May 13, 2019
The Easter 5C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for John 13:31-35 from the Lectionary Gospel; Acts 11:1-18 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 148 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Revelation 21:1-6 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Belgic Confession Article 37
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 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. 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.
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!
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: Stan Mast
In this season of Easter, the Lectionary has directed our attention away from the Old Testament readings that are usually the first reading. Instead we have been following the book of Acts, which traces the new thing God did as a result of the Resurrection of Christ. That new thing was the spread of the Gospel from the center of the Jewish faith in Jerusalem and Judea into Samaria and out to the ends of the earth.
Up to this story of Cornelius, the spread of the Gospel has been limited to Jewish people, with the exception of the Ethiopian eunuch (who was, nevertheless, a convert to Judaism and, thus, presumably, circumcised), although Philip and Peter and John did venture into Samaritan villages. Here in Acts 11 (which is a retelling of the original event in Acts 10), we have the first bona fide non Jewish people join the church. The Gospel has leaped over the biggest border in Jewish life, which is why the Jewish leaders back in the mother church of Jerusalem jumped all over Peter. His border crossing was a violation of borders God himself had established for his people.
This text is intensely relevant for us in two ways. First, it answers the question, how does the church grow in a non-Christian environment. Second, it answers the question, how should the church handle the influx of people from the outside.
At first reading, I thought that first question was the more important. After all, Dr. Luke is telling his readers how it came about that the little band of disciples in Jerusalem became a world-wide fellowship of faith. Now I see that the real issue here is the perennial tension in the church between “us and them,” between our old rules and those new people. I’ll spend more time on that second issue, but there is much to learn about church growth in this text.
Any church leader has to be concerned about growing the church today, because it is, in fact, declining all over Western civilization. Most of the churches whose pastors will read this piece are losing members, and some are in danger of dying. So we attend seminars, read books, talk to friends, search the internet in hopes that someone can tell us how to grow our churches in a society that is becoming post-Christian, which may be a harder mission field than the pre-Christian world in which Acts was written.
Reading the book of Acts, we might conclude that the church grew rapidly because of the bold and uncompromising preaching that focused on the crucified and risen Christ (Acts 2), or because of the amazing miracles done by the apostles (Acts 3 and 9), or because of the fearless witnessing of Christians who were scattered into the world by persecution (Acts 8), or because of the good deeds and aid to the poor practiced by ordinary Christians (Acts 2 and 4 and 9), or because the fellowship and worship of the church was dynamic and magnetic (Acts 2 and 4). And all of that would be true. Those are the means by which the church grew.
But what made the church grow was God, using those means. We can work hard at re-creating those means in our day, but the church won’t grow, unless God is at work in and through those means. Innovative preaching, need based outreach programs, clever ad campaigns, new worship styles, fresh interpretations of the Gospel, reorganization of the church’s structure—none of the things will make the church grow, unless God moves.
That fact leaps off the pages of this particular story, but we’ve already seen it in the earlier stories—the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, the conversion of 3000 at Pentecost, the ministry of Philip, the conversion of Saul, and more. Apart from the Holy Spirit and the mighty works of God, the Gospel would have gone nowhere.
Now here, we read about dreams and visions, about angels and human messengers, about the Holy Spirit sovereignly and unexpectedly falling on Cornelius and his family, and about God granting even to the Gentiles repentance unto life. It was God who changed Peter’s mind. It was God who moved Cornelius to invite Peter to preach. It was God who sent the Spirit. It was God who converted this Gentile and his household. The fingerprints of God are all over this story, and the rest of Acts. That’s how churches grow. Whatever role humans play, it is God who gives the growth.
Of course, reading the story in Acts, we might conclude that God won’t give the growth if we don’t, for example, preach the Gospel as boldly and faithfully as Peter did, or if the church doesn’t display the kind of joy and generosity in its fellowship and worship, or if we don’t dare to venture out into the world witnessing to those we meet along the way. That is an important corrective to those who might say that church growth is totally out of our control. But the base line truth is that the church has always grown when God acts in a mighty way through his Word and Spirit.
