April 18, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
If your son was in a bad car accident and spent weeks in critical condition in the hospital’s ICU with machines keeping him alive, then upon his full recovery and on the day he comes home from the hospital, wouldn’t it feel a bit odd to not celebrate his homecoming in favor of a long rehashing of the darkest days of his being hooked up to a ventilator?
Or, a joyous birthday party is no time to regale one another with stories about the worst things ever experienced by the person being celebrated.
Or, a 50th wedding anniversary dinner is no time to tell the gathered children and grandchildren about the time 23 years earlier when old Mom and Dad came within a whisker of divorcing each other.
So as we are in the blessed Season of Eastertide, why does the Lectionary do something similar by whisking us back up to the darkest night of Jesus’ life? Why bring us back to the scene where Judas has just now left (or fled) the room and where Jesus will momentarily (though this lection does not extend this far) predict Peter’s threefold denial? Aren’t there happier things for us to consider during Eastertide?
But there we have it.
Yet perhaps upon reflection this is not so odd after all. Indeed, it may even be curiously apt.
Consider: Our celebration of Easter is properly enhanced, and our joy refined and deepened, when we can nestle the good news of Christ’s resurrection in its proper context of sacrifice, suffering, and all that went into the paradoxical way by which Christ was “glorified,” which was death on the cross. So even on this side of the Easter Season, we do well to remember the darkness against which the light of Easter shines all the more brightly.
Fleming Rutledge has this just right in her new book The Crucifixion. “The crucifixion is the touchstone of Christian authenticity, the unique feature by which everything else, including the resurrection, is given its true significance. The resurrection is not a set piece. It is not an isolated demonstration of divine dazzlement. It is not to be detached from its abhorrent first act. The resurrection is, precisely, the vindication of a man who was crucified. Without the cross at the center of Christian proclamation, the Jesus story can be treated as just another story about a charismatic spiritual figure. It is the crucifixion that marks out Christianity as something definitively different in the history of religion. It is in the crucifixion that the nature of God is truly revealed” (p. 44). We cannot get at the glory of Eastertide with remembering what happened first, in other words. Going back to John 13 fits in Eastertide for this very reason.
Consider: Jesus told the disciples in that upper room that love for one another was the truest mark of being a disciple of Jesus. Who knows how the disciples heard those words on that particular Passover night. But now that they (and we) have been to the cross, the acoustics have changed. Now when we hear Jesus tell us to love one another as he has loved us (pay attention to that tiny word “as” here—a devastating little verbal particle if ever there were one!), those words echo in our minds in new ways when we hear them alongside Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross.
Consider: Jesus was preparing the disciples for his absence in these words of John 13. But as the Church prepares to mark again the Ascension of Christ in a couple of weeks, we no less than the disciples recognize that we must get used to the physical absence of the Savior. Indeed, people will “look” for Jesus as Jesus himself says in verse 33 but they won’t find him except for the Christ Jesus that others can see in us and in the Church when we love one another as our Lord loved us.
Consider: Jesus’ words in verse 31 about his now being glorified are properly odd-sounding considering what had just happened in the fact that Judas had fled the upper room to go forward with his dirty business. How strange that upon predicting his betrayal and upon seeing his betrayer exit the room that Jesus feels somehow “glorified.” No mother would claim that her parenthood had been fulfilled upon seeing her son get arrested for cocaine possession. No politician would declare victory upon seeing his country attacked by terrorists. Yet Jesus sees the specter of betrayal and loss and diminishment and so much else that is dire and yet feels glorified.
Even in the glow of Eastertide we in the Church do well to remember what the true nature of glory is for us. We in the Church are not “glorified” when we amass political clout, business influence, or power and glitz as the world reckons those things. The nature of our glory lies elsewhere in sacrificial love, in service, and, yes, even in laying down our lives for the sake of the kingdom if it comes to that.
So is it odd to return to the upper room a month after Easter? No. If anything, it may actually turn out to be oddly appropriate!
