Archives For Razing Hell

My Crush On Older Women

Jason Micheli —  January 23, 2013 — 2 Comments

Yes, shameless title to get you to click on it.

We’re nearing the end of a sermon series, Razing Hell, that’s tackled topics like heaven, hell, purgatory and the second coming. I’d be remiss if I didn’t post these thoughts from Fleming Rutledge, the best damn preacher in the English language. I’ve often been accused (by my wife) of having crushes on older women. I dunno…but in Fleming’s case? Hello, darkness my old friend…fleming-portrait-2008

Here’s a sermon on heaven from her.

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There are a lot of apocryphal stories about the great theologian Karl Barth, but this one sounds just like him. A well-meaning lady asked him, “Dr. Barth, will we see our loved ones in heaven?” Barth replied, “Not only our loved ones!”

When I was at Union Theological Seminary in the early 70s, I was very fortunate to have a tutor named Christopher Morse. He was a lowly graduate student at the time. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is on the cover of Time magazine. Well, not exactly…but there was a cover story on heaven at Eastertide, and it featured not only the work of the well-known English bishop and scholar N. T. Wright, but also the new book by Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes.[1] I thought about his book right away when I looked at the Psalm appointed for today.

You might not have noticed it, but Psalm 48, which we just read, is about heaven.

Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised

in the city of our God!

His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation,

is the joy of all the earth,

Mount Zion, in the far north,

the city of the great King.

Throughout the Bible, heaven is identified as a city which, in God’s own time, will come from heaven to be established on earth. That comes as a great shock to many people. Heaven is in the clouds, isn’t it? To be sure, Jesus is repeatedly said to have “come down from heaven,” and gone back into heaven at the Ascension, so it’s logical that we might think of heaven being somewhere in the stratosphere. But that’s not the way the Scriptures present it. The theme of Christopher Morse’s book, which Bishop Wright is also working on, is that heaven is not a place where God lives so much as it is wherever God comes to us and acts among us. Therefore heaven is not only in the future, but, as Jesus said many times in many ways, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Wherever the activity of Jesus Christ is, heaven is already impinging upon this world.

The world that we now see, which seems so real to us, is passing away.[2] Think for instance of Jesus’ important saying,

Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

This isn’t a difficult passage to understand, and it’s well known. It means a lot more than meets the eye, however. It’s not about what we’re going to take with us into the afterlife, as though we were some pharaoh or warlord piling up grave goods. It’s about the life we live now, and what’s important. Earth and heaven are not so much contrasting locations as they are present priorities. When we dispose of our money and goods by giving them away, we are acting on the conviction that this world is not our home. As St. Paul says in Philippians, “our commonwealth is in heaven” (4:20). This is a major theme of the Epistle to the Hebrews. We read that Abraham left his home, and went out by faith alone, “not knowing where he was to go,” trusting in the promise of God; “he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:8-10). This chapter in Hebrews is the famous roll call of the Old Testament saints, who lived in this world according to the world to come, because “they desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:16).

Now this has been seriously misunderstood to mean that this world doesn’t count. On the contrary, it counts very much. It is this world into which Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to be with us and to live and die for us, not simply to carry us off into the sweet by-and-by, but to show us how to live here, now, in such a way as to testify to the reality and power of who God is and what he is doing among us. After Christ’s ascension, his disciples are told in no uncertain terms by angelic visitors that they are not to stand looking up into heaven but to look instead for what heaven holds for them here, right here in the age that is passing away on earth. They therefore return to the city of Jerusalem, and behold! the Holy Spirit comes upon them with the powers of heaven and sets them in motion to change the world with the news of what God has done (Acts 1-3).

We only have one life in this world which is passing away, so the kingdom of heaven is already at hand in the way we live our lives in the present. It is at hand, not because we are journeying toward God in the familiar conception, but because God has journeyed to us and continues to arrive by the power of the Spirit. Wherever that happens, that is the kingdom of heaven taking shape even now. As Professor Morse writes,

Whatever comes from God is said [in the Bible] to come “from heaven”…References to heaven as God’s dwelling place emphasize not a place of confinement but the direction from which God…act[s] in relation to the earth.[3]

So the reality of God is the reality of heaven. Heaven is not just where God lives off in the clouds. Heaven is where God is working through human beings to make his loving purposes known. For instance, a little piece of heaven takes shape when a church building that might have been abandoned suddenly finds itself full of new life. Your vicar Betsy Fisher would be the first to say that she is not doing this. God is doing this.

