Archives For Rob Bell

On the liturgical calendar, this Sunday was Ascension Sunday. Seen narratively/historically, the Ascension shows the promises of the Christmas carols to have been true: God has made Jesus King. He’s the one foreseen by Daniel, the Son of Man who will rule Earth from Heaven. Seen theologically, the Ascension shows us something even more mysterious: the eternal Son returning to the life of the Triune God.

And taking us with him. Our humanity.

It’s the latter reading I chose for this Sunday. Some sermons end up getting written purely for my own interest and enjoyment and this is one. The text was the Ascension story as told in Acts 1.1-11. Some of illustrations about space and motion are taken from Rob Bell’s surprisingly decent book, What We Talk about When We Talk about God.

You can listen to the sermon here or in the sidebar to the right. You can also download it here in iTunes or download the free mobile app here.

This past Thursday Christians celebrated the climax of the Easter season with the ancient feast day known as Ascension.

Show of hands- how many of you celebrated it this Thursday?

Don’t feel guilty.

     What was once the high holy day when Christians rejoiced that God has made Jesus King over all the nations of the Earth- what was once a holy day is now just Thursday.

Ascension is now largely ignored.

It’s not hard to see why it’s ignored.

For one thing, if Christ has been given dominion over the Earth, if God has made Christ King of the world then Jesus doesn’t appear to be doing a very good job.

What about hunger? And war? Cancer and Verizon Wireless?

Maybe going from carpenter to King was too big a promotion for Jesus.

Maybe that’s why we ignore the Ascension.

But I think the real reason we ignore the Ascension is the embarrassing, unbelievable imagery of it.

     The Ascension is the perfect example of everything that is wrong with Christianity in the modern world. It’s a primitive, superstitious picture in a rational, scientific world.

I mean the physics of it are all wrong:

     Jesus being lifted up into the air like he’s drank too much fizzy lifting drink,

Jesus, the first astronaut, going up, up, up and away.

Exit stage heaven.

Why wouldn’t we ignore such a ridiculous image in the 21st century? Why wouldn’t we ignore the Ascension. It’s fantastical.

It’s the perfect example of why it’s so hard for modern people to take Christianity seriously.

To take belief in God seriously.

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“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” the 2 angels ask the 11 disciples. But why wouldn’t they be looking up to the sky?

     Isn’t that the whole problem with this passage? With believing in God in general?

     They believed God was ‘up there.’

They believed the Earth was a flat, disk-shaped place around which the sun and the stars revolved. They believed the Earth floated on water, with the underworld below and heaven above just beyond the clouds.  And they believed that between Heaven and Earth was more water, water that could inundate the Earth at any moment were it not for the firmament, the sky-colored bowl that sits over the Earth and holds back the oceans of universe.

And they believed in a Being who lived ‘up there’ above the Earth.

Beyond the clouds and the firmament.

Up there.

In Heaven.

“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Why wouldn’t they stand there looking up? They lived in an age where everyone believed in a Being up there. And isn’t that the problem the Ascension makes unavoidable for us?

We know God’s not up there, not above the clouds, not beyond the firmament. We know that that God doesn’t exist.

And if that God doesn’t exist, who’s to say God exists at all?

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Where the disciples lived in an age where everyone believed in a God up there and disbelief was inconceivable, we live in an age where no one believes in a God ‘up there’ and disbelief in God altogether isn’t just a possibility it’s a real and growing option.

Maybe that’s the reason we ignore the Ascension.

It reminds us that we live in a different age.

But we didn’t get here overnight.

In 1637, Rene Descartes, a philosopher and mathematician, was plagued by the anxiety that everything he’d been taught to believe to be true might be false.

Descartes locked himself away and set out to strip away all his received certainties- even 1+1 equalling 2.

Descartes wanted to arrive at what can be known apart from revelation. Apart from God.

Where the ancient starting point for all knowledge had been God, Descartes’ starting point was ‘Cogito ergo sum.’

I think; therefore, I exist.

With Descartes, we became the center of the world. Not God.

And when we became the center of the world, the goal of life shifted too.

From ‘The chief end of man is to love God and enjoy him forever,’ as the catechism begins, to ‘the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.’