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
How was it that Jesus was, from the looks of it, all-but fully glorified at that precise moment in the upper room? He’s a little ways off from the actual cross yet. He’s surely a few days out from the full glory of the resurrection. So how can, as Jesus says in verse 32, he be glorified “at once”? Frederick Dale Bruner once pointed out that the verb for “glorified” used in verse 31 is a prophetic past tense, which refers to an utterly sure event. It may qualify as something of a mystery as to how this can be so. Could it be that Jesus was already then so fully coming under the shadow of the cross that the glorification of the Son through suffering and sacrifice really was well underway? Something like that seems very probable.
There’s also an irony there: the disciples saw no glory. Indeed, had they understood (and in verse 30 John tells us they did NOT understand) the meaning behind what had just transpired between Jesus and Judas (and what Judas’ hasty retreat really meant, therefore), then they would have been that-much-less likely to perceive even a glimmer of glory for Jesus. They may have seen clouds of foreboding and gloom and other portents of evil but glory? Not by a long shot.
Yet there it is.
But their lack of understanding as to the nature of the glory to which Jesus referred meant that they very likely misunderstood also the nature of the love about which Jesus subsequently spoke and recommended to them. This lection stops short of it, but Peter’s subsequent desire to keep on following Jesus—and not have Jesus go to a place where Peter could not follow—reveals Peter’s own desire to keep on showing love to Jesus. But what he does not know is that the love Jesus recommends is a love that sucks the life right out of you. True, Peter says that he will lay down his life for Jesus (see verse 37) but you get the feeling he’s speaking metaphorically. Or maybe he means he’d like to lay down his life for Jesus but he’d just as soon not have this laying-down-of-life thing become a habit (much less the entire pattern for all of life!).
In verse 34 Jesus says “As I have loved you, love one another.” The little word “as” packs a punch in this context. The Greek word is kathos and seems to carry with it (according to F. Dale Bruner) the idea that the love that must fill the hearts and lives of the disciples is not merely a love that imitates Christ but that actually wells up from the overflow of Christ’s actual love. The love of Christ himself needs to be IN you if you are going to live off its riches. This love is so novel, so powerful, so utterly mind-blowing that it’s not something you could ever concoct on your own. It has to be given to you as a gift.
Theologian Laura Smit sometime says that so often when people—sometimes even when theologians—talk about the characteristics of God, we think that it’s enough to understand what we’re talking about if we take a human concept like goodness and, when applying it to God, just make it bigger. We are good but God is GOOOOOOD. We think that if we can just put an exponent on human goodness and thus magnify/multiply our human conception of goodness, we will approach something of what it means to understand God’s goodness. But what if divine goodness is not just a really big version of human goodness but is actually something that, while bearing some resemblance to human goodness, is finally a trait with a wholly different quality altogether?
That seems to be what Jesus is saying about love in John 13. The kind of love Jesus wants us to display to the world is not just a souped-up version of human love but a love that is of a different kind, of a different quality, altogether. If so, then this love needs to be placed into us by Christ himself (and by grace alone) so that at least something of this extraordinary, amazingly sacrificial love really will grow in us and in the church.
But given that this is an Easter lection, we ought not be surprised to discover that the love Jesus recommended just prior to his death and resurrection is something that can come to us only from the outside and by an act of divine grace. Maybe the problem we have in the Church altogether too often is not that we cannot generate the kinds of cozy feelings and warm fuzzies for one another that the world associates with what it means to be a “loving community” but more that we have not allowed our union with Christ to thicken enough as to allow a wholly new kind of self-forgetting, sacrificial love to engulf us.
Put it this way: if our churches are lacking in love, is it because WE are not trying hard enough or because Christ is not sufficiently present among us?
