Heaven on Earth (but not yet)

Readings
Revelation 21.1–6
John 13.31–35

 

The Lamb is leading us on an exodus out of the heart of empire, out of the heart of addiction to violence, greed, fear, an unjust lifestyle or whatever holds each of us most captive. It is an exodus we can experience each day. Tenderly, gently, the Lamb is guiding us to pastures of life and healing beside God’s river. — Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation

In this world we’re just beginning
To understand the miracle of living
Baby, I was afraid before
But I’m not afraid anymore
Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven love comes first
We’ll make heaven a place on earth

— Ellen Shipley/Richard W. Nowels

———————-

Preachers are often told they should stay out of politics, that religion and politics are two different things altogether. That’s because people rightly feel preachers shouldn’t tell you which party to vote for. Yet as the first ever NSW and ACT General Secretary Rev. Frank Butler once said, saying ‘these things matter’ should not be confused with ‘saying vote for politician x’.

Yet from time to time, we must comment on the political life of our country. How do I know that? The Bible tells me so. It tells me in quite a few places; one is the Book of Revelation. 

John the Visionary sees 

the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.… I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God.’ 

In his vision, John sees heaven coming down to earth. Of course it does! In his own model prayer, Jesus tells us to pray along these lines:

Your kingdom come,
your will be done
  on earth as in heaven…

Is seems that earth is the business of heaven, that heaven wants to be on earth. Or does the joy of heaven spill over to the earth? 

And where is heaven anyway? The ancients thought it was just above the sky, which was bounded by a dome over the earth. So God was ‘up there’, while we are down here.  

Earth as dome

Today, we know differently. The universe is vast, vaster than we can imagine. Einstein once said that he knew of only two things that were infinite: the universe, and human stupidity. But he wasn’t sure about the universe… 

Michael Battle, an African-American theologian, says:

My simple definition of heaven is this: where God is present. After all, heaven is God’s abode—where God hangs out. Should we desire heaven on earth? Yes, we should desire to hang out with God.

Heaven can be on earth. (I’ve had Belinda Carlisle’s 1987 song ‘(Ooh) Heaven is a place on earth’ as an ear worm all week. If you’re the right vintage, I may have given you the same ear worm. My apologies if so.) 

Heaven can be on earth—but so often it isn’t. The earth is good, it’s beautiful, but it’s scarred. Now more than ever. So we hear of riding sea levels, and Pacific nations vanishing. We have a United Nations report that warns of a million species at risk, and whole ecosystems collapsing. 

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An unexpected Lamb

Reading
Revelation 7.9–17

 

Scholars debate the origins of apocalyptic theology and literature, but its basic function seems fairly clear: to sustain the people of God, especially in times of crisis, particularly evil and oppression. Apocalyptic literature both expresses and creates hope by offering scathing critique of the oppressors, passionate exhortations to defiance (and sometimes even preparation for confrontation), and unfailing confidence in God’s ultimate defeat of the present evil. — Michael Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly 

———————-

Perhaps you’ve noticed we’ve been hearing from the Book of Revelation lately. You know, it’s been said that Christians can be divided into two groups: those who open Revelation as often as they can, and those who never open it at all. 

Many of us are tempted to be in the ‘Keep Revelation Closed’ group. But let’s take a peek inside today, shall we? You never know what you may find… 

Oh, but one thing you won’t find is a detailed prediction of what is going to happen in the near future. You won’t find whether Donald Trump is the Antichrist, or whether the rise of China was prophesied. 

What you will find is help ‘to sustain the people of God, especially in times of crisis, particularly evil and oppression’. (Michael Gorman, Reading Revelation Responsibly) Revelation is a book of hope: hope for a new future for God’s whole creation. 

So, let’s turn to today’s reading from Revelation. Did you pick up which character was mentioned most? Let’s hear part of it again. John, the visionary, writes:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ 

And then:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the centre of the throne
  will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs
  of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear
  from their eyes.