    With Descartes, we became the center of the world and the starting point of all knowledge and ever since Descartes what it means for something to be ‘true’ is that it’s true to us.

     To our senses.

     And to our experience.

We didn’t get here overnight. It happened so slowly we’re not even aware of how shaped we are by it.

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“Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

If we believed in them, then we might answer the angels and say we’re not looking because we think God’s ‘up there.’

We know God’s not up there. We know that that God doesn’t exist.

And maybe, more and more of us would say, God doesn’t exist at all.

After all, we don’t have to stand looking up to the clouds. We know what’s beyond them. Up there and out there.

Unknown

We know that the universe is expanding.

And we know that the visible universe is a million million million million miles across, and all of the galaxies in the universe are moving away from all the other galaxies in the universe at the same time.

They’re moving. It’s called the galactic dispersal.

We know that the solar system we live in is moving at 558 thousand miles per hour.

We know the Earth is moving around the sun at roughly sixty-six thousand miles per hour and does so while rotating at the equator at a little over a thousand miles per hour.

We know Earth’s surface is made up of about 10 big plates and 20 smaller ones that never stop slipping and sliding.

They’re moving and changing.

    The Universe, the Stars, the Earth- everything is constantly moving and changing and expanding.

And so are we.

We lose 50-150 strands of hair a day (which is worse news for some of us than others).

We shed 10 billion flakes of skin a day.

90% of the dust in our homes is made up of the dead skin we shed.

Every 28 days we get completely new skin.

    Right down to the atoms and cells, we are constantly moving and changing.

We know that. Not only do we know that there’s no firmament, we know there’s nothing ‘firm.’ Nothing is stable or constant. Everything is constantly moving, in flux. Everything is transitory, momentary. Moving from one way of existing to a new way of existing.

But that begs the question, a question even better than the one the angels ask:

If everything is constantly changing, if we are constantly changing right down to the hairs on our head…

then how can we be the measure of all things?

How can something in motion, something constantly changing, be the measure of anything?

Ever since Descartes, what it means for something to be ‘true’ is that it’s true to us, to our experience.

But we’re all passengers on the train called Earth, traveling through space and time at 295 times faster than the fastest bullet train in India.

And anyone who’s ridden on a train knows that everything looks normal and still until you try to take the measure of something out the window.

So how-

How could we ever get a steady enough view to be sure of anything like God? On this moving train called Earth, how could we ever get a steady enough view to be sure there’s no God? No Divine Being?

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Just think about that word ‘being.’

We call ourselves ‘human beings.’

But the word being means someone who is constant. Someone who is still. Someone who is dynamic but doesn’t change.

The word being means someone who is necessary, as in, not caused by anything prior to it.

Someone who just is.

But we’re not like that at all.

Everything that’s created is caused by something else, is changing all the time. Every time you or I do something we change. Our history changes. Our experience changes. Our identity slowly and subtly changes. We become something that didn’t exist previously.

So when you think about it, we’re not really beings at all.

We’re not constant and changeless and necessary and permanent.

We’re not beings.

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     “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” the angels ask.

     More and more modern people look up to the heavens convinced there’s no Divine Being that exists out there.

     But the irony is- it’s human beings that don’t exist.

     As human beings, we don’t exist.

 

I mean, we can fly through the air through the miracle of aviation. We can split the atom. We can take someone who’s done nothing of consequence, like Kim Kardashian, and make them into a celebrity.

But as human beings, we don’t exist.

We’ve learned how to fit a computer into a tiny little phone. We’ve learned how to clone a sheep. We’ve learned how to wrap a chocolate chip pancake around a breakfast sausage and put it all on a stick.

But we don’t know what those disciples knew staring up at the sky.

That human beings…don’t exist. There’s no such thing.

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     Only human becomings exist.

Everything in creation is a becoming. Everything is growing and changing until it decays and dies.

     Human beings- don’t exist.

     Only human becomings exist.

‘God’ is the name we give to Being. ‘Being’ is the name God gives to himself at the Burning Bush: ‘I Am He Who Is.’ I am is-ness. Existence. Being.