Some years back neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a fascinating vignette of an intriguing neurological difficulty. Tourette’s Syndrome is a mental disorder that causes victims to have any number of physical and verbal tics. Some Tourettic people have constant facial twitches, others find themselves uncontrollably uttering verbal whoops, beeps, and sometimes also raunchy swear words. One man with Tourette’s whom Dr. Sacks knew was given to deep, lunging bows toward the ground, a few verbal shouts, and also an obsessive-compulsive adjusting and readjusting of his glasses. This goes on constantly and non-stop for people with Tourette’s.
The kicker is that the latter man is a skilled surgeon! Somehow and for some unknown reason, when he dons mask and gown and enters the operating room, all of his tics disappear for the duration of the surgery. He loses himself in that role and he does so totally. When the surgery is finished, he returns to his odd quirks of glasses adjustment, shouts, and bows.
Sacks did not make any spiritual comments on this, yet I find this doctor a very intriguing example of what it can mean to “lose yourself” in a role. There really can be a great transformation of your life when you are focused on just one thing–focused to the point that bad traits disappear even as the performing of normal tasks becomes all the more meaningful and remarkable.
Something like that is our Christian goal as we travel with Jesus. Our desire is to love one another—to love the whole world finally, I suppose—as Jesus loved us. To do that, we need an infusion of a kind of love that does not arise naturally from the context of the world as we know it. So as we lose ourselves in Jesus and in being his disciples, we find even our ordinary day-to-day activities infused with deep meaning as a love from another place fills our hearts. Because if sacredness happens to us at all, it happens among the pots and pans of the everyday and not just on Sundays when we feel particularly jolted by worship or on Tuesdays when we volunteer for some service project (vital though those things are, too). If we are to love as Jesus loved us, this becomes for us a daily reality that is possible if and only when the love of Christ fills us to the brim.
Author: Doug Bratt
It’s hard for many of us to imagine Christians getting upset with each other over whom they eat lunch with. So we sometimes assume Peter’s Jewish Christian colleagues were angry with him because he shared the gospel with gentiles. You and I may assume this upset them because they thought of the gospel as belonging exclusively to Jewish Christians.
That’s a reason Acts 11’s preachers and teachers should invite hearers to look back at Acts 10’s final sentence. It’s so short that it may seem like a throwaway line: “Then [the gentiles] asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.” That doesn’t seem like a particularly big deal until readers look at verse 2 of the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday.
What exactly plunges Peter into its boiling caldron? Do his Jewish Christian colleagues, for example, harshly ask him, “Why did you tell a houseful of uncircumcised people about Jesus”? No, they angrily storm, “Why did you enter the house of uncircumcised people and eat with them?!” (Italics added).
Jerusalem’s church’s leaders have heard about what Peter did in Caesarville. They’ve heard that, in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, “Non-Jewish ‘outsiders’ are now ‘in’.”
And, frankly, those church leaders aren’t very happy about it. So we can almost see them waiting for Peter at Jerusalem’s city gate with fire in their eyes and hands on their hips. While we might hope and even expect Jewish Christians would give Peter a hero’s welcome, they, instead, give him a one-sentence lecture. Instead of rolling out the red carpet for him, the apostles’ colleagues call him on the carpet.
While God has brought many of Peter’s Jewish contemporaries to faith in Jesus Christ, they still practice many of Judaism’s rites, including male circumcision. And they still most definitely don’t share meals with uncircumcised people. After all, they can’t even eat perhaps much of what gentiles’ serve.
Of course, Jesus often got into trouble for sharing meals with tax collectors, prostitutes and other unwashed people. However, we generally assume those marginalized people were Jews. Peter violates one of his Judaism’s strictest taboos by eating with uncircumcised gentiles. So he must defend himself before some of Christianity’s earliest heroes.
How can Peter convince the Church’s earliest heroes to make room at their tables for Gentiles? He doesn’t seem to think he can do so by arguing with them. Peter knows that he must somehow show that his sharing of the gospel through eating with Gentiles is God’s, not his idea.