But now what is all this about a city? If heaven is a city, what are we doing up here in Dutchess County? How did we get the idea that heaven is a garden in the sky? It’s interesting that the two most prominent gardens in the Bible are the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Gethsemane, and you know who pops up in them both, don’t you? Satan, that’s who. I suppose we like to think of going back to the Garden of Eden the way it used to be before Satan got hold of Adam and Eve, but that’s not the biblical vision. There isn’t any suggestion in Scripture that we’re “closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth.” The biblical vision is that God “has prepared for us a city.” The city is sometimes called Mount Zion, sometimes Salem (city of peace), sometimes the heavenly Jerusalem.

Now I’m a city lover, but not everyone is. There are many people who think that living in New York City would be hell. Here’s where we really have to be open to poetic imagination. The description of the City of God in Revelation is not a literal description. It’s meant to invoke awe and wonder. These passages tell us about the majesty and glory of God and of God’s ultimate purposes for us.

In the book of Revelation there are two cities. One is evil and one is the kingdom of God. Babylon is the symbol of all that is wicked in the world, and Babylon is doomed to destruction. There’s a very powerful description of this in chapter 18:

…the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for Babylon, since no one buys their cargo any more, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen…wine, oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls…The merchants of these wares, who gained wealth from [Babylon], will stand far off, in fear…weeping and mourning aloud,  “Alas, alas, for the great city that was…bedecked with gold, with jewels, and with pearls! In one hour all this wealth has been laid waste.” (18:11-13, 15-17)

That is a picture of the world that is passing away.

But now wait a minute. We like the part about nobody buying slaves any more, but what about all that other stuff? Will there be nothing beautiful in Zion?

Indeed there will. The description of the City of God is clearly meant to stun us with its magnificence. The city walls have twelve wide-open gates meant to welcome countless myriads of people from every tribe and nation on earth. The gates are built of every kind of precious stone, while the buildings of the city itself are “pure gold, clear as glass” (Revelation 21:18). We may ask, how can gold be “clear as glass”? Phrases like this should tip us off that this is not “realistic,” at least not in terms of this passing-away world. The vision is meant to open the doors of our imaginations to a world that is coming into being from a realm far beyond our capacity to describe. It’s a way of reminding us that God is infinitely larger and more unexpected than our paltry ideas of God. You might remember the line from the hymn, “Holy, holy, holy” where we sing “all the saints adore thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea.”[4] What’s that all about? Well, the image is in Revelation 7. Before the throne of God is a crystal sea, and the 24 elders (who represent the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles) “fall down before…the throne and worship;…they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power…’” (Revelation 4:10-11). So we aren’t supposed to be asking dumb questions about how the elders can keep on throwing down their crowns over and over ad infinitum. The idea behind the image is that all glory and honor and power belong to God—and the kingdom of heaven means being free, even now, from all pretense that we can construct it ourselves.

The twelve gates will be large enough to bring in all the wealth of the passing-away world. These treasures will no longer be hoarded or sold, but will be brought in to adorn the dwelling place of God with his people. The Revelation to John continues:

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb [of God, who is Jesus Christ]. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light…By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it…they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. (Revelation 21:22-26)

So you see, there’s a place for all the art and culture and riches and diversity of the nations of the earth in the city of the kingdom of heaven.

But now I bet that some of you are not so happy with this city idea. It’s hard to let go of the notion of a garden of paradise. What is it that God is doing with this city? Well, this, too, calls for imagination. There isn’t enough time in one sermon to do justice to the resplendent description of the city in Revelation, with the ramparts and towers that we read about in Psalm 48—Mount Zion, “beautiful in elevation”—but just listen to this passage (John is speaking):

Then [the angel] showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God…through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit…and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

A few years ago you may remember “The Gates” in Central Park. The artist who calls himself Christo filled the park with huge orange banners designed as a network of passageways that you could walk through. Having lived and worked downtown, I didn’t know a thing about Central Park until “The Gates” occurred. I walked the entire route from 110th Street to 59th Street under the banners. The whole population seemed to be there, in all its incredible ethnic diversity—that is what cities are supposed to be, filled to the brim with people of “all sorts and conditions.” It won’t be just our loved ones in the city of God, but all the ones we didn’t love and who didn’t love us, either. Something else will be going on.

