Rev 21 / Psalm 148
Every good Christian knows that when you die, whoever is responsible for the eternal destiny of your immortal soul will get your name up on screen, and click on one of the following options: There will no doubt be the green button – the Green light is firstly for the non-existent folk who have lived a perfect, sinless life. However, if you have lived a life of debauchery, radical self-centredness, if you have committed genocide, if you have shoplifted, if you have been a 1970s television presenter, or voted labour or even if you have worked for a bank, you can be redeemed at any moment prior to being declared clinically dead – simply by doing an Alpha Course, going to confession, or having a death bed repentance. You can still get the green click: direct access to an eternity of bliss, everlasting paradise in the eternal realm of limitless chocolate and endless church music called ‘heaven’.
There may be a blue button – purgatorial option – for those who have committed only minor offences, but whose souls need to undergo several centuries of purging. If you were an estate agent, or a car dealer, or a Guardian reader – you can still make it into heaven, but only after you’ve been exposed to various forms of post-mortem medieval torture. At the end of it all, you’ll still gain access to heaven, even if you won’t be able to walk comfortably for the first few thousand years.
And finally – of course – the mouse could hover over the red button. That, after all, is where the majority of the human race are destined to spend eternity. In Hell, Hades, Gehenna, Sheol – a place of eternal torment and damnation run by a celestial Kim Yong Il.
Of course, there is no basis in scripture for any of this… I learned that at 13 years old when a Jehovah’s witness came to the door and warned me that there was nothing in the bible that spoke of Christians going to heaven. I promptly asked my parents what ‘the Bible’ was – and then set to reading it, all the way through. And the Jehovah’s witnesses were right – the traditional view of heaven as the final resting place of the tediously well behaved simply does not feature in the Christian Bible. There are one or two passages that seem to come close to saying this – but when you learn the language and context, the bible has nothing to say about human beings getting beamed up into heaven and the end of their days. The bible has very little to say about heaven – but it has a lot to say about resurrection.
This term, rather than follow a specific theme, we are working through the lectionary readings of the Church of England – readings designed to take us through the season of Easter where the focus seems to be very much upon what it means that “God is with Us”.
The storyline running through the books and letters of the Bible, concerns the question of whether God can keep his promise – in the first instance, his promise to bless Abraham with innumerable descendents - turning Israel into a great and powerful nation. The Old Testament sees the nation of Israel buffeted between the world’s great superpowers – and the possibility of Israel forming into a strong nation looking ever more unlikely. So when Jesus appears on the scene – he redefines what it means to be a nation descended from Abraham.
It is not your bloodline, but your faith that makes you a descendent of Abraham – and you don’t have to be Jewish to be related to Abraham. Jesus pointed even to a Roman centurion – claiming that the faith of this foreign leader of the occupying army surpassed any he had seen in Israel. As is well known, by the time we get to the Apostle Paul – Paul has opened up his mission well beyond the boundaries of Jewishness, identifying Gentiles too as part of the means by which God would fulfil his promise to Abraham. But by the time we get to John – the supposed author of revelation – the promise has been opened out to all people everywhere.
The book of Revelation, or the Apocalypse, as it is sometimes called – is one of the most widely misinterpreted texts in the history of literature. To most people, Revelation makes about as much sense as Lady Gaga’s posts on Twitter. Hardly surprising that Richard Dawkins regards it as the insane scribblings of Saint John on acid. But the book embraces a blend of literary genres which combine to produce what one scholar has called a ‘prophetic critique of the system of Roman Power. It is a critique which makes Revelation the most powerful piece of political resistance literature from the period of the early empire.’
The passage that we heard this evening, is probably the closest thing in the New Testament to an explicit discussion of afterlife. At the end, we read – it is not that human beings are miraculously teleported into heaven. Instead, it is God who comes to take up residence upon earth. Behold the dwelling place of God is with people! This is the God who makes everything new – the God who establishes a New Order, wiping away all tears, ending all suffering – an existence in which there is no more death. And that passage comes from the penultimate chapter of the entire sweep of literature that constitutes the Bible.
The book ends with the promise that this God is coming soon. Given that those words were penned almost two thousand years ago – it’s difficult to know quite what is meant by ‘soon’. I can’t help wondering whether it is the kind of ‘soon’ my son means when I ask him to abandon his xbox and join the rest of the family for tea. Or the Welsh expression, “I’ll be there now, in a minute.” But however we are to interpret this, the claim is not a universal doom and gloom end-of-the-world scenario. The book of Revelation ends with a claim about how the promise God made to Abraham all the way back in Genesis would be fulfilled.
The promise was that the world would be blessed through Abraham’s descendants – and those descendants would be as innumerable as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the earth. And if Jesus had redefined the boundaries of Israel to include many who were thought excluded, and Paul extended those boundaries still further to include Gentiles – then John universalises the scope of God’s blessing. The invitation at the end of the book of revelation, is to all the nations – to all people everywhere to enter into the Holy City and the drink from the waters of the River of Life.
This is why the Psalm that we heard is an invitation for every aspect of the created order to praise this God, the God who – on the one hand recognises the pain and suffering that are part of what it means to be alive in any conceivable sense. The God who has created a universe in which the energy of matter, is released into carnal form for every creature fortunate enough to have been alive. The universe in which everything that exists, is precious to the God who created it.
For most people, of course, that is not how we experience the world. Most mammals live under conditions of extreme stress, constant fear – and the probability of a violent death. And yet – to a persecuted minority under an oppressive empire – comes this promise in the book of Revelation – a book written by a resistance leader imprisoned in an obscure corner of the empire – a promise that God will make himself present to his people. What that means, and how that looks is the theme that we will address throughout the rest of the term.
Robinson College Chapel, 2013