But that raises the second question. What does the church do when God brings into the church folks who aren’t like us? How do we incorporate them into the Body of Christ? What kinds of demands do we make on these new Christians? Or to put it differently, what sorts of demands does God place on us when he makes the church grow with folks who aren’t like us?
That is what Acts 11:1-18 is all about. Dr. Luke has already recorded the story about the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10. Why does he have it repeated? Because the conversion of Cornelius and how Peter dealt with it raised a huge question that troubled the church throughout the apostolic age and to our day. We hear that question in the challenge with which the leaders of the Jerusalem church met Peter. “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
It wasn’t that Peter was involved with Cornelius’ conversion or that he baptized him. Jesus had told the early disciples that they were to do exactly that. The issue was the ongoing contact with uncircumcised people, with people who were unclean according to God’s law. Those had been the rules for centuries now. Peter knew that as well as these other leaders did; indeed, he had argued with the heavenly voice that told him to kill and eat unclean animals. That simply wasn’t the “done thing,” because that’s what God had clearly said. How far can you bend the rules, especially God given rules, to make new believers comfortable, so that they are fully part of the Body?
It’s a hard question. The leaders of the Jerusalem church took a hard line. No table fellowship with Gentiles, even Christian ones, until and unless they are circumcised and obey all the laws God gave us. Some modern day church leaders take a soft line. We have to accept everyone exactly as they are, regardless of the sins they carry into the church with them. All of the rules God has given to us must be ignored in order to enfold these new folks into the Body. Those are the choices—all law or all grace, tradition or tolerance.
Peter took neither fork in the road. He took a higher road. Refusing to argue theology, he simply told what God had done. Some might say that he relied on his experience rather than his traditional training, but that’s not how he presents his case. Yes, it was his experience, but it was God in his experience that convinced him and, subsequently, convinced his critics.
I was praying and I had a vision of a sheet filled with unclean animals descending from heaven. With the vision came a voice from heaven. The voice said, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” I replied that I always kept kosher. “Nothing impure and unclean has ever entered my mouth.” The voice spoke again. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” What a shock! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! Would God change the rules? Could God speak in such a way? To convince me, the Voice spoke two more times with the same message.
At that very moment 3 men (note the reoccurrence of the number three) arrived at my door, asking if I would come to Caesarea with them to preach to their boss, a centurion named Cornelius. I hesitated, because, of course, as a centurion he would be an uncircumcised Gentile, and thus unclean. I knew that I couldn’t fellowship with someone like that. God forbade us Jews from fraternizing with Gentiles lest we become unclean through our contact with them. But as I was thinking that, the Holy Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them.
So, I went along with these 6 witnesses (note the number three multiplied) and we entered the man’s house. He immediately told us how an angel had told him to get me to come and preach to him the message of salvation. How could I turn down an opportunity like that, even though he was a Gentile?
And, lo and behold, as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them, as he had come on us at the beginning of everything. I remembered Jesus saying about being baptized with the Holy Spirit. And it became clear to me that “God had given them the same gift he gave us,” the gift of the Spirit, the gift of tongues, the gift of salvation. And if God did that, “who was I to think that I could oppose God.”
Hear that? It was God, God, God. Not just one word from God, but several. Not just to one person, but to two at least. Not a mystical private experience, but a public experience witnessed by a number of people. Not an unshaped intuition, but a direct revelation of God’s words. Not natural developments in the church or society, but a God driven change in “the way we’ve always done things here.” God and God alone moved the other leaders to recognize that a new day had come, an extension of Easter day, a new kingdom in which Jews and Gentiles were now fully equal members of the Body of Christ.
That message was accepted by the former critics, but it was a long time before the whole church got it. Notice that even in their agreement with Peter, they still have some lingering… prejudice. “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.” A lifetime of looking down on the Gentiles caused them to say “even the Gentiles,” even them, those people. Try as they might, convinced as they were, they had a hard time letting go of the old “us versus them” dynamic.