So Peter recounts the story of his vision and trip to Cornelius’ home. In verse 5 he reports that he “saw a vision.” In his Pentecost sermon Peter quoted Joel’s promise that “your old men will dream dreams.” Now it’s as if God has kept that promise.
What’s more, in verse 12 Peter reports, “the Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with” Cornelius’ messengers to the centurion’s home. So he’s insisting his long walk to a gentile occupying soldiers’ homes was not his idea. He, after all, would have been perfectly content just to stay in Joppa, pray and take a little nap before eating his kosher lunch.
However, in Acts 11 Peter recalls that God had something else on his menu. Of course, Peter also had to admit that it took God three times to get God’s point across. On top of that, while our text contains the fourth version of Cornelius’ vision, it’s the first time Peter tells it. And it’s as though he finally puts together Cornelius and his own vision for the first time. It’s as if Peter finally “connects the dots” that are God’s plans and purposes for Cornelius, other Gentiles, the gospel and himself.
On top of that he makes a curious addition to the story in verses 15-16. Peter reports that when he sees the Spirit fill Cornelius and the others, he remembers Jesus’ words about baptizing with the Spirit. He’d watched the Spirit fill baptized people on Pentecost as well as many other occasions. So what is it about that meeting in Cornelius’ home that leaves such an impression on Peter that he remembers what Jesus had said several years before?
A colleague suggests that it has everything to do with that little pronoun “you.” Peter remembered that Jesus had promised, “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” However, he’d always assumed that the “you” was just the Jewish “we.” Peter and other Jews thought it, after all, entirely appropriate that the Spirit fill good, upstanding Jewish people like himself.
In Cornelius’ home, however, Peter finally learns that when Jesus says, “you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit,” he isn’t just talking to Jews like him. Jesus is also, in a sense, looking over his disciples’ shoulder at a huge group of gentiles like Cornelius. So the Spirit has finally convinced Peter that the Spirit’s baptism embraces even gentiles like Cornelius and his household.
It’s just as easy for 21st century Christians as it was for Peter to hear the Bible’s promises as addressed only to good people. It’s tempting to think of the “you” to whom God makes promises as just “you and me.” It’s tempting for God’s nice people to receive God’s grace while assuming that it could never embrace sinners out there. So even most Christians naturally have as much to learn about that as Peter did.
Yet it’s as if that newly educated apostle can’t end his defense of his actions without a subtle dig at the Jewish Christians who have put him “on trial.” It’s as if Peter tells his accusers, “I wouldn’t want to be found opposing God. But if that’s what the rest of you want to do, well, go right on ahead. Oppose God if you want, but as for me … I think I’ll just stick with God’s program and trust God to get it right.”
In fact, Peter basically portrays himself as virtually powerless to resist the Holy Spirit’s shove of him toward the gentiles. After all, in verse 17 he literally tells his colleagues, “If God gave them the same gift as he gave us … what power did I have to oppose God?” Peter is saying, in other words, that God graciously decides to give both the gift of faith and the repentance that faithfully receives it. Since God has that power, those who try to resist it finally just waste our time.
Luke brackets this Sunday’s text’s story of God’s power with references to “hearing.” In verse 1 he describes hearing that leads not to rejoicing, but to Peter’s colleagues’ harsh criticism of his eating with gentiles. In verse 18, however, what those early Christians have heard leads them to stop criticizing and start rejoicing. They praise God who has “granted even the gentiles repentance unto life.”
Commensality, a word we seldom use, basically refers to the practice of eating at the same table. Peter’s Jewish Christian colleagues were far less upset about his sharing of the gospel with gentiles than his commensality with them. They were angry, in other words, that he entered a gentile’s homes and ate with him.
Those who preach and teach Acts 11 may want to share some of their own struggles with commensality. After all, our text at least suggests that the identity of the people with whom we choose to share meals says something about us. To whom we imitate God in Christ by showing hospitality says something about how we see both people and the God who creates them.
(During the Easter season, the Lectionary appoints texts from Acts as Old Testament lessons).