AquinasAs Thomas Aquinas put it: God is name we give to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ 

Only God is Being. Only God is permanent and unchanging, eternal and necessary, without cause or antecedent. Everything comes from something else and when it dies or decays it contributes to the becoming of something else.

Only God is Being. There’s only 1 Being. There’s only 1 God. You can be sure the Jews staring up at Jesus in the sky knew that, knew there’s only 1 God, only 1 Being- knew that the One who said at the Burning Bush ‘I Am He Who Is’ is the only 1 who IS.

And that’s the answer to the angels’ question: ‘Why do you stand looking up?’

It’s not because they thought God is ‘up there.’ The God who is IS, Being itself, can’t be any where. Because such a God must be everywhere.

     No, the answer to the angels’ question is that the disciples have a question of their own.

They’re wondering how it is that Jesus- flesh and blood Jesus, born of Mary Jesus, fully human Jesus, a human becoming like you or me- could enter- become- Being.

How can a becoming enter into Being?

It’s a good question.

It’s a question that gets at the very heart of the Gospel story.

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     The whole story of the gospels, from Christmas to Ascension, is how Being entered our world of becoming. The whole story of the Gospel is how the Holy Trinity, the one true Being took on the full reality of becoming: birth and life and suffering and death.

The whole point of the Ascension is that:

having taken on our humanity at Christmas

and having experienced our humanity to its fullest on Good Friday

and having that humanity emptied from the grave on Easter

today Jesus takes our humanity into the very life of the Trinity

today Jesus takes our becoming

Into Being.

     Or, as the ancient Christians put it:

     God became what we are; so that, we might join what God is: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The whole point of the Ascension- what the Church wants you to see in this image- is not the physics.

It’s that now the Trinity is no longer just an eternal community of three persons: Father, Son and Spirit.

Now, because of the Ascension, the Trinity is 3 plus you.

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     I know what you’re thinking:

Being and becoming- Jason, this is hopelessly abstract. Jason, this has nothing to do with my life.

But trust me, it’s not. And it does. It does.

Last Thursday, a week before the Ascension, I went to Mt Vernon Hospital to visit a teenager who tried to commit suicide. It was morning and the attempt had been just the night before so when I saw him he was still angry.

To be alive.

‘I have no one’ he said.

‘And I don’t think I deserve to.’

I wish I could say I’ve sat through fewer conversations like that than I have.

And I wish I could say I’ve seen more people survive like him than I have.

Even if you haven’t been in that position before, it won’t surprise you to hear that the air in the hospital room last Thursday felt heavy.

Tragic is more like it.

But the tragedy isn’t just that all of us, we’re all just becomings- in motion, changing and growing until we die and decay- the tragedy isn’t that we’re all just becomings and he wanted to cease his becoming prematurely.

No, the tragedy is that that boy last Thursday, when he looks in the mirror he doesn’t see something that is beautiful and holy and mysterious.

     The tragedy is that when he looks in the mirror he doesn’t see someone who is a sacrament, a flesh and blood vessel that points to and participates in the eternal Being of God.

     The tragedy is that too often neither do you. When you look in the mirror.

The tragedy is that too often neither do you. When you look upon, speak to, interact with someone else.

It’s tragic because it flies in the face of the good news we learn today.

You’re more than just a creature. You’re more than just a becoming.

You’re more than just someone who needs to lose a few pounds. You’re more than what your ex thinks of you. You’re more than what that voice in the back of your head says about you. You’re more than what you do to pay the bills or pass the time. You’re more than whatever lines will be written on your gravestone.

You’re holy. You’re Beloved. You’re sacred because you’re a sacrament.

And so is each and every person in your life.

Because in Jesus Christ Being became what we are.

And today Jesus takes what we are into the Being of God.

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     “Why do you stand looking up towards heaven?” the angels ask.

     But of course they would stare at Jesus in the sky.

     They’ve just learned the answer to the most important question of all.

Not: ‘Does God exist?’ God is the name we give to Being itself. God is the answer we give to the question ‘why is there something instead of nothing?’ God, by definition, has to exist.