So do we, and this is where your sermon should touch down in today’s church. Where do we hold new believers at an arm’s distance, even as we rejoice in their conversion and baptism? When they are members of another race or ethnic group? When they are clearly part of a lower or higher social class, the shabbily dressed red neck or the Mercedes driving couple in designer clothes? When they are two women holding hands as they enter the sanctuary? When he is wearing a MAGA cap as he enters church or there is an Obama sticker on their car? When he tells us that he was just released from prison where he was part of the prison church that our church sponsors?
Will we allow the slightly or very different person to join our church? How much genuine acceptance will we give? And on what terms? If the difference are simply cultural, our answer must be Peter’s. How can we oppose God who has given them the same gift as he gave us? If the differences are spiritual or moral, it gets harder. If God has granted them repentance unto life, how much repentance must we insist on? Does a convicted child molester get to watch over the children in our nursery? Does a former Buddhist continue to pray to Buddha in addition to Christ? Can a practicing polygamist bring all three of his wives into the same pew?
Your sermon can challenge people to think outside our boxes, because God does sometimes move the borders, as he did here in Acts 11. But we must also be careful to make sure that it is God moving the borders. We must be as sure as Peter was. That requires not just voices and visions, but also public testimony with witnesses and the judgment of the Body of Christ, and corroborating Scripture (“I remembered what Jesus said… about being baptized with the Spirit”). We must take great care to discern the Spirit’s leading and remember what Jesus said about the law and the prophets in the Sermon on the Mount. (He came not to take them away, but to fulfill them.)
There is no easy and tidy way to resolve this age old issue, but at the very least, this story tells us that we must, absolutely must, welcome and enfold all new believers, eating and drinking with them as Peter did. And, as the second Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) did, we must lay on them only the most minimal of our old rules. It’s a hard thing, but the Lord Jesus Christ demands no less. Even he ate and drank with tax collectors, prostitutes, and all kinds of unclean people, as he made his way to the cross to die for sinners.
In the early days of my ministry, my Dutch immigrant denomination was just awakening to our responsibility to make disciples not just at the ends of the earth, but also in the neighborhood. We didn’t know where to begin, so we begin casting about in varying schools of missiology. One of the most popular was the Church Growth Movement that emphasized the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP).
The HUP observed that church growth most often and most dramatically happened when the church reached out to people like themselves. “Birds of a feather flock together.” The Gospel flows best down lines of established relationships, when it doesn’t have to cross so many social, economic, and political borders. That’s what the teachers in the Church Growth Movement has observed in the mission fields.
But many argued with the HUP, because it seemed counter to the rich diversity of the church in the book of Revelation. It seemed to be discriminatory, contrary to our text for today. What would have happened to the Great Commission if Peter and Paul and their cohorts hadn’t crossed borders of every kind? No, it’s not easy, but is success measured by numerical growth or by spiritual faithfulness? That something to have your congregation think about as you apply this text to contemporary church life.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Some years back at a worship service we used St. Francis of Assisi’s poem “Canticle of the Sun” as part of a responsive reading. There was, alas, a slight typo in the bulletin that made it sound at one point as though we were worshiping Mother Earth. This led a rather conservative member of my church to fire off a letter to me and the Worship Committee about how clear it was we were slipping into some New Age stuff or endorsing the Gaia principle that the Earth itself is a living, almost divine, being. Clearly all of Francis’s talk about praising Mother Earth and Sister Moon and Brother Wind was just too much for our devout member. Even after we pointed out the typo, this person was largely unmoved. Just too much talk about nature in that Canticle. Keep things theological, please, or next thing you know we will slide clean into idolatry.
It goes without saying that St. Francis’s poem was close to identical to the language, the sensibilities, and the imagery of Psalm 148. But I think we can safely assume Scripture is not advocating for worshiping Mother Earth or Sister Moon in place of the Creator.
Still, when you get right down to it, we may well find the language of Psalm 148 to be striking if not strikingly odd. And in fact most of the time we do not take Psalm 148 literally (or maybe even all that seriously, therefore). We assume that the psalmist’s calls for sun, moon, wind, hail, lightning, and so on to praise the Lord is a metaphor. Of COURSE the sun cannot really praise God. Nor cattle nor sea creatures nor flying birds. That’s just sort of, you know, fanciful language. Poetic license. An image, a metaphor, a symbol but not something to be taken at face value.