Who is the major character here? The Lamb. In fact, the Lamb is mentioned twenty nine times in the Book of Revelation. It is easily the most common way of referring to Jesus in Revelation. It’s even more common than the name Jesus itself! (‘Jesus’ occurs twelve times.) 

To really get why Jesus is the Lamb in Revelation, we need to go back a couple of chapters to chapter 5. 

There, John the Visionary sees a scroll that no one could open, and he becomes very sad. Then, he says,

one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals’. (Revelation 5.5)

A lion is a pretty scary beast. Let me tell you about the first time I came across a lion. 

I was ten, and it was my first long trip anywhere. It was a school outing, a day trip to Edinburgh. It was a whirlwind of a day, taking in Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood House, St Giles Cathedral, the Forth Rail Bridge, all the big Edinburgh touristy things… 

One stop was the Edinburgh Zoo. I’d never been to a zoo before. Now, you’ve got to realise it was 1964, and everyone still thought it was cool to keep animals in little concrete enclosures. 

I approached the lion enclosure. There were lots of people there, but I managed to squeeze through to the front. A lion, a male with a fabulous mane, was standing there looking right at us. 

So I decided that I would roar at the lion. I took a deep breath, and let out the biggest roar my ten-year old prepubescent body could possibly make. 

Well, the lion must have decided to teach this little pipsqueak a lesson. He let out the biggest roar I had ever heard. I was petrified! If I’d been a cartoon character my hair would have been standing on end.

I was very scared I’d get into trouble. So I beat a very quick retreat, to the general amusement of everyone else there. 

So, back to Revelation. John hears that a lion can help the situation. And not just any lion, but ‘the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David’, who has conquered. 

The Lion of the tribe of Judah is an Old Testament image of the Messiah, the Christ, the mighty anointed One of God. 

Well, John probably thought, we’re in business now! So he turned to see this great Lion, who could roar 10000 times louder than my Edinburgh lion. 

So, what does John see? He sees something so totally unexpected that nothing could prepare him. 

I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered…

He hears the all-conquering Lion has come…but he sees a Lamb. This is one of the most shocking reversals in the history of literature! John is told of a mighty Lion; his eyes fall upon a Lamb, standing but bearing the wounds of slaughter. 

We need to unpack this just a bit. 

Firstly, the Lamb itself. The word John the Visionary uses is the one for a little lamb, a lambkin if you want. ‘Mary had a little lamb’, if you like. 

This tiny Lamb isn’t a cute little thing though. Apart from bearing mortal wounds, he has seven eyes, which symbolise the fullness of the Holy Spirit. 

He also has seven horns, symbolising the fullness of power. But the power of the Lamb is very different from a lion’s power. 

As I found out in Edinburgh, a lion is very fierce. But I’ve never heard a lamb roar. I’d walk through a paddock of sheep, but I wouldn’t step into a lion’s space. 

John heard there was a lion, but he saw a lamb. I wonder how the Lion and Lamb are related? 

Both are images of the Messiah, the Christ. So is the Messiah sometimes a Lion and sometimes a Lamb? 

If you google for images of the Lamb in Revelation, it’s easy to get images of the Lion too. There’s one in which Jesus is standing between the Lamb and the Lion. Does Jesus balance the Lion and the Lamb, like yin and yang? Is Jesus a kind of mediating principle

Did Jesus die a Lamb, but rise a Lion?

Was he perhaps a Lion in the Old Testament and a Lamb in the New?

Is he maybe a Lion to unbelievers and bad people and a Lamb to people like us?

Is he a Lamb now, but one day he’ll come back as a Lion to punish the wicked?

None of that will do. John hears there’s a Lion. What he sees is the Lamb. And while the Lamb is mentioned twenty nine times in Revelation, this is the first and last time we hear of the Lion of Judah. The Lion disappears after this. 

Say it how you like: the Lion is the Lamb. The Lamb subverts the Lion. The Lion fades away, the Lamb remains. 

The power of this Lamb is the power of innocent suffering. The way of this Lamb is non-violence. The Lamb suffers that mortal wound to bring peace. 