No, staring up at the sky, they’ve just learned the answer to the most important question: ‘Do we exist?‘

And the answer is yes. Because today Jesus Christ has ascended to God. Today he has ascended and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

 

imagesWe finished up our January sermon series, Razing Hell, this weekend, talking about the Second Coming. It’s been a great series from my end. I’ve gotten a ton of emails from folks at church and from around the world via Tamed Cynic.org. It’s reaffirmed for me that people, Christian or not, really do want to think theologically in a way that’s honest, respectful and practical to how they think about their everyday lives.

Case in point:

This weekend Dennis Perry did a masterful job of framing the Second Coming of a promise made by God. God’s made the promise to come again and set things right. Faith isn’t just believing ideas or signing on the dotted line. It’s believing God will keep that promise and orienting our lives, relationships and actions in the world accordingly. That’s a more biblical, I think, and certainly a more relevant way of thinking about the Second Coming than Hal Lindsay getting caught up in trying to read the ‘signs of the times.’

The series is over. We’ve talked about Heaven and Hell and Judgment and the Parousia. And already I’m getting a steady trickle of emails asking me the bottom line question:

Will everyone be saved? Or will some not be?

I’m flattered people think it’s a question I’m in a position to answer since presumably it’s a question only God can answer. My sermon on Hell (Hell is for Real) indicates that ‘No, not all will be saved…because we can freely choose to reject God.’

But admittedly that skirts the issue a bit. How do we think about the issue from God’s end? If no one chooses to reject God, then will everyone be saved?

Here’s my final answer.

It’s a question fraught with tension and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar (or not a very smart theologian). After all, inherent in the question is the tension between God’s gracious omnipotence and God’s merciful refusal to coerce love from his creatures.

Right- if God were willing to coerce the relationship he wanted with us, then the story of scripture could’ve been a hell of a lot shorter. What God wants though is authentic love and relationship and that can’t be forced. Can it be forced after this life ends?

But there’s the tension- logically if God desires love and relationship from us- salvation- then God will get what God wants. To say there is one of us God can’t save makes that person more powerful than God. If God desires loving relationship and God is all-powerful, then God could turn even the most resistant heart towards him.

Which is it?

We’ll have to wait and see.

Not having an answer for everyone else doesn’t change what God wants from you.

It doesn’t change how God made you: to love and desire him and his Kingdom.

Put it another way, Karl Barth’s (one of my Theo-Jedi Masters) way of putting it.

Scripture clearly tells us God came for everyone (John 3).

Scripture clearly tells us God died for all.

Scripture does not tell us that all will be saved.

We can’t say more than what scripture says.

But we can pray for it.

20121222_XHE004_0Some of you asked me that very question after my Hell sermon for our Razing Hell series. I didn’t have time to write up a response and, lucky duck, Scot McKnight beat me to it:

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The almost universal traditional view of hell in the Christian church is that it is a lake of fire, that it will last forever and ever and that the wicked will be conscious and tormented endlessly. So Edward Fudge, in his Hell: A Final Word , sketches what we find in the lake of fire text in Revelation.

The Lake of Fire in Revelation in Revelation 20:14-15

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. 15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

First, the lake of fire is probably related to Daniel 7′s river of fire, a fire that destroys evil world leaders (the Beast and the False Prophet).

Second, in Revelation the Beast, the False Prophet and Satan/Serpent are thrown into the Lake of Fire. The place for the unholy trinity of evil. They are “tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10). Only they are said in the Bible to be tormented endlessly.

Comment: Yes, Fudge is right; no one else is said to be tormented forever. But wicked humans are tossed into the same Lake of Fire in the next chapter. But Rev 14 has humans with much the same finality — humans, the smoke of their torment, endless.  More importantly, God is thereby now theologically and logically connected to endless torment. The unholy trinity may be upgradings of sin and evil and wickedness but they are still said to be tormented endlessly. Fudge appeals next to a human — Hanns Lilje — but this is an argument from a human or an authority or an experience. It doesn’t for me wipe away the glaring reality of an endless torment administered by God. The problem of endless torment is now officially connected to a theological problem.

Death is tossed into the Lake of Fire (20:14). Hades is tossed into the Lake of Fire (20:14).