Of course, the problem with that is that as the psalm proceeds, eventually we get down to this same praise imperative getting directed at kings, rulers, men, women, children. Then suddenly we toggle off the “Metaphor” switch and flip on the “Take It Literally” switch because now at last we have some people being commanded and they alone are in a position to take this literally and possibly do something with it (like actually praising the Lord).
In the text itself, though, the language throughout is undifferentiated. There are no linguistic cues in the Hebrew to indicate that the praise imperative is any different when aimed at people as opposed to being aimed at ocean depths and fruit trees and mountains. It is all of a piece. It is all one seamless poetic garment.
OK, perhaps what we are to take away from that fact is not that the moon has actual ears by which to hear and respond to anyone’s verbal command to praise God. But what we should learn from this and proclaim from this psalm is that in God’s sight (and in God’s ears) all of these created wonders, splendors, and creatures really do contribute to the Praise Chorus of all creation. These are literally members in God’s choir.
So how might this work? Well, from the looks of Psalm 148—as well as from many other parts of the Bible, including Job 38-41 and the imagery of many other psalms as well as vignettes in the Prophets and words from Jesus in the Gospels and language even used in the Epistles of the New Testament—God receives praise when these entities just do what they were created to do. When the moon spins and shines its reflected light upon the earth, God feels gratified, God feels glorified, God feels blessed. When crickets do their thing, when the fierce beauty of a snowstorm blankets the earth in white, when Orioles sing and Bald Eagles soar and mountains stand tall in all their created grandeur, God is praised. God is delighted.
Indeed, I have written in the past about what could be called “The Ecology of Praise” as it emerges again and again in the Bible. When creatures and things just fulfill their original purpose, God gets a boost. This is also what I have called the “Theology of Delight” that emerges in the Bible starting already in Genesis 1. There is an exuberance about God’s created works in the beginning. God does not create a few kinds of fish but a mind-boggling welter of kinds with every color and shape imaginable. God does not create a few birds but blackens the skies with flocks of warblers and cranes and seagulls and petrels. As Walter Brueggemann has noted, when in Genesis 1 we read again and again that God sees what he has made and calls it “good,” that is an aesthetic judgment, an appreciation of deep, deep delight in God. You can almost hear God yelling “Whoopee!” as he keeps proliferating the species, the mountain ranges, the ocean depths.
The Hebrew Psalter, as most of us know, is not some haphazard collection of poems. These psalms were carefully selected, edited, and then ordered to build up a larger theology. It begins in Psalm 1 laying out the rather stark landscape of this world: there are the righteous who serve God and the wicked who do not; the righteous who are like well-planted trees by a riverside and the rootless wicked who fly hither and thither like dust in the wind. As the Psalter proceeds, we get more and more indications that a key calling of the righteous—and more and more of the entire creation—is to praise God. This call to praise keeps rising and rising in intensity until it reaches a kind of crescendo in the final half-dozen poems in the collection even as the Hebrew imperative, hallelu yah, gets shouted to more and more people, more and more creatures, and ultimately to the entire cosmos.
Praise is our common vocation. And not just our common human vocation but our shared calling with all the other things and beings and critters with whom we share this universe. Far from a metaphor not to be taken too seriously, Psalm 148’s call for all things and creatures to praise God reveals the deepest core of created reality. We came from a loving and exuberant Creator God, we are made for this Creator God, and we will all together find our truest identity in fulfilling that call.
Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!
The Bible is full of surprises though seldom more so than in how the Book of Job concludes. After around 37 whole chapters that are chock full of deep theological and spiritual and philosophical wranglings and the pondering of perplexing questions of theodicy and why bad things happen to good people and the ways of God, the ways of the righteous, the fairness or unfairness of life, suddenly (and none too soon) God shows up to have the last word.