We spoke of the wounded God a couple of weeks ago. Here is the wounded God once more. But we have a problem: it’s very hard to let go of the Lion!

Let me put it another way.

If you were given a choice, which Messiah would you rather have? The Lion or the Lamb? Be honest. Would you have straightforward power of the Lion, or the hard-to-grasp power of the suffering Lamb?

If you still can’t make your mind up, think about the Federal Election next Saturday.  

Untitled

Who would you vote for? The Lion Party, with its proud, majestic beast protecting you? Or the Lamb Party, with a mortally wounded little lambkin? What could the Lamb Party even do?

Who would you vote for? Those who control the agenda through the use of power, even force, or those who are willing to work so that others can know liberation? 

And do we even have that choice? 

John was expecting a Lion, but he got a Lamb. A slain-yet-standing Lamb. I’m not sure how John felt; I’m sure he was surprised. But was he disappointed? Or did it all make sense of the cross? Did it show that in times of hardship or even persecution, God’s people are to take the way of the Lamb? 

What kind of church are we? We are a church of the Lamb. We seek to bring life and hope into dark and cramped places. We seek to do it in the Name and in the Spirit of Jesus, the risen crucified One. We seek to do it with gentleness and care. 

When we gather next week, the election will be over. In the lead up, let us pray that the Australian Government may not stand in the way of the coming kingdom, and that God’s will may be done on earth as in heaven. 

 

West End Uniting Church, 12 May 2019

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The Lord of second chances

Reading
John 21.1–19

 

In contrast to Adam, Peter does not allow his shame to stop him from moving toward the one he loves. Peter does not hide any longer in shame but leaps toward the risen one in joyful desire. — Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol.3 

At dawn and for the third time, the disciples travel the path from ignorance to knowledge, belief, and fellowship with the Lord. Believers yet to come will share this path, despite their geographical and chronological distance from the disciples’ experience. At first Jesus is seen, but not known; the disciples hear him, but do not know the voice of their shepherd—yet (10: 27). — Feasting on the Gospels, John Vol.2

———————-

Did you notice how today‘s Gospel Reading began? 

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias [Galilee]…

It was early dawn. Seven disciples, led by Peter, had gone back fishing. They’d had a fruitless night. In the half light, they see someone asking if they’d caught anything, and suggesting they throw out the net on the other side of the boat. They do so, and catch a massive haul of fish. 

Does that ring a bell? 

Think back to the early days of Jesus’ ministry, when it was all starting out. Luke tells us that Jesus was standing by the Sea of Galilee, and saw two boats:

[Jesus] got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets’. When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signalled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken… (Luke 5.3–9)

Does it ring a bell now?

Jesus first calls Peter to discipleship on an ordinary day that became very extraordinary. Maybe this time, Peter needs to do something ordinary to get his head around what had happened, this whole resurrection thing… But now, again, something extraordinary happens. Jesus, the risen One is there, once more. 

And he’s grilled some fish for breakfast! Breakfast is such an ordinary thing, but—Jesus is the cook. 

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The Wounded God is the Risen God

Reading
John 20.19–31

The gospels invite the reader to inhabit a narrative space so as to be reformed in imagination and desire. ‘Written so that you may believe’ (John 20: 31), they extend to the reader an invitation that, whether it elicits a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, is radically self-involving. Its proclamation demands much more than an intellectual consideration. It is a summons to participate in a particular form of life, to become a ‘new creation’ in Christ. — Brian Robinette, Grammars of Resurrection 

The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and the mythological hope is that the former sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way which is even more sharply defined than it is in the Old Testament. The Christian, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, has no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but, like Christ himself (‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’), he must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in his doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with him, and he crucified and risen with Christ. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

———————-

On Anzac Day, I began to reflect on wounds and woundedness. And a memory from my childhood surfaced.