The Lake of Fire is the Second Death. The death of the age to come. Lake of Fire is defined by Second Death, meaning that Second Death is the ruling image.  The two options are life (eternal, city of God) and death (final, second death, Lake of Fire). Humans enter the Lake of Fire, the Second Death: Rev 21:8.

So for Fudge all texts dealing with endless torment are explained, destruction is seen as the ruling image, Death is the outcome, and the absence of life is the outcome for the wicked. For Fudge the emphasis — undeniable — in the Bible is a fire that consumes or destroys, not a fire that purges or that torments. Edward Fudge makes the best case of anyone alive today for the annihilationist viewpoint.

We’re winding down our sermon series, Razing Hell, this weekend talking about the Second Coming.

When many people think of the Christian belief in the eschaton, last things, it’s the last judgment they have in mind. Many Christians have Michaelangelo’s grave depiction of the last judgment, in which an irate Christ rejects the damned at his feet and the martyrs surrounding Christ seem to delight in their torment, seared in to their minds.

Michaelangelo’s painting is evocative and beautiful in its way but biblical it is not. It’s true imagery of the last judgment populates a number of Jesus’ parables. Jesus speaks of judgment coming like thief in the night. He speaks the faithless being cast into darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Still, the sense of resentment, self-righteousness and revenge that animates much Christian preaching on judgment is antithetical to Jesus’ own preaching on it. Judgment in Jesus’ parables isn’t about what will happen one day. It’s meant to compel faithful behavior in the here and now.

Jesus’ judgment is not vindictive.

Yet neither does scripture give us a God who is smiling, doting old man. For as many Christians who erroneously espouse a resentful, vindictive God there are as many Christians who act as though God is not entitled to judge us.

God is, as Hebrews says, a consuming fire (12.28).

What gets lost too often is that the fire of God is the fire of loving judgment- a purifying fire. God’s judgment is not a closure on relationship with us; God’s judgment is the means by which God opens relationship with us. The Last Judgment is no different, theologically, than the judgment preached by the prophets or worked on the Cross. It’s a judgment in which our Sin- that which separates us from God- is burnt away.

As Gregory of Nyssa understood it, there’s no actual difference between the fire of God’s judgment and the light of God’s glory. It’s one and the same. It’s only our perception and experience of it that changes.

This is what separates the inhabitants of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The spectrum is marked by the extent people can stand to be in the light of God’s glory.

When it comes to belief in the Last Judgment is that at the end of time, all of us will be held to account (1 Corinthians 3). There is no distinction between believers and unbelievers, between the saved and the not-so-much. There is no easy, get-out rapture before the judgment. All of us will be held accountable for the mercy shown to us based on whether we too have been merciful to others (Matthew 25). Have we returned grace with grace?

The Christian hope is that we will all be judged but that the Judge is the Crucified Christ. The King who judges us is the one who died for us while we were sinners. This is a Judge determined not lose us.

 

This week we close our Razing Hell sermon series by talking about the Second Coming, probably the Christian doctrine most burdened by fanciful, unhelpful interpretations of scripture. Here’s NT Wright’s take:

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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This weekend for our Razing Hell we go backwards a bit to explore exactly what Christians have meant by Purgatory.

Here’s NT Wright’s quick reflection on Purgatory.

In my sermon on Sunday for our Razing Hell series I mentioned how many people I’ve encountered in ministry who’ve been damaged by Christians talking fast and loose about Hell.

One of the first pastoral visits I ever made was to an 80-something woman who was only days from dying. Her niece was somehow connected to someone in my church and asked that I stop by to see her. Still a seminary student, I didn’t really know what I was doing.

Long story short, I learned from the dying woman that 60 years earlier she stopped worshipping, stopped attending church, stopped practicing her faith all together, convinced God looked upon her with condemnation and would one day send her to Hell.

Why?

Because she’d divorced her husband and her priest told her matter of factly that she would go to Hell for it. And sixty some years hence she lay in an adjustable automatic bed on her enclosed porch, struggling to breath and swallow, but holding on to life because she feared the after life.

A corollary of God being the Word made flesh is that words matter.

What we say about Hell (and Heaven) can do harm.