A few years ago I participated in a theological dialogue with leaders of the Seventh Day-Adventist Church. For two wonderful days we worshiped, prayed and talked together about our respective expressions of the Christian faith.
However, we also ate together. Since Seventh-Day Adventists are vegetarians, the meetings’ organizers had asked our hosts to prepare half vegetarian and half non-vegetarian meals. When the staff brought out the first lunch, we discovered that each individual plate was – you guessed it — half vegetarian and half non-vegetarian. So vegetarians and carnivores spent five minutes carefully sliding half our sandwiches onto each other’s plates.
Even as we chuckled about it, that experience deepened our longing for Christ’s return. After all, when we finally enjoy God’s full eternal hospitality and commensality, we won’t have to worry about our distinctives.
Author: Stan Mast
On this fifth Sunday of Easter, we continue our exploration of the impact of Christ’s resurrection. After a lovely look at Easter comfort in Psalm 23 last Sunday, our reading from Psalm 148 brings us back to the theme of celebration. In Psalm 148 we move from the intimate comfort of “The Lord is my Shepherd” to the universal praise of that Lord. It is a marvelous and much needed reminder that salvation isn’t just about “me and Jesus.” It is about everything in heaven and on earth. Easter has meaning for the entire universe.
Psalm 148 calls for universal praise in some of the loveliest poetry in the entire Psalter, indeed, in all of the world’s literature. Composed of two equal stanzas (verses 1-6 calling everything in the heavens to praise the Lord and verses 7-12 issuing the same summons to everything on the earth) and a two verse conclusion addressed to everything and everyone, especially Israel, Psalm 148 is a masterpiece of balance. It uses the parallelism typical of Hebrew poetry, and it augments that parallelism with the use of pairings that are designed to include everything bordered by the pairs: angels/heavenly hosts, sun and moon/shining stars, highest heavens/waters above the skies, sea monsters/ocean depths, lightning/hail, small creatures/flying birds, old men and children, etc.
Without listing every single thing in creation, the poet masterfully calls all of creation to praise the Lord. While the great Hallelujah chorus of Psalm 150:6 calls “everything that has breath” to praise the Lord, Psalm 148 expands the call even to that which does not breath. It’s not just humans and animals and angels; it’s weather and planets and the elements on the periodic scale. It’s not just mighty male kings in all their power; it’s also maidens and children and old men. Even a casual reader will hear echoes of Genesis 1:1-2:4 throughout this Psalm. In the beginning God created everything. Now in this Easter season, we celebrate the beginning of the new creation brought into existence by Christ’s victory over sin and death, so God’s entire creation is called to give God all the praise.
It is interesting and important that the Psalm is bracketed by the quintessential Jewish call to praise, “hallelu Yah.” Yahweh, of course, is the name of God that points directly to God’s exclusive covenant with Israel. Verse 14 picks up on the special relationship between Yahweh and Israel when it concludes this Psalm with the announcement that he “has raised up for his people a horn….”
I’ll say more about that announcement later, but it is important to remember how universalistic Israel’s faith was at its inception and at its core. Yes, they had been elected to be God’s covenant people, but the purpose of that election was so that they could be a blessing to the nations. (Gen. 12:3) Yes, Israel belongs to God in a special way, but this Psalm reminded them (and us) that the entire universe belongs to Yahweh. He is not a tribal deity, or a national deity, or a geographical deity, or even the deity of planet Earth. He is the Lord of heaven and earth. Every square inch of the universe belongs to him. It was the privilege and calling of Israel and the New Israel (Gal. 6:16) to bring the world to Yahweh and to lead the universe in praise of Yahweh.