In the bible’s famous ‘love chapter’, 1 Corinthians 13, St Paul says:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

I’m going to tell you a story from when I was a child, and thought like a child. I was born in 1953, and the adults around me were nowhere near over the Second World War. Rationing hadn’t completely finished in England when I was born, but I’m speaking of course about the psychological effects on ‘my’ adults. 

My dad used to talk about being in the Royal Navy. When I asked him what he did in the Navy, he told me he was a gunner. So I would ask him how many German planes he’d shot down, and every time he would give me this one-word answer: ‘None’. 

I couldn’t believe it. My dad must have shot down hundreds of German planes! He was being modest, I thought. 

When I was old enough, I realised that since my dad was born in 1931, he wasn’t old enough to have fought in World War Two. He joined the Navy as soon as he could, but it was after the war. Dad was telling the truth: he didn’t shoot down one single German plane.

As I thought like a child, my first reaction was disappointment. Thank goodness we are given the opportunity to think as adults. 

Yet as a child, and because I thought as a child, I wanted my dad to have shot down German planes. I didn’t even realise that may have meant German airmen being wounded, or dying. 

Today’s Gospel Reading is about a perennial favourite of mine, Thomas. ‘Doubting’ Thomas. 

(Let’s get one thing out of the way; it’s ok to doubt and even better to open up to someone about it, but Doubting Thomas wasn’t doubting. The thing is, when Thomas committed himself to something he threw himself right in there. So he wasn’t going to commit to what the others had said about Jesus being raised from death unless he saw for himself.)

So I don’t want to talk about his so-called doubts, but about him and his God. This is the amazing thing: Thomas’ God was wounded. 

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Called by Name

Reading
John 20.1–18

 

Mine is a personal story of an unexpected and terribly inconvenient Christian conversion, told by a very unlikely convert: a blue-state, secular intellectual; a lesbian; a left-wing journalist with a habit of skepticism.… as well as an intimate memoir of personal conversion, mine is a political story. At a moment when right-wing American Christianity is ascendant, when religion worldwide is rife with fundamentalism and exclusionary ideological crusades, I stumbled into a radically inclusive faith centred on sacraments and action.… 

I still can’t explain my first communion. It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: I felt as if I had just stepped off a curb or been knocked over, painlessly, from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening—I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening—the piece of bread was the ‘body’ of ‘Christ’, a patently untrue or at best metaphorical statement; and what I knew was happening—God, named ‘Christ’ or ‘Jesus’, was real, and in my mouth—utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry. — Sara Miles, Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion

Mary’s announcement to the disciples of what she experienced in the garden has great significance for this Gospel and for preaching. She does not offer the disciples a third-person, impersonal, doctrinal statement about Jesus’ resurrection, much like our liturgical responses at Easter, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” Rather, it is a first-person testimony, a witness to what she has experienced. She gives voice again to that which is so critical for this Gospel, one’s own experience and encounter with Jesus so as to recognise who Jesus is. Mary’s proclamation is not only a witness to her encounter with the resurrected Jesus but also an interpretation of it. She realises that for Jesus to be raised from the dead is also an assertion about her own resurrection, her own future. — Karoline Lewis, John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries)

———————-

‘Christ is risen indeed!’ I sincerely believe it. Let me tell you why. 

I was living here in West End, thirty six years ago, working and studying, and also living as part of the House of Freedom, a Christian community that some of you will remember and some others may have heard of.

I had first made a decision to follow Jesus at the age of fourteen. And I had stayed the course. I had remained a person of faith, even though what I believed had taken some twists and turns along the way. 

You see, I had started my regular church life by going to my best friend at school’s church, which turned out to be a bit of a fundamentalist hothouse. I often felt inadequate there, like I wasn’t doing enough to please God. 

So it may not sound so strange that when I was living here in West End, thirty six years ago, fifteen years after I had first decided to become a Christian, I was losing my sense of being a person of faith. 

What is faith? Christian Wiman says 

Faith is nothing more—but how much this is—than a motion of the soul toward God.

‘Faith is nothing more…than a motion of the soul toward God.’ (Or, he wonders, is it a motion of God toward the soul? Who knows?)