This week NPR is doing a series of stories about the ‘Nones,’ those who report to pollsters that they identify with no religious tradition. The series is called ‘Losing Our Religion.‘ On Monday, the report included a young person who bailed on Christianity because of callous Christian speech about Hell.

Today, the report highlighted a widow who righteously rejected her faith after Christian peers tried to sugarcoat her grief by telling her that her dead husband was in a ‘better place.’

Here’s the transcript. Click here to listen to the story.

rich_man_and_lazarus

The Mile High Gliding facility at the Boulder Airport in Colorado is one of Carol Fiore’s favorite haunts. And it’s a perfect day for flying: clear, breezy and with a gorgeous view of the Rocky Mountains.

Fiore used to fly gliders regularly, but a few years ago she stopped. Flying them had become painful.

“I felt, in a way, that I was searching for something that wasn’t there,” Fiore says. “I was looking for that laughter and that incredible time that I had flying with Eric, and he wasn’t in the plane with me. I was by myself.”

Eric was Fiore’s husband for 20 years. After they married, he flew F-15s in the Air Force. Then the couple moved to Wichita, Kan., where he was a test pilot for the airplane manufacturer Bombardier.

On Oct. 10, 2000, the plane Eric was co-piloting crashed upon takeoff. When Fiore arrived at Via Christi Hospital, she learned that her husband had sustained burns over 50 percent of his body.

“Then I found out they had given him his last rites,” she says.

That wasn’t a surprise, since Via Christi is a Catholic hospital. But even after Fiore announced that Eric would not want anyone praying for him, a priest hovered and prayed, day after day. Finally, she kicked the priest out.

Bristling At ‘A Better Place’

“I think that was a turning point in the whole religion thing for me,” Fiore recalls. “That was the point when I said, ‘You know what?’ — and I told Eric this when he was laying there on the bed — I said, ‘Eric, I don’t care anymore that we have to pretend not to be atheist.’

” ‘We respected people’s religions our whole entire life and I can’t do it anymore,’ ” she told him. ” ‘People are going to respect you now, and you told me you didn’t want them praying over you, and that’s it.’ “

Fiore told everyone that she and Eric were atheists. And still, as he lingered near death for 36 days, people offered religious consolation. “God has a plan,” they told her. “Eric is going to a better place.”

“When he was in the hospital and they said that, he was lying in a bed with tubes coming out with 50 percent burns and no face,” Fiore says. “Is that a better place?”

Fiore continued to hear the sentiment after Eric’s death. “I’m an atheist,” she says. “Eric is in the ground, rotting. I know it sounds horrible to say that, but that is where he is. How is that a better place?”

After Eric’s funeral — which was held in an airplane hangar, not a church — Fiore was flailing. She was hardly able to take care of herself, much less her two young daughters. All the grief groups she found were attached to a church … so she tried the self-help section of Barnes & Noble.

“I was searching frantically for anything that would help me get through this,” Fiore recalls. “But everything I found had to do with God: putting your faith in God, believing that God had some sort of plan. I found nothing to help me.”

Fiore realized she would have to go it alone. She and her two girls moved from Wichita to Loveland, Colo., and as a coping mechanism, she began to write a book — not yet published — about her husband, as well as a grief workbook for atheists.

But mainly, it’s her daughters who give Eric’s tragic death some measure of meaning.

“I don’t believe in an afterlife and I don’t think I’ll see him anymore,” Fiore says. “But I just have to look in Tia’s eyes and hear her laugh, and hear Robin talk about history the same way that Eric did, and know that he is still there.”

Fiore’s daughter Robin, a student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, plans to go on to graduate school in science. She says she sees her father’s genetic influence in herself and in her sister.

“As an ecologist and as a scientist, we believe that when you die, your energy becomes part of a system again,” Robin says. “So there is a sense that he’s part of a system again. And in that way, I guess, people can never really be gone.”

And yet, her mother believes it’s harder for her to grieve because she’s an atheist.

When Mari Bailey’s son, Michael, was killed by an acquaintance in Phoenix in 2004, she lost not only her son but her faith as well.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty/NPR

“I often envy religious people who have that devout faith,” Fiore says. “They know that they’re going to see their … loved ones again when they die. But I don’t believe that. Sometimes, I wish I did.”