Note that the reasons for that praise seem to differ in the two stanzas of this poem. The heavens and everything in them are to praise the Lord for the fact that God has created them and given them a set place in his creation. “Let them praise the name of Yahweh for he commanded and they were created. He set them in place forever and ever; he gave a decree that will never pass away.” Verse 6 probably refers to the boundaries or limits God placed on all creation, so that each part has its place. As Genesis 1 puts it, chaos has been replaced by order, making the world predictable. As a result, life is manageable and science is possible. Imagine what it would be like if there were no day or night, if the seas simply ran over the land, if angels and demons could invade human life willy-nilly (the stuff horror movies are made of), if the planets and the stars didn’t have fixed orbits. Psalm 148 calls the heavenly dimension of creation to praise God simply because God created the skies above as good and orderly. We should join the heavens in that praise.
But the second stanza of Psalm 148 gives us and the rest of the earth a different reason to praise Yahweh—not creation, but redemption. This is not obvious at first. Indeed, at the end of the call to all earthly creation to praise God, we might anticipate a reference to creation again, but we don’t. Instead, the Psalmist points to the sheer majesty of God: “for his name alone is exalted; his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.” (verse 13) Praise Yahweh not because of what he has done in creating all things, but because of who God is in himself.
That seems to be the sense, until we come to the climax of the Psalm in verse 14. There the emphasis is on what Yahweh has done. His name alone is exalted and his splendor is above the earth and the heavens, because of what he has done. What has he done? “He has raised up for his people a horn….” That image of a horn is used throughout Scripture as a reference to power and vigor, like the horns of an ox or a ram or the Dragon of Revelation 12. Some scholars read verse 14 as a reference to Israel. After a time of weakness, such as the exile, God has once again raised them to power and vigor and dignity. Others see this as a reference to a new King, a regal Savior, like David.
Whichever interpretation of verse 14 we favor, it is easy to read that verse as a prophecy pointing to Jesus Christ, if we read this Psalm in its setting in the liturgical year. The church reads this Psalm at Christmas and at Easter (as it does this year). In the birth and resurrection of the Christ, God has raised up a horn of salvation. In keeping with that Davidic theme, it is possible to read Psalm 148 as a Psalm of enthronement. In Jesus resurrection, God has raised up a new King and placed him on the throne at the center of the universe, “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given….” (Ephesians 1:21) I doubt that the Psalmist had all this in mind, but it surely fits what the New Testament says about the Resurrection of Jesus.
If we take that tack on the Psalm, then it reminds us that the resurrection was an event of universal significance. It was not just a little one off miracle that happened in a dusty corner of this third rock from the sun at a forgotten moment in human history. The resurrection of Jesus was the event that all of heaven and earth had been awaiting. So, when he finally rose, all of heaven and earth is summoned to join in praise. His resurrection impacts everything, as Paul so mysteriously put it in I Corinthians 15:20-28. God has raised up a horn. Christ has risen. The King has come. Praise the Lord.
St. Francis of Assisi was undoubtedly inspired by this Psalm when he penned the beloved hymn, “All Creatures of Our God and King.” And he gave it a distinctively Christian interpretation when he identified the Creator of all things as the Triune God. “Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son, and praise the Spirit, Three in One….” Some preachers might, legitimately, point out that this Psalm presents all of creation as a unified choir, of which humans are only a part. That insight has some ecological implications. But an emphasis on God as the sovereign Creator and as the Risen Savior will keep us from a merely horizontal, “Earth Day” reading of Psalm 148. St. Francis of Assisi called the animals “brothers and sisters,” not because they are the equals of human beings, but because they are part of God’s good creation and of Christ’s gracious redemption.
When I hear Psalm 148 call the heavens to praise the Lord, I hear the familiar hymn, “This is My Father’s World.” Note how verse one begins. “This is my Father’s world and to my listening ears, all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.” Those last words, “the music of the spheres,” is a reference to an ancient philosophical concept that regarded the proportions in the movements of celestial bodies—sun, moon, and planets—as a form of music. That music was not audible; it was mathematical concept.