But God’s last word turns out to be somewhere close to being the opposite of what most any rational person would have expected. Theology is not at the forefront. The obvious questions that have preoccupied Job and his friends are not touched. Instead God takes Job and all of us on a tour of the cosmos. We go to the zoo, in essence. We discover that for all the other things God might have to do, he apparently spends a lot of time delighting in watching mountain goats frolic, wild donkeys cavort, eagles soar, and hippos just being hippos. Chapter after chapter God goes on and on about storehouses for snow, spectacles of the night sky, deer giving birth to fawns.
What does all of that have to do with anything given the overarching (and wrenching) concerns of the rest of the Book of Job? Well, in part it has to do with the deep mysteries of creation by which God reframes the questions of Job and his friends. But let us not fail to notice something else: the splendors of his own creation and the wide panoply of creatures he fashioned is never far from God’s mind. God loves all that stuff. He delights in all those things and creatures. He receives a kick out of it all and feels praised by it all.
All of which is pretty much the point of also Psalm 148.
Author: Doug Bratt
Christ’s revelation to the apostle John includes what sometimes seems like an endless series of chilling images. Nearly all of them portray intense persecution, bloody battles and immense suffering. It’s a revelation that, if we didn’t know its “happy ending,” we might quit reading after about six or seven chapters.
Some modern Christians assume that the gruesome events Revelation describes still lie in our future. However, the church to which John first wrote it was already experiencing the kind of misery he describes. The early Christians to whom John wrote were dealing with great adversity, including martyrdom.
That Christian suffering, however, as Craig Barnes, who gave me ideas for this sermon starter, notes, contradicted the early church’s expectations. The first Christians, after all, expected Jesus to return and establish his kingdom on earth soon after he ascended to the heavenly realm.
Yet they certainly weren’t the last Christians to expect Christ’s eminent return. Ever since Christ ascended to the heavenly realm, at least some of God’s people have assumed the same thing. Some Christians said, “This is it. The world is going to end very soon” during the twentieth century when genocide seemed to write out a whole list of potential Antichrists. One elderly couple whose church I served predicted the world was going to end every time an awful earthquake occurred during wartime. Twenty years ago, some assumed that since Jesus works only in round numbers, the new millennium’s start would signal Jesus’ return.
Church historian Martin Marty, however, notes that the world is, in one sense, always coming to an end. After all, the world of the first century was at leas figuratively if not literally ending even as John wrote our text. The Christian world Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches dominated ended more than five hundred years ago. We might say that the United States’ world of the twentieth century ended with 9/11.
Yet, as Barnes points out, in a sense it also feels like your world ends every time someone you love and like dies. The death of loved ones, after all, signals the end of a variety of often-important things.
However, when we bury a loved one, we also want to believe that there’s more for both them and us. John’s message in this Sunday RCL Epistolary Lesson is that this world is not the end. Jesus’ death and resurrection signal that the brokenness, heartache and disappointment that we sometimes experience in this world do not get the last word.
John wrote the book of Revelation to encourage Christians who suffered greatly for their faith as they approached what seemed like the end of their world. In Revelation 21 he does so by describing a time when “the first heaven and first earth had passed away” (1). We don’t know if he means that God will completely destroy and then remake heaven and earth, or simply renovate them on some kind of grand scale.
God’s people do know, however, that when Christ returns, he will destroy the old way of doing things. John promises that God will replace the ancient threat that was the “sea” with God’s own glorious presence, symbolized by the descent of the New Jerusalem and God’s dwelling among God’s people. In other words, some day very soon God will eliminate everything that now threatens us, including mental and physical illness, violence and climate change.
God will replace those threats with himself by setting up God’s throne among God’s beloved people in the new creation. So the God who acted in history through Israel, Jesus Christ and his church will consummate that history by finally making God’s permanent home among God’s redeemed people.
In a stirring echo of the end of last Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, John promises that in that glorious home God “will wipe every tear from” our “eyes” (4). God will tenderly wipe away from our eyes each tear that grief, sickness, alienation, anxiety and doubt so often now clouds.