Whatever; my soul was no longer being moved by God. My faith was tired and my focus was elsewhere, in my work. In the evangelical hothouse that had been my church, I’d had difficulties with my faith a few times. But this time, it was different. 

Before, I had been distressed when I was doubting my faith. This time, here in West End in 1983, I realised that I didn’t much care that my faith was slipping away. 

I told one or two friends, but really I thought: if faith was that easy to lose, what’s the point? I might as well lose it. 

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The Mind of Christ

Readings
Philippians 2.5–11
Luke 23.1–49

______________________

…the Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture, is really about death and resurrection. It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small. — Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix

Jesus’ whole life is a life that moves from action—from being in control, preaching, teaching, performing miracles—to Passion, in which everything is done to him. He is arrested, whipped, crowned with thorns and nailed to the cross. All this is done to him. The fulfilment of Jesus’ life on earth is not what he did but rather what was done to him. Passion. — Henri Nouwen, From Fear To Love: Lenten Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son

______________________

I once spent a week in Timor Leste, East Timor. A week is not a very long time; I don’t claim any expertise in the culture or politics of Timor Leste. But I was there at a very interesting time.

It was February 1998, just over a year before the East Timorese people won their independence from Indonesia. While I was there for this short time, Timor Leste was occupied by Indonesian armed forces. 

I was there to talk with people of the Protestant Church there about my then congregation’s support for young people in tertiary education there. I was with a man who had made the trip several times before and who spoke Indonesian fluently. 

Because I was with him, and also because I am a minister, I found myself in a trusted position. 

I learnt a few things about living under occupation forces that week. Things that Jesus and his contemporaries may have experienced too. 

I learned that while the Timorese people appeared to be relaxed and happy, this was very much a veneer. Their smiles didn’t always meet their eyes. Under the surface, there was a pervasive anxiety that infected everyone. 

I stayed at a hotel in the capital, Dili. There, the staff all belonged to the Indonesian occupying forces. They weren’t in uniform—it was supposed to be a secret—but everyone knew. One day, we were due to speak with some of the locals at the hotel; I started to head for a table in the dining room. My friend suggested we go out into the garden to talk. Why did we go out into the open air? There were bugging devices in the dining room. We didn’t want our conversations recorded by the occupying forces. 

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We’ve got Marriage Equality, so why am I not satisfied?

Readings
Exodus 15.19-20; 16.1-3
Luke 15.1–3, 11b–32

Last Sunday we welcomed Pastor Alex Pittaway, who brought the message to us. Alex is Pastor of MCC, the Metropolitan Community Church in Brisbane—a church that has for 40 years been a safe haven for the LGBTIQ community. He is also recognised by the Uniting Church in Queensland as a Chaplain at Emmanuel College at the University of Queensland. Alex describes himself as a progressive evangelical and is passionate about Jesus, social justice, the environment and combating LGBTIQ bullying in schools.

It was a delight to have him with us. Here is his sermon:

___________________

Good morning. Would you pray with me? 

I’d like to start by thanking Ariel and Rev. Paul Walton for this invitation to speak here this morning. You have a wonderful congregation that has shined the light of the inclusive Gospel of Jesus for so many years not just for the LBGTIQ community but anyone who has experienced marginalisation for so many years. 

This morning I’d like to share with you my own experiences about what it means to be part of the LGBTIQ community from a Christian perspective. I want to start by acknowledging my own limitations: I speak as an educated, privileged, anglo-saxon male who does not have to experience the realities of living as a person of colour or as a person with a diverse gender expression. Never the less I’d like to share some heartfelt experiences backed up with some solid research as we ponder what comes next for LGBTIQ inclusion now that marriage equality is a reality and that most legal discrimination against the LGBTIQ community is gone. We have never lived, in Australia at least, in a better time to be LGBTIQ. Yet why do I feel, despite all these advances, that something is not right. I don’t pretend to speak for the entire community, but I do want to speak for myself. 

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