Anyway, in Central Park during “The Gates,” there was an atmosphere of reverence—there was very little noise. People talked in hushed tones if they talked at all, and even children seemed awed. The “healing of the nations” seemed, just for a few weeks, to be possible. In recent years Central Park has come to be the most beloved urban green space in the world. And it is right in the middle of the city.

Now of course Central Park is not the Kingdom of heaven. There are still robberies and muggings occasionally. I would feel a bit nervous walking through the “north woods” section alone. Satan has not been banished. But there are reminders, here and there, of the river of life that flows from the throne of God. I was in the Conservatory Garden last week, and in the late afternoon I sat down beside the Secret Garden fountain, with its lovely statue of a young boy and girl. The atmosphere was almost worshipful. The water dripped into the pond. The sun slanted through the leaves. Many varieties of birds came to splash in the fountain, throwing spray into the air. A few children wandered through, very quietly. Opposite me sat two women. One of them was in her eighties—not much older than I am. The other was probably fifty-something. They sat quietly, without saying a word, looking at the scene, lost in thought. I observed them discreetly for a long time.

I am not a sentimental person, but I thought I could detect a narrative. The older woman was well groomed, but she seemed frail, perhaps ill. The younger woman, I thought, was her daughter, or perhaps a niece or devoted younger friend. The two of them did not look isolated from one another, as two people sometimes do when they are not speaking; they looked connected.  I noticed particularly that the younger woman was not taking the opportunity to look at any electronic device. The two of them seemed to be drawing something from the scene that was mutual between them both. After a long time—perhaps 45 minutes or more—they seemed to decide without words that it was time to go. Arm in arm, they very slowly departed—very, very slowly, as if reluctant to leave, yet carrying away with them something of what they had shared together in the garden in the middle of the city.

 Then I [John] saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard [an angelic]…voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with human beings. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”

And [God] who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

(Revelation 21:1-5)

Amen.


[1] The article is not very good. Time and Newsweek used to have excellent religion editors, but those times are long gone. Christopher Morse’s book, however, is very good indeed—though not for the faint-hearted.

[2] “For the form of this world is passing away”—I Corinthians 7:31

[3] Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes, New York: T & T Clark, 2010,  p. 10.

[4] Hymn, “Holy, holy, holy! Lord God almighty!” Reginald Heber (1783-1826).

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Heaven is Not Our Home

Jason Micheli —  January 3, 2013 — 3 Comments

far-side-heaven

One of my favorite bands is Blue Highway, a Virginia bluegrass band. I love their rendition of ‘This World is Not My Home.’ You can listen to it here.

It’s a great song.

Problem is: It’s crap theology.

This weekend we begin our sermon series, Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You’ve Heard about Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and the Second Coming.

Over the years I’ve come to realize that one of the greatest moral/theological challenges I face as a pastor is that very few people (Christians and non) have anything resembling a biblical notion of heaven.

And the real problem is very few people (especially Christians) realize that their assumptions about heaven have nothing at all to do with Jewish-Christian belief. The way we talk about heaven can no where be found on the lips of Jesus or in the words of Isaiah or St Paul.

Typically, I don’t become aware this until it’s too late- until death is too near or too recent. Only a moral cretin would try to ‘fix’ someone’s theology at their deathbed or at their loved one’s graveside.

But since it’s not appropriate to talk about what the bible actually teaches about Death and Resurrection when it’s most germane, we seldom talk about it at all, allowing bits and pieces of pop cliche, Platonism and downright paganism to take root. 

No scholar has been more critical in recovering the biblical witness of Resurrection than NT Wright. Reading him quite simply allowed me to read scripture as if for the first time. Here’s an excerpt from him on heaven:

 

There is no agreement in the church today about what happens to people when they die. Yet the New Testament is crystal clear on the matter: In a classic passage, Paul speaks of “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). There is no room for doubt as to what he means: God’s people are promised a new type of bodily existence, the fulfillment and redemption of our present bodily life. The rest of the early Christian writings, where they address the subject, are completely in tune with this.

The traditional picture of people going to either heaven or hell as a one-stage, postmortem journey represents a serious distortion and diminution of the Christian hope. Bodily resurrection is not just one odd bit of that hope. It is the element that gives shape and meaning to the rest of the story of God’s ultimate purposes. If we squeeze it to the margins, as many have done by implication, or indeed, if we leave it out altogether, as some have done quite explicitly, we don’t just lose an extra feature, like buying a car that happens not to have electrically operated mirrors. We lose the central engine, which drives it and gives every other component its reason for working.