What’s more, John writes in our text, some day very soon there won’t even be any more reasons for tears. “There will be,” after all, “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (4). Tears and grief will have no place in the new creation because God will eliminate their causes.
This is a wonderful vision that those who proclaim as well as hear Revelation 21 desperately need. Death by inches from things like brain tumors, dementia and other incurable diseases pockmark life on this first earth. Things like failing health, broken families, lost jobs, war and ethnic hatred scar it.
Yet while God’s people sometimes assume that John is only talking about something that’s far away in both time and space, that not a completely biblical assumption. After all, Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection change nearly everything right now.
Now is already, after all, the dwelling of God with people (3). Where, after all, do we profess God now make God’s home, by the Holy Spirit? Isn’t God’s dwelling already in and among God’s people to comfort, strengthen and encourage us? And aren’t we already by God’s great grace God’s adopted children who now call God “Daddy” and whom God now calls God’s “sons and daughters”?
While Christians sometimes act as though God says in verse 5, “I will make all things new,” that’s not what our text actually says. God insists, “I am making all things new.” Look, after all, at God’s wonderful promise to wipe every tear from our eyes. Of course, that will fully happen only in God’s glorious presence in the new heaven and earth.
Yet isn’t God’s Holy Spirit already comforting God’s grieving people? How many of those who proclaim Revelation 21, after all, have grieved deeply, but eventually felt God’s comforting grace? Those who hear and read Revelation 21 still cry, sometimes right until the moment of our death. God, however, eases our grief, however slowly, already beginning to dry our tears.
And hasn’t Jesus’ death and resurrection already changed the meaning of “death” (4)? Death is not yet a dead enemy. Yet now God’s adopted sons and daughters’ death ends our rebellion against God but not our existence. Christians’ death is now simply a doorway into God’s glorious presence.
John’s vision of the new creation, however, changes not only the way we die, but also the way you and I live. Barnes says, “Heaven exists not just as a future place to go after we die, but also as an inspiration for the life you have today.” Knowing that Christ waits for us with open arms makes all the difference in how you and I live today. In fact, it can make all the difference in the world.
Many people who have made a difference in this world believed most strongly in John’s vision of the world to come. The apostles, for instance, sought the humane treatment of slaves, women and children. More recently devout Christians like William Wilberforce worked to abolish slavery. A twentieth-century African American pastor gave us a vision of a color-blind society.
They got part of their vision for this world in John’s description of the new world Christ will bring at his return. These men and women organized their lives in ways that were consistent with our text’s description of life in the new creation.
So what might “the dwelling of God is with men and he will live with them” (3) imply about the ministry of God’s people? Might it not send us, as God’s representatives, to at least figuratively live alongside hurting people?
John’s God “will wipe every tear from their eyes,” (4) sounds a bit like Paul’s call to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn. It invites us to be active agents of God’s comfort, not avoiding the sick and the dying, but going to be with them.
“The old order of things” (4) won’t just pass away in the new earth and heaven. They’re already dying wherever a classmate sticks up for a bullied student, people who are incarcerated receive a college education or people learn more efficient and ecologically sound ways to farm God’s creation.
We don’t, of course, confuse life in this creation, no matter how lovely it can be, with life in the new creation. Yet Jesus’ death and resurrection as well as the Holy Spirit’s presence among us means that we can do things to help this life be kind of appetizer of that glorious life.
In Revelation 21:3 John hears a “loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them’.” But, of course, God first came to dwell with people in Jesus Christ. So how might we compare that experience of “Immanuel” with the experiences God has graciously planned for us in the new creation?
In his book, A Room Called Remember, Frederick Buechner writes, “Who is this God and how is he with us? ‘The high and lofty One who inhabits eternity’ is the answer to the first. The One who is with us is the One whom none can look upon because the space-and-time human mind can no more comprehend fully the spaceless, timeless Reality of the One than the eyes of the blind can comprehend light. The One who is with us is the One who has made himself known at most only partially and dimly through the pantomime of nature and history and the eloquent but always garbled utterance of prophets, saints, and mystics.”