But Maria Doria Russell gives that concept a whole new take in her two chilling science fiction novels, The Sparrow and Children of God. A group of scientists are sent on an exploration of outer space by the Jesuit order, in order “to know God’s other children.” What they find is both terrible and wonderful. One of the wonderful things is a planet inhabited by various beings, several of whom join together to produce a kind of music that entrances all who hear it. It is, Russell suggests, “the music of the spheres.” Could that be a possible reading of “all his heavenly hosts?”
Speaking of fiction, the enlistment of all kinds of earthly creatures in praising God reminded me of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Not only do the animals speak, but they also have a role to play in the battle with evil. And they all adore Aslan, who rises from the dead to defeat the power of evil that has ruined Narnia. Adults might find that sort of thing childish, but the writer of Psalm 148 called “all creatures great and small” to join the Hallelujah Chorus.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Among the best experiences I’ve ever had in life was snorkeling over coral reefs off the Caribbean island of Bonaire. My wife and I visited the island several times and each time continued to add to our “life list” of different types of fish and other sea creatures we had seen. Rainbow Parrotfish, Blue Tangs, Sergeant Major Damselfish, French Angelfish: the vibrant life and the astonishing colors to be observed on coral reefs are very simply awe-inspiring. I’ve never been a strong swimmer nor someone who much enjoyed just lolling around in the water and yet I’d get lost for 2-3 hours at a time swimming over those reefs, thrilling to spy the occasional octopus or Hawksbill Sea Turtle among the myriad of other fish constantly darting past.
So I don’t know what I think about Revelation 21’s claim that “there was no more sea” in the preview of the New Creation that John received. It does not seem to square very well with another claim in this same passage; viz., “Behold I am making EVERYTHING new.” Well, the sea is part of the creation’s “everything” and was one of the wonders in Genesis 1 that the Creator God took such delight in both making and then also filling up to the brim with every kind of sea creature and fish you could imagine (and then some). I have long been influenced by theologians like Anthony Hoekema who point out that if the New Creation does not include every created thing God ever made, then that would be like a conceding of defeat to the devil, whose goal all along has been the sullying of God’s handiwork. The redeeming and re-creating of every created splendor is part of the proof that in the end God won and the devil lost.
That seems right. So what’s with the “no more sea” thing? Probably no more than the sea as synecdoche for “chaos,” for the power of creation run amok after the fall into sin. All things being equal there is nothing wrong with deserts either—cacti and the other creatures that exist in earth’s hot places must surely have a future in the New Creation too, and yet the Bible consistently depicts a wholesale transformation of the wilderness into a verdant place after all. But again, in Scripture the sea and the desert are usually referred to less as geographical points and more as symbols of chaos, of the power to take life and not sustain it. Nations like ancient Israel that were largely landlocked feared the oceans. They looked like the end of the world and, in a flat earth cosmology as the biblical writers had, the sea was perceived as literally the place where you could fall off the face of the earth forever. But as a created splendor, oceans—which cover the majority of earth’s surface after all—must be preserved and renewed, too.
In short, I am holding out for Blue Tangs and Hawksbill Sea Turtles in the New Creation.
And just that level of earthy—or pelagic—specificity is the main import of the vision we receive in Revelation 21. We do not get transported into some vapory realm of wisps and clouds and all things ethereal when history’s curtain rings down. No, the dwelling (literally, the skene/“tabernacle”) of God comes DOWN here. As in John 1:14, when the Word became flesh, he pitched his tent (skene/tabernacle again) on THIS earth and lived among us right here. The old earth and heavens might pass away but what we are promised over and again in Revelation 21 is not something in their place that will be novel and new (which would be neos in Greek) but something that is REnewed (kainos over and again here in the Greek). The vision is not of creation passing away in favor of something totally different the likes of which we’ve never experienced. No, it’s “all the old familiar places” (to quote a song) of this creation that will be renewed and restored to their original splendor before being sullied by pollution, decay, species extinctions, and the like.