When we talk with biblical precision about the resurrection, we discover an excellent foundation for lively and creative Christian work in the present world—not, as some suppose, for an escapist or quietist piety.

Bodily Resurrection

While both Greco-Roman paganism and Second Temple Judaism held a wide variety of beliefs about life beyond death, the early Christians, beginning with Paul, were remarkably unanimous on the topic.

When Paul speaks in Philippians 3 of being “citizens of heaven,” he doesn’t mean that we shall retire there when we have finished our work here. He says in the next line that Jesus will come from heaven in order to transform the present humble body into a glorious body like his own. Jesus will do this by the power through which he makes all things subject to himself. This little statement contains in a nutshell more or less all Paul’s thought on the subject. The risen Jesus is both the model for the Christian’s future body and the means by which it comes.

Similarly, in Colossians 3:1–4, Paul says that when the Messiah (the one “who is your life”) appears, then you too will appear with him in glory. Paul does not say “one day you will go to be with him.” No, you already possess life in him. This new life, which the Christian possesses secretly, invisible to the world, will burst forth into full bodily reality and visibility.

The clearest and strongest passage is Romans 8:9–11. If the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus the Messiah, dwells in you, says Paul, then the one who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies as well, through his Spirit who dwells in you. God will give life, not to a disembodied spirit, not to what many people have thought of as a spiritual body in the sense of a nonphysical one, but “to your mortal bodies also.”

Other New Testament writers support this view. The first letter of John declares that when Jesus appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. The resurrection body of Jesus, which at the moment is almost unimaginable to us in its glory and power, will be the model for our own. And of course within John’s gospel, despite the puzzlement of those who want to read the book in a very different way, we have some of the clearest statements of future bodily resurrection. Jesus reaffirms the widespread Jewish expectation of resurrection in the last day, and announces that the hour for this has already arrived. It is quite explicit: “The hour is coming,” he says, “indeed, it is already here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of Man, and those who hear will live; when all in the graves will come out, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”

Life After Life After Death

Here we must discuss what Jesus means when he declares that there are “many dwelling places” in his Father’s house. This has regularly been taken, not least when used in the context of bereavement, to mean that the dead (or at least dead Christians) will simply go to heaven permanently rather than being raised again subsequently to new bodily life. But the word for “dwelling places” here, monai, is regularly used in ancient Greek not for a final resting place, but for a temporary halt on a journey that will take you somewhere else in the long run.

This fits closely with Jesus’ words to the dying brigand in Luke: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Despite a long tradition of misreading, paradise here means not a final destination but the blissful garden, the parkland of rest and tranquility, where the dead are refreshed as they await the dawn of the new day. The main point of the sentence lies in the apparent contrast between the brigand’s request and Jesus’ reply: “Remember me,” he says, “when you come in your kingdom,” implying that this will be at some far distant future. Jesus’ answer brings this future hope into the present, implying of course that with his death the kingdom is indeed coming, even though it doesn’t look like what anyone had imagined: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” There will, of course, still be a future completion involving ultimate resurrection; Luke’s overall theological understanding leaves no doubt on that score. Jesus, after all, didn’t rise again “today,” that is, on Good Friday. Luke must have understood him to be referring to a state of being-in-paradise. With Jesus, the future hope has come forward into the present. For those who die in faith, before that final reawakening, the central promise is of being “with Jesus” at once. “My desire is to depart,” wrote Paul, “and be with Christ, which is far better.”

Resurrection itself then appears as what the word always meant in the ancient world. It wasn’t a way of talking about life after death. It was a way of talking about a new bodily life after whatever state of existence one might enter immediately upon death. It was, in other words, life after life after death.

What then about such passages as 1 Peter 1, which speaks of a salvation that is “kept in heaven for you” so that in your present believing you are receiving “the salvation of your souls”? Here, I suggest, the automatic assumption of Western Christianity leads us badly astray. Most Christians today, reading a passage like this, assume that it means that heaven is where you go to receive this salvation—or even that salvation consists in “going to heaven when you die.” The way we now understand that language in the Western world is totally different from what Jesus and his hearers meant and understood.

For a start, heaven is actually a reverent way of speaking about God, so that “riches in heaven” simply means “riches in God’s presence.” But then, by derivation from this primary meaning, heaven is the place where God’s purposes for the future are stored up. It isn’t where they are meant to stay so that one would need to go to heaven to enjoy them. It is where they are kept safe against the day when they will become a reality on earth. God’s future inheritance, the incorruptible new world and the new bodies that are to inhabit that world, are already kept safe, waiting for us, so that they can be brought to birth in the new heavens and new earth.

