed; how does one serve in a way that empowers the marginalized; what does it mean to be willing to suffer for walking with the poor? Those were the questions raised by life and service there. How does one read Revelation 7 when all the “official” interpreters are on one side of this divide and would benefit from a “white” interpretation of this vision?
Returning to Los Angeles a few months before 9-11 and watching how fear defined intercultural relations marked the beginning of a new stage of living into God´s dream. September 11, 2001, created a new reason for fear to have the final word in intercultural relations. When linked to the issues of identity and power politics in Los Angeles today, the debates over immigration, the relationship between class, ethnicity, poverty, and power, Revelation 7 seems very far away. How does one defend the weak, work to break down barriers, and find spaces for those who have been traditionally kept out?
Part of the current challenge for intercultural life in the United States is the reality of changing demographics. It would be relatively easy to talk about how to make the Revelation dream a reality if there were stable demographic groups where each understood their role (their “place”) in the larger social system. The task would then be to redefine these relationships in light of the gospel.
But the United States faces complex types of intercultural interactions. On the one hand, there is the historical racism aimed directly at people of African descent and native peoples. This type of racism destroyed many Native American communities and continues to manifest itself in violent acts against people of African descent, nurtured through a type of social Darwinism, of both left and right, that directly or indirectly justifies the status quo.
There is also a different type of intercultural tension, one created by new migration and changing demographic trends. The tensions raised by mostly Asian and Latino immigrants, and their descendents, often has to do with ethnic minority vs. majority culture identity, the role of the English language in United States society, the protection of these ethnic minorities, and even the role of religion in ethnic identity maintenance. Should people be expected to structurally assimilate or is the country stronger because of this diversity? How do the answers to this question change how one reads Revelation 7? Though these issues overlap with structural racism, there are also real differences between these two types of tensions. Further, those who suffer one or the other of these types of tensions are often at odds with each other.
These types of demographic changes create constantly changing relationships between the various communities. As a result, even Christians from the same denomination or tradition but of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds often do not know how to deal with each other. They often hurt each other as cultural differences and issues of power and control keep them away from being faithful to the gospel. The Revelation vision seems far away.
Global migration, in particular, raises new opportunities and new challenges to living out the dream. And part of that challenge has to do with how we interpret what is happening. A key theological question has to do with what we believe about human migration and the way that God is present in that process. Do we see God at work in the midst of global migration? How is God present?
In the Bible, the people of God seemed most attentive to God when they were in movement. Abraham learned about God and about being a blessing to others when he accepted God’s invitation to move. It was during the exodus that the people of Israel learned about God’s law for living as the people of God. The people of Israel learned that God was the God of all people when they went into exile. And in the New Testament Christians are called pilgrims and strangers, metaphors that call the people of God to recognize that their first allegiance is to the kingdom of God. All of these point to the fact that God clearly works among his people in the midst of migration and exile and uses these places to help us grow in our understanding of who God is and how God works among people in the world.
Today’s global migration patterns seem to create a missional opportunity to live into God’s Revelation dream. The new encounters and the increasing diversity create many tensions and new challenges. For many this new reality feels more like a curse than like a blessing. Many people in the United States, including many Christians, are afraid of what the country is becoming, of how it is changing because of migration. (The same can be said of xenophobic fears in many other countries.) Yet those who dream God’s dreams look at this situation and can potentially see a wonderful opportunity, both for those who are migrating and for our country. (For example, many of those migrants are committed Christians and God is using them to revitalize the faith of many in the United States.)
Seen through the lens of Revelation 7, global migration challenges us to think about what one “sees” when one encounters migrants and how to respond as a follower of Jesus Christ. Which truth will guide the task?
Being the Type of Person Who Dreams God’s Dreams
Fuller Seminary represents the diversity of the global church. Every year students from many countries graduate from here, ready to return to their countries of origin to serve more effectively. But the vision has historically been that of cross-cultural relations; “they” come over “here” or “we” go over “there.” In this vision the encounters at Fuller are wonderful but temporary experiences that end when students return to their countries or contexts. The implicit assumption is that “them” and “us” are part of “pure” ethnic communities to which all return and in which all will live out their lives long-term.
But the more complex reality of global migrations and intercultural encounter are not always as easy to live into. For example, a significant percentage of Fuller students who identify themselves as being from outside the United States live and minister in this country. Many of them have transnational identities and feel connected to more than one national context. Fuller represents not only a wonderful temporary encounter, but also the rich and complex reality of living in almost any major city around the world.
There are many reasons why it is difficult to live into God’s dream. We interact in varying types of intercultural relations where different types of responses will be needed. Some of these encounters are new, while others reflect centuries of structural injustice. There are also real social and economic differences that affect how communities interact. And the biggest issue of all is the reality of human sin. We are still on this side of the final fulfillment of God’s dream in Revelation 7.
Yet Revelation invites us to live into this dream in our world today. One of the ways I understand my task at Fuller today is to help students dream of becoming a new generation of believers discipled to serve others, in the name of Christ, in this changing world. Because of the globalized nature of our lives today, living out the Revelation vision includes preparing students to be agents of the transformation of intercultural relations in light of the gospel. The new communities of faith created by the next generation of graduates will be called to live out this vision within their communities, but also as bridges to other Christian communities, being the church so that people of other faiths, and those of non-faith, will be impacted by that vision.
As during the time that John wrote Revelation, there are many reasons today why one can doubt whether God’s dream can ever become reality or whether human fears and sin will fundamentally guide our interactions, even among Christians. Will Christians let Revelation 7 guide their vision of the future and their politics, or will political positions so color their reading of Scripture that visions of God’s dream will merely sound like the political platforms of those in power?
In a sense little has changed, though much has changed. God’s dreams still seem far from the reality we live today. The denomination that formed me and ordained me is still struggling with some of the same issues as when I was a young pastor. Structural racism is still the order of the day, even in countries that like to see themselves as particularly enlightened. And global migration is creating new types of encounters that complexify the task.
Yet this is the place and the time to live into this dream through the power of the Holy Spirit. The dream calls for believers to be evangelists of the message of Jesus Christ, interpreters of the complexities, bridges between peoples and groups, defenders and protectors of those who are marginalized, spokespeople for the causes of intercultural justice—people who will walk alongside, who will break down boundaries while defending those who are weaker, and who will speak truth to those in power.
God is inviting us to dream his dreams, to serve with the understanding that God’s eschatological future calls us to believe that another future is possible today. And so the son of migrant workers keeps dreaming God’s dreams.