Since we are told that God’s dwelling would be in the midst of all the renewed creation, it is clear that the incarnation of Jesus was just a preview for a longer-term goal of God: dwelling within his own creation. I realize we should not get too ontological based on anything in Revelation, which is finally as much a dream vision as anything approaching literal descriptions of thing. But the notion of God’s dwelling coming down into (and so being, as it were, “inside” the New Creation) speaks theological volumes as to the value God has all along placed on his physical creation. Pantheism and also its cousin of panentheism are justly seen as blurring the lines between Creator and creation in ways that can bring theological confusion. But as C.S. Lewis once said, you’re always fighting on two fronts in this area: no, we don’t want pantheism and so need to tell people not to conflate Creator and creature but on the other front we also don’t want SO much separation that we cannot see God’s loving connection to pandas and heads of cabbage. Don’t confuse them but don’t make them in opposition to each other either.
Revelation 21 tells us that whatever distinction there is for now between God’s realm (“heaven” in popular parlance) and our realm (“earth” in contradistinction to “heaven”), in the end there won’t be such a hard and fast distinction because what we now call heaven will somehow be here on earth. All in all this is a more radical, curious, and wonderful vision of the New Creation / the Eternal Kingdom of God than is appreciated most of the time even by people who are very familiar with Revelation 21. To preach on this passage is to preach not just future hope but future wonder and awe at just how (and “where”) God is going to be with us forever.
Of course, whenever the Lectionary breaks off in a passage that in most Bible translations means stopping in the middle of a paragraph, you can guess that there is something else the Lectionary folks don’t want us to notice or talk about. In this case it is what comes in verse 8 that pronounces a dire judgment on all those who pervert creation, justice, life itself, and the worship of the one true God. Let’s just focus on those who get to enjoy God forever and block out the prospect that not everyone may have that destiny.
No one likes judgment, of course, and so like the Lectionary folks we might find ourselves wishing we could dismiss verse 8 as an unwelcome bad burp from John in the midst of what is otherwise a lyric passage. And yet for a lot of people in history and who live on this earth right now—but not a lot of whom live in the Western world—a longing for justice and a desire to know that God will not merely wink at or casually wave off evil is part and parcel of the hope for a new and renewed (and flat out better) world. It’s not enough for God to wipe away pollution the way a window washer might squeegee away unsightly streaks on the glass. No, those who murder the innocent, those who led people astray in evil schemes calculated to bring suffering—these people need to be confronted, dealt with, punished. As Fleming Rutledge has pointed out in her new book on the crucifixion, God cannot be a God of justice and true righteousness if what has happened in the course of history is not overtly confronted. “In our world, something is terribly wrong and it must be put right. If, when we see an injustice, our blood does not boil at some point, we have not yet understood the depths of God. It depends, though, on what outrages us. To be outraged on behalf of oneself or one’s own group alone is to be human, but it is not to participate in Christ. To be outraged and to take action on behalf of the voiceless and oppressed, however, is to do the work of God” (The Crucifixion, p. 143). That seems right.
Whether we deem that those consigned to that lake of fire stay there forever is a different topic but let’s not pretend theologically or biblically that the prospect of God’s taking on the unrighteous and the unjust cannot be of a piece with the rest of Revelation 21’s vision of God’s making all things new. Biblically it seems that one without the other would be incomplete. And whatever else the New Creation will be, it will most certainly not be incomplete.
From Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC by Frederick Buechner, Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 21-23.
“When you are with somebody you love, you have little if any sense of the passage of time, and you also have in the fullest sense of the phrase a good time. When you are with God, you have something like the same experience. The biblical term for the experience is Eternal Life. Another is Heaven. What does it mean to be ‘with God’? To say that a person is ‘with it’ is slang for saying that whether he’s playing an electric guitar or just watching the clouds roll by, he’s so caught up in what he’s doing and so totally himself while he’s doing it that there’s none of him left over to be doing anything else . . . In other words, to live Eternal Life in the full and final sense is to be with God as Christ is with him, and with each other as Christ is with us.”