From Worship to Mission

The mission of the church is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. It is the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made.

If that is so, mission must urgently recover from its long-term schizophrenia. The split between saving souls and doing good in the world is not a product of the Bible or the gospel, but of the cultural captivity of both. The world of space, time, and matter is where real people live, where real communities happen, where difficult decisions are made, where schools and hospitals bear witness to the “now, already” of the gospel while police and prisons bear witness to the “not yet.” The world of space, time, and matter is where parliaments, city councils, neighborhood watch groups, and everything in between are set up and run for the benefit of the wider community, the community where anarchy means that bullies (economic and social as well as physical) will always win, where the weak and vulnerable will always need protecting, and where the social and political structures of society are part of the Creator’s design.

And the church that is renewed by the message of Jesus’ resurrection must be the church that goes to work precisely in that space, time, and matter. The church claims this world in advance as the place of God’s kingdom, of Jesus’ lordship, and of the Spirit’s power. Councils and parliaments can and often do act wisely, though they will always need scrutiny and accountability, because they in turn may become agents of bullying and corruption.

Thus the church that takes sacred space seriously (not as a retreat from the world but as a bridgehead into it) will go straight from worshiping in the sanctuary to debating in the council chamber; to discussing matters of town planning, of harmonizing and humanizing beauty in architecture, green spaces, and road traffic schemes; and to environmental work, creative and healthy farming methods, and proper use of resources. If it is true, as I have argued, that the whole world is now God’s holy land, we must not rest as long as that land is spoiled and defaced. This is not an extra to the church’s mission. It is central.

The church that takes seriously the fact that Jesus is Lord of all will not just celebrate quietly every time we write the date on a letter or document, will not just set aside Sunday as far as humanly and socially possible as a celebration of God’s new creation, will not just seek to order its own life in an appropriate rhythm of worship and work. Such a church will also seek to bring wisdom to the rhythms of work in offices and shops, in local government, in civic holidays, and in the shaping of public life. These things cannot be taken for granted. The enormous shifts during my lifetime, from the whole town observing Good Friday and Easter, to those great days being simply more occasions for football matches and yet more televised reruns of old movies, are indices of what happens when a society loses its roots and drifts with prevailing social currents. The reclaiming of time as God’s good gift (as opposed to time as simply a commodity to be spent for one’s own benefit, which often means fresh forms of slavery for others) is not an extra to the church’s mission. It is central.

Whatever is Holy

One of the things I most enjoy about being a bishop is watching ordinary Christians (not that there are any “ordinary” Christians, but you know what I mean) going straight from worshiping Jesus in church to making a radical difference in the material lives of people down the street by running playgroups for children of single working moms; by organizing credit unions to help people at the bottom of the financial ladder find their way to responsible solvency; by campaigning for better housing, against dangerous roads, for drug rehab centers, for wise laws relating to alcohol, for decent library and sporting facilities, for a thousand other things in which God’s sovereign rule extends to hard, concrete reality. Once again, all this is not an extra to the mission of the church. It is central.

This way of coming at the tasks of the church in terms of space, time, and matter leads directly to evangelism. When the church is seen to move straight from worship of God to affecting much-needed change in the world; when it becomes clear that the people who feast at Jesus’ table are the ones at the forefront of work to eliminate hunger and famine; when people realize that those who pray for the Spirit to work in and through them are the people who seem to have extra resources of love and patience in caring for those whose lives are damaged, bruised, and shamed—then it is natural for people to recognize that something is going on that they want to be part of.

No single individual can attempt more than a fraction of this mission. That’s why mission is the work of the whole church, the whole time. Paul’s advice to the Philippians—even though he and they knew they were suffering for their faith and might be tempted to retreat from the world into a dualistic, sectarian mentality—was upbeat. “These are the things you should think through,” he wrote: “whatever is true, whatever is holy, whatever is upright, whatever is pure, whatever is attractive, whatever has a good reputation; anything virtuous, anything praiseworthy.” And in thinking through these things, we will discover more and more about the same Creator God whom we know in and through Jesus Christ and will be better equipped to work effectively not over against the world, but with the grain of all goodwill, of all that seeks to bring and enhance life.

N. T. Wright is Bishop of Durham for the Church of England. This article is excerpted from his latest book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church(HarperOne). 

You can read more of this excerpt at Christianity Today.