Faith Shaken, But Rarely Destroyed

This is a sentiment that Joanne Cacciatore, a professor at Arizona State University, hears often. After her baby died in 1994, Cacciatore started the MISS Foundation, a grief group for parents that has since extended nationwide. She also began focusing her research on how people grieve after a child dies.

Cacciatore says the group has observed that people with some type of spiritual base don’t necessarily cope more easily with the loss, but “they tend to take comfort or solace by the fact that they’ll be reunited with their child at some point,” she says.

Cacciatore says she’s seen nonbelievers embrace spirituality, and religious people wash their hands of God, in the aftermath of tragedy. But most often, she says, tragedy shakes your faith but doesn’t destroy it.

“What we find in the research — my own research and in other studies — is that their faith is generally challenged in some way,” she says. “And yet, they tend to come back full circle to a place of spiritual belief or faith.”

One theme is clear, Cacciatore says: Religious leaders are really bad at comforting people in grief. She surveyed more than 550 families, asking whom they found the most helpful during those first terrible days: first responders, doctors and nurses, social workers, psychologists, funeral directors or spiritual leaders.

“And of all of those, the spiritual leaders actually came in last,” she says.

This is something Mari Bailey can understand. She’s parked across from a brown stucco house in Phoenix. And while it isn’t her home, she knows it well.

“When you walk in, there’s a kitchen, a very small kitchen,” Bailey says. “And that’s where Michael was shot.”

Her only son, Michael, was 21, fresh out of the Navy and newly enrolled in culinary school when he was killed in that house in August 2004. Bailey’s last memory of her son is vivid, hopeful.

“Michael had changed into his chef’s uniform, with his checkered pants and poofy hat, and he looked so cute,” Bailey recalls. “He said, ‘Well, Mom, I’m ready for school.’ He said, ‘I love you,’ and gave me a big hug. And that was the last time I saw him fully conscious.”

After school, Michael went to a friend’s house. An acquaintance dropped by and started yelling and waving a gun around. He shot Michael close up, square in the chest.

“That was when my world just shattered,” Bailey says. Soon, her faith would follow.

‘I’m Alone In This … I Need To Save Myself’

After Michael died, Bailey sought solace at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, where she and her siblings were baptized and took their First Communion. The priest there told her, “We all have our crosses to bear,” and, “It was time for God to call Michael home.”

But Bailey thought a priest couldn’t possibly understand the pain of losing a child.

“I just remember thinking, ‘That’s it. I’m done with the Catholic religion,’ ” Bailey says. “I think it got more personal with God when I tried just praying on my own. Then I became more angry and I questioned, ‘Why do I need to be praying at all? Why is my son dead? And what kind of God lets a child be shot?’

“And, I think that was more me, not only just leaving the Catholic religion, but that was me leaving God, too,” Bailey says.

But that decision brought her no relief.

“It was hard. It was a really hard break from religion to, ‘Uh oh, what am I going to use to save me now?’ And I really came to the realization that, yeah, I’m alone in this and I need to save myself,” she says.

Bailey saved herself by learning everything she could about traumatic grief — the subject of her dissertation.

Education helps her, she says, because “even though you might be falling apart into a million pieces, you at least know why, and where you’re at in the process. And you also know what’s going to happen next, according to the research.”

The research suggests one of the best ways to heal is to help others. Bailey runs a grief group for students in the high school where she teaches, and another for parents whose pain is usually fresher than her own.

Bailey is also on the board of directors of Parents of Murdered Children, for which she leads a monthly meeting. At a recent gathering, mothers told of children whose end was too violent, too soon: a son killed in a random gunfight; a daughter killed by a burglar; a son killed by his cousin; a daughter killed by her jealous partner.

It is here, in the pain, that Bailey feels a little more whole. And yet, she can’t quite abandon the hope of seeing her son again.

“For the sake of Michael, I just need to believe that there is more to life beyond death,” she says. “Because if it’s not, than that means that my son’s life is over completely.”

Bailey wishes she could believe in God again. But, she says, “I just can’t.”