Year A, All Saints
When I was a child I asked my parents what heaven looked like. They told me to imagine whatever it was that I loved and that would be heaven. I figured that it would have to look cloud-like, so I imagined heaven completely made of marshmallows. To this day, when I think of the physical place of heaven, I see marshmallows. Most of us have some view of heaven in our heads, usually formed by what we see on TV or how it is described in a book. The Simpsons, a long running cartoon, depicted heaven as divided into Catholic and Protestant sections. The Protestant section looked a bit like a country club with people playing badminton and croquet. The Catholic one looked like a big party with dancing, piñatas, and music. Jesus was in the Catholic heaven having a blast. While I cannot say this for sure, I am fairly confident that heaven is probably nothing like my childhood marshmallowy paradise nor the cartoon version depicted in the Simpsons. That’s probably a good thing because while any one of these places might be fun for a couple of days, eternity would be a long time to play badminton or eat marshmallows.
The reason there are so many diverse views of heaven and why people feel so comfortable depicting it with artistic license is because the Bible doesn’t provide a great deal of clarity about heaven. We hear references to heaven throughout the Bible, but there is no clear description. There is no St. Peter at a gate determining who gets in. It’s not full of chubby little cherubs on clouds playing the harp. If you want to find the most detailed description of heaven, you go to the Book of Revelation.
But if you are anything like me, you might find Revelation to be a little confounding. It is very different from the rest of the Bible. The writing is what we call apocalyptic because it is about the end of time. And frankly, no one I know in the Episcopal Church likes to talk about the end times. We leave that to other Christian groups and then we tend to judge them for their preoccupation with the end times.
I confess that I am not very comfortable with the Book of Revelation. I never have been. The imagery sounds bizarre to me. Consider the reading we had today: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” Why would people be washing their robes in blood and what is the deal with the lamb? It makes no sense.
Revelation depends heavily on symbolism and numerology. You all know what 666 is; that comes from Revelation. Revelation is believed to be written from a vision that John had and decided to share with the Christian community. It contains vivid and often disturbing images: a great deal of blood, locusts with human faces, horsemen, dragons, famine, destruction, and so much more. The more I read it, the more confused I get.
Confusion is not necessarily a bad response to the Bible, especially the Bible as it pertains to end times. Jesus was evasive about the end of the world. In fact, there were a lot of answers that he did not give. I often think that if I had Jesus in the flesh with me in my day to day life, I could get a lot cleared up. I would not have all this confusion about things like the Book of Revelation. But even with his disciples, he did not always explain these things in detail. He said that some things would not be revealed until later. The author of 1 John was pretty clear about this as well. He wrote, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” What we will be has not yet been revealed…
Christians are often criticized for focusing too much on heaven and not enough on earth. The criticism states that by focusing on what comes next, we have an excuse to be lazy because we can say something like, “well we don’t need to help those people now because what happens on earth is temporary and we need to focus on getting these people into heaven.” Perhaps we are occasionally guilty of that. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the horrible things that are going on in the world. This is especially true now when we know about every horrible thing happening everywhere because of 24 hour news and social media. It is tempting to throw up our hands and say, “Let’s put our hope in the life that is to come.” The world as we know it, a world saturated with violence, hatred, disease, starvation, self-indulgence, etc…is more than we can possibly process.
But we can’t take the easy way out because as the author of 1st John says, we are children of God now. And not only are we children of God, but all those people who are suffering here and abroad are children of God as well…now. Sometimes we forget that these words are not just written for us. They are written for everyone. While I struggle with much of the imagery in Revelation, there is some that is quite profound and beautiful. “After this I, John, 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…” Who cares what heaven looks like? What matters is not whether the streets are paved with gold or marshmallows, but the fact that God wants everyone there. There is no discrimination, no bigotry…people of every nation, every race will be gathered at the throne of God because we are all children of God…right now.
It’s hard to picture that in our head given that Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week. But it was probably even more difficult to imagine in Israel in the 1st century when people of different faiths and ethnicities could not even speak to one another. It was practically a caste system there was so much segregation. People were truly separated into tribes and those tribes were often enemies. But that was not the vision that God gave John. The vision that God gave John was a great multitude, from every nation… At the time, that probably sounded crazier than locusts with human faces, dragons or lakes of fire.
In some ways it is. In this day and age, the most fantastic things can be portrayed in movies and video games. If you can imagine it, it can appear. Yet no one even bothers to imagine the vision of all the people of the world…of every color, every heritage, every nation, every socioeconomic status gathered at the throne of God. I wonder if we are scared to imagine. We don’t mind imagining dragons and great battles in space because we can’t do anything about those things. But we can do something about bringing people together. We can do something about sharing the love of God with our neighbors.
“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” I do not like the imagery of animal blood. However, when this text talks about blood of the lamb, the lamb is Jesus Christ. It is referencing how Jesus was sacrificed. The people washed their robes not in their blood, but in the blood of Jesus Christ. He was sacrificed for all. So while we all have unique DNA and different blood types, we all share in the same blood, the same body of Christ. We are not one nation under God. We are one world, one universe under God. That is what heaven looks like. We can start working on that here on earth and here at St. John’s…we can start working on that right now.