[This sermon was delivered at the Community of the Savior, Rochester NY, May 19, 2019.]
How do you think of the hereafter? Our views of what is to come are often far from biblical. All those stories of St. Peter standing at the pearly gates with a large book may make for good jokes, but are far from truth. Angels playing harps endlessly sounds kind of boring.
If you asked me 40 years ago to describe heaven, I probably would have answered in great detail. Now, I don’t have the same certainty. Streets paved with gold doesn’t mean much (as long as there are no potholes). My view has become more relational—and more comprehensive. It’s not pie-in-the-sky-bye-and-bye anymore, at least for me. The images given to John stir my imagination. A vast throng beyond numbering. People from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages; now that excites me. What is notable in the evocative words of the voice speaking in Revelation 21 is the quality of life: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” That speaks to me.
At the center of the most sensual, spiritual-physical whole-bodied worship imaginable is a Lamb, a Lamb that was slain. Is any animal more vulnerable than a lamb? Then the Lamb speaks: “Behold, I am making all things new.” The verb is not past tense: I have made…. The verb is not future tense: I will make…. The verb is present tense in the active, continuing voice: I am making all things new. The scope of the work is not limited, but comprehensive: All things. Not some things. Not a few things. Not assorted things. Not favorite things. Not selected things. All things. All things new. Jesus is making all things new.
The word all occurs over 6,000 times in the Bible. Sometimes it is limited by context. Like all the people who are hearing this. Or all the people in the room. The word can be used in a limited way, but sometimes it goes beyond limits. My favorite concentration of the word all is in Colossians 1:15-20. Paul is describing the glory of Christ. Listen to the frequency and scope of all that we find there. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Those alls don’t sound limited.
That reminds us of the vision God gave to Peter about God’s gracious inclusion of the outsiders called gentiles. “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’” It shouldn’t surprise us. When God first called Abraham and Sarah to begin their faith journey, God said, “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” There is that word all word again, being used expansively again: “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
I don’t remember many poems I memorized in school, but I remember one from my middle school days:
“He drew a circle that shut me out–Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him in!”― Edwin Markham
Peter was given a vision of God’s inclusive love, even for the Gentiles, who once were seen as the outsiders to God’s covenant. At least by the insiders. But maybe never by God. I have this notion that God has always been drawing a wider circle that we have.
Renewing all things is the work of Jesus, but not his alone. From the beginning in Genesis 1-2, God has been calling us to cooperate in God’s work. To tend the garden. To name the animals. To reproduce. We are called to be participants in God’s work, cooperating with the Creator in the cultivation of all creation. We do not pretend to be God or believe that everything depends on us. But neither do we ignore the role God has assigned to us. In Ephesians 2:10, right after saying that we are saved by grace through faith, not by good deeds, Paul writes: “For we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” We are created and saved to be doing good works in cooperation with God, even the work of the renewal of all things.
John is given a glimpse at a new heaven and a new earth. That could mean the present earth redeemed and made gloriously new or something altogether new. I don’t know, but I know that a biblical understanding of stewardship has to include this garden planet entrusted to us. We humans have made a mess of this garden planet. There are now used plastic bags littering Mt. Everest. A recent probe into the Mariana Trench, the deepest ocean bed on earth found used plastic bags, seven miles beneath the ocean surface. On the Cocos Keeling Islands, a chain of islands in the Indian Ocean, 260 tons of trash have washed up on its beaches. In the Pacific Ocean there is a growing island of trash halfway between Hawaii and California. That patch has almost 2 trillion pieces of used plastic. A smaller garbage patch has been forming in the North Atlantic. There is a distorted view that some Christians hold that says something like: God is preparing heaven for us, so its OK to trash this planet. I was raised in a church tradition that took that view. They thought Jesus was returning in the 1960s, and then the 1970s, and then in 1984, and then in 1988. If Jesus is coming any minute, who cares about the environment? If God is preparing a heavenly home for us and God really doesn’t care about this planet, we shouldn’t care about it either. Forget about Psalm 24:1: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it…” Forget about tending the garden God gave us. We say, no. This planet is a precious gift from God, designed to delight the senses, stir the soul, and make life abundant.
Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch philosopher, theologian, and politician said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” Jesus says, “Behold, I am making all things new.”
This Easter season has been a season of life and of death. I think of Kendrick Costillo who took a bullet from a gunman in his STEM school in Colorado, just three days before he was to graduate from high school, and died while stopping the shooter from killing others. I think of Riley Howell, a student at UNC Charlotte. Already twice-wounded, he took down a gunman saving the lives of classmates, while taking a third bullet to his brain. I think of Rachel Held Evans, whose writings about her honest faith have deepened and broadened my faith. She dies at 37, leaving her husband and two young children, and thousands of us whose love for God has grown because of her courageous witness to it. We long for that day of newness when there is no more death.
How do we live in this world, with all its troubles, pain, and death? Jesus says that we do it in love: “… love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” In the midst of all that we cannot understand, we live in love. Love for God. Love for God’s creation. Love for neighbor. Love for self. Love for the other. Love for the outsider. Love for the immigrant, the alien, the refugee. We live in love with this vision held close: “I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: ‘Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new….’” (Revelation 21:3-5 from “The Message”) Jesus is “making all things new.” All things new! All things. New!