new heaven, new earth
a sermon for the fifth sunday of easter on revelation 21:1-6, preached at St. James Pullman
The promise of Easter is the driving force behind our faith. That eternal salvation is ours for Jesus Christ has sacrificed himself. That God, through grief, came to understand the human condition, including suffering, rejection, death. And, through this experience of Christ, God grants us a promise if we simply believe, and in believing live into a life that ascribes to the Good News that has been passed on to us in Christ. During the Eastertide, leading up to Pentecost, we are reminded both of the work of the earliest followers of Christ as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, and the promise that will be fulfilled at the end of times in the Revelation of John the Divine. It is in these end of times that we must be willing to draw as much inspiration and direction as from the example of the apostles striking out into a world, readily willing to share a Good News that the whole of the world had yet to hear.
Revelation speaks to us of a vision of “a new heaven and a new earth,” a new heaven and new earth that replace the first heaven and first earth, for the old has passed away. And, the question we must ask ourselves is this: Is this something we actually want? Taking a quick look around the world, it should be pretty clear that a new heaven and a new earth are exactly what we want, for the first heaven is far removed from us and the first earth has not quite lived up to the billing. On the macro scale we see war, global poverty, global illness, lack of access for entire countries of people to clean water, reliable food sources, education. Institutional racism, gun violence, suicide are pertinent issues nationally and here in our own communities. And yet, we don’t seem to be doing much about it. Perhaps, our desire for a new heaven and a new earth, to welcome “the home of God” here and now, is not the priority or hope we profess it to be. How can we said to be creating a space for the unreachable first heaven (at least while living) and first earth to pass away, for the promise of a new heaven and new earth to be experienced here in this place, if we continue to hold onto those things that drive us away from the teachings of Christ, from being a place where the home of God can actually exist?
When we hold onto our guns because we are addicted to violence, addicted to personal rights that are used to take away the rights of another person, addicted to the false sense of security they provide in our hearts, we cannot be welcoming the home of God here and now because that space is currently occupied by a false idol. When we prop up systems of systemic racism and oppression, attacking those who fight for equal rights of all people, regardless of race, color, identity (including identity of sexuality or gender), even when the attacks are as “harmless” as a post on social media that decries the “pc police,” the “liberal” media, or props up a strawman argument that has no basis in reality, this is not protecting your rights, this is not protecting your children, this is protecting your privilege, privilege which we hold onto with such tenacity that the home of God, the new heaven and new earth, could never be realized here and now, for if it were, we would have to release all of that privilege. So, is there any way that we can welcome the home of God, invite the new heaven and new earth, or even better yet, actively work for that new heaven and new earth to be realized here and now?
Jesus Christ gave us a new commandment. In many ways this new commandment distills the ten we have previously received through Moses. It is a simple enough commandment. There isn’t any wiggle room or grey areas in it. It is straightforward. It is clear. The commandment reads: “that you 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.” The crux of this commandment, the part that we have seemed to struggle with since Christ’s death, the part that asks us to move beyond our human instincts, inclinations, social understanding and conditioning, is to love one another, just as I have loved you.
When Jesus Christ expressed love it transcended the social norms of his day and age. The love that Christ examples was seen in the many interactions he had with people he should have avoided. The love that Christ examples was seen in the many times Peter got it wrong, and yet Christ kept giving him opportunities to get it right, including entrusting him to be the foundation of the movement. Even when Christ was asked to address specific topics, as seen in the Gospels, or in the sayings attributed to him throughout the letters of the New Testament, Christ is addressing very specific topics in relation to the current climate and culture of his time, and everything he taught sought to turn those norms on their head, showing how the love of God offers us protection from persecution, that the love of Christ came from a place of respect, understanding, an intention to enter a conversation, a relationship, with no agenda, no judgment, expressing only love for the person as a beloved creation of God.
This astounding example of love, a love that transcends boundaries, a love that places the other first, that puts God in the middle of our relationships, that tasks us with holding only God and each other in our hearts, leaving no room for the false idols of the world that would otherwise distract us from this goal, this example of love is the love that Christ loved us with. The only way we can be said to be loving one another is to be loving one another with this remarkable example as our standard. If we can achieve this great height, then we can begin to invite the home of God to us now, if we can achieve this great height, then we can experience a new heaven that is here among us and a new earth that is replete with splendor and glory and void of anger and fear.
And we must do this, for we are thirsty. We are thirsty for a life where we don’t have to be afraid that someone may walk into a school or church or movie theater or our job or our very home and shoot us with a tool whose only purpose is to take someone else’s life. We are thirsty for a life where anger and fear no longer drives the public discourse, a life that is notable for the great love and respect we have for all of our neighbors, not for our calls to build walls to shut us off from the world, to incite violence against people of different races, cultures, religions. We are thirsty for a life where we can simply live the life that we are called to live by God, without fear that that life will subject us to ridicule, hatred, violence by those who do not understand that who we love, how we dress, who we know we are inside are not attacks on them but rather the fullest expression of ourselves, an expression of ourselves that is predicated and built upon through the love of God. And, we here must be thirsty to show others that God, that we, love them, regardless of the hurt and shame and fear they have because of the cross on the building, of the inclinations of our name, of the stigma that is inherent in our very nature as a part of organized religion.
If we are to fill that thirst, to drink from the spring of the water of life, then we have to move on from this first earth that we have worked so hard to destroy, move on from a first heaven that is removed from us, a promise for another life, a place where we can reset for there is no choice. If we choose to move on, to work towards the new heaven and new earth, to invite the home of God to come to us, instead of waiting for us to go to it after these lives we currently inhabit, we will get to quench our thirst at the spring of the water of life. Bringing the kingdom of heaven here and now requires us to fundamentally change this earth. To gain access to that spring that is promised to quench our thirst, we must listen to what Christ has told us, to live into the new commandment, to live into a reality of life that is centered on one simple task: that you love one another, just as I have loved you.
If we can do this, then we can change the world. For, if we live into the love of Christ, love that transcends and respects and holds up, then the world will know that we truly are the disciples of Christ. Until that time, those who claim that title of disciple and use it to oppress, to hate, to hold down, to feed into our fears, will continue to corrupt this world, driving us further away from the reality of the new heaven and new earth, driving others away from the love we are trying desperately to share with the world. We can share this love of Christ with the world, to have our thirst quenched in the spring of the water of life, to see the new heaven and new earth, the very home of God, here and now, but to do so we must go out and be that love of Christ in the world. We must love one another, and in loving, be the disciple of Christ that we are called by God to be.