All Saints Sunday is one of the principal feast days of the church year, and on this day we focus our attention on this “liminal space” between the temporal and the eternal, between this world and the next, between the Church today, the Church across the ages, and the future Church toward which God is calling us. Through our music, prayers, and lessons, we are given the barest of glimpses into the coming Kingdom and the expansive fellowship of the saints in Christ.
One thing I’ve noticed about Episcopalians over the years, however, is that we often start to get just a little bit nervous when anyone starts talking about a life beyond this one. We’re all for listening to stories about Jesus, trying to love our neighbors as ourselves, seeking to promote justice, and building up an inclusive community; and we certainly love our beautiful music and pretty vestments; but resurrection and the future Kingdom of God? For many Episcopalians, that seems a topic better left to our evangelical brothers and sisters.
While I can relate to these feelings of discomfort, our faith at its core is a resurrection faith, and it behooves us, from time to time, to reflect thoughtfully – using the tools of Scripture, tradition, and reason – as to what we actually believe about our future life with God. For, truth be told, there are a lot of misconceptions in the broader culture about these matters. For example, I suspect that if you were to ask the average person on the street what Christians believe about life after death, he or she would say: we go to heaven. And if you asked this person what he or she means by ‘heaven,’ the answer you would likely get is that it is an ethereal place far removed from this earthly existence where we will be at one with God and others who have gone before us. On this popular view, when we die, our spirits or souls leave our bodies and this earth and we go to this other place for the rest of eternity. Our earthly existence, according to this conception, is a training ground for our more permanent home in the distinctly separate sphere of heaven.
While not exactly wrong, the trouble with this view is that it is insufficiently attentive to what the Bible actually teaches us about the relationship between this life and the next, between heaven and earth. Let’s start with our first lesson today from Revelation. If you read the Book of Revelation straight through from beginning to end, what you soon appreciate, especially when you get to chapters 21 and 22, is that the Christian hope for the future is not about people leaving earth and going to heaven, as the popular myth would have it. It is, rather, the exact opposite: the future that John foretells is of heaven coming down to earth, an eventual merger of these two spheres of existence. In John’s richly metaphorical language, the eschaton – the end of time – will be that age when the holy city of the “New Jerusalem” comes down from heaven and finally and ultimately transforms our earthly existence.
Thus, in today’s excerpt from Revelation, we hear John point us toward this fully integrated heaven and earth, this newly remade and redeemed world, in which “there is a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” where there will be no more hunger or thirst, and where “God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.” As John’s revelation explains it, the ultimate point of God’s creation of a heaven and an earth is not that earth serve as a training ground for heaven, but rather that heaven and earth are designed to overlap and interlock, and that one day they will do so fully and forever.
The Book of Revelation is not the only, or even the principal, place in the New Testament where we can find this view. As the great Biblical scholar Tom Wright points out, “When the New Testament speaks of God’s kingdom, it never, ever, refers to heaven pure and simple. It always refers to God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven.” The central text in support of this, of course, is our Lord’s Prayer, that prayer Jesus taught the disciples to pray above all others, and which we too will pray again in just a few minutes. And what Jesus teaches us to pray is quite specific: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Contrary to popular belief, the Christian faith is not “other-worldly”; it is very much “this-worldly.” It is all about bringing God’s Kingdom into reality in and through the gathered Body of Christ on earth.
Indeed, this view of the interlocking relationship between heaven and earth pervades Jesus’ life, teachings, and ministry. From beginning to end, Jesus’ core proclamation is that God’s Kingdom is not some distant and future reality, but it is, in some very real sense, already here in his person. We hear this message plainly today, when Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount with the famous Beatitudes. These ‘blessings’ describe the life of those who belong to the newly arrived Kingdom of God. Jesus invites his disciples to bear witness to this emerging Kingdom by organizing themselves around an unlikely, but ultimately life-giving, new set of values – humility, meekness, peacemaking, purity, a detachment from material things, perseverance in the face of adversity, a passion for justice, and a keen sensitivity to those who suffer.
As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas explains, “the Beatitudes are not a heroic ethic,” but instead they are “the constitution of a new people.” They are not so much a list of moral requirements as they are a description of a community gathered by and around a heavenly vision announced and embodied by Jesus. Hauerwas writes: “You cannot live by the demands of the Beatitudes on your own, but that is the point. Their demands are designed to make us depend upon God and one another.” (Hauerwas, 61).
Heaven, you see, is already here, at least in part, every time communities, like this one, gather to proclaim in word and deed Jesus’ vision of the New Jerusalem. And the implications of understanding this are huge.
For one thing, it becomes clear that God’s plan is not for us to escape this world to ascend to some distant heaven, as the popular myth would have it. Rather, God has sent His Son to this world for the express purpose of enlisting us, as his disciples, to make this world anew in the manner of heaven, and to live into the reality of this New Jerusalem. For too long, I’m afraid, the Church has acted as if its main order of business is to prepare people for some distant place called ‘heaven,’ such that the Church really needn’t worry about what’s happening on earth. That betrays Jesus’ message. Our task as church is to boldly embody what the New Jerusalem looks like, and to critique the broader culture at the pressure points, the places where society and governments drift away from the good order that God wills for his world.
It bears emphasis that we are not asked by Jesus to do this primarily as individuals. The Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims is a social and political reality. In some strands of American Christianity in particular, salvation is often portrayed in starkly individualistic terms: a question about an individual’s personal relationship with Jesus. Again, that is not a biblical view. While it is certainly fair to say that each of us is known and loved by God in our individuality, and cultivating a relationship with God is an important spiritual discipline, the biblical view of salvation, of resurrected life, of the New Jerusalem, is a distinctly social reality, a newly created community consisting of all peoples, nations and races. Contrary to popular belief, the Christian faith is not about individuals out to save their own souls, but about a beloved and ever-expanding community that faithfully strives to be redeemed and made anew.
As we renew our baptismal vows today, and welcome new friends into the faith, let us remember that we are called to boldly and creatively be Christ’s Body on earth. We have the awesome responsibility and great blessing to be His hands and feet, and His eyes and ears, as He seeks to heal this broken and troubled world. Let us not flee or ignore the challenges of this earthly existence in the hopes of a better future in some distant ‘heaven’; but instead, let us honor the lives of all the saints who have come before us by striving to become that New Jerusalem for whom our Lord gave His life, praying always: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”