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Imagine Only Heaven

First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
Daniel E. H. Bryant
May 16, 2004

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

A prominent professor of preaching who teaches in an American seminary and wrote a thick book on the art of preaching, once gave a sermon on this text in which, noting the absence of the temple in the New Jerusalem, he dared to imagine a world "unthinkable as it might be" a world without, are you ready for this, without denominations. 

Well, whoop--tee--do.

Over six billion people in this world, 2/3 of them non-Christians, and the biggest vision we have for the Reign of God simply excludes them?

This is what I find the most amazing in this vision.  When we come to end of our Bible, after all of the attention it gives to the religious establishment from the first altar build by Abraham on down to the instructions given in 1st Timothy to the deacons and elders of the church, after all the debate over prayer in public schools and separation of church and state, after million and billions spent on church edifices like this one, after all the meetings, all the efforts to make the church what it is today, when we come to this grand vision of not the end of the world, but the completion of creation  begun in Genesis one, we find not only is there no temple, but the church we love so dear does not even get honorable mention!

No denominations.  Phooey.  How small-minded can we be?  You see it is not about temple or church or mosque, it's about religious institutions, the complete lack thereof and any need therefore.

Once again I remind you of the historical context in which the elder John received this vision on the island of Patmos at the end of the first century.  Jerusalem lay in ruins, the temple was completely dismantled and Christians along with Jews were swept up in the ensuing persecution.  Out of the ashes of that destruction arose the phoenix of John's vision "a new city, its glory beyond imagination, filled with gold and crystal, and its size beyond comprehension, 1,500 miles wide, 1,500 miles long and 1,500 miles high."  Remember, the space shuttle flies at what, some 600 miles above the earth?  (This is another clue not to take such things literally.) 

Whereas the heart of the old city is the temple, the heart of the new city is none other than God.  'I will write my law upon their heart,' says Jeremiah, 'and I will be their God and they will be my people.'  God will be so present, so overwhelmingly present, that we will have no need of temple, church, synagogue or mosque.  The whole city, the whole of humanity, will be the dwelling place of God.

Do you know that presence?  To use a phrase of Marcus Borg's, to be 'God-intoxicated', or filled with the Spirit?  Some of us know of it, we have known people who are so filled or we have read about such things, but we do not know it ourselves.  Some of us have known it, can recall a time when we filled that presence and the memory of it has stayed with us ever since. 

And a few among us seem able to dwell in that presence more often than not.  You know who they are.  They are those folk who seem always to be at peace with themselves and the world, not matter what is going on around them.  There can be total chaos but somehow they are able to stay calm.  Or there are those who truly are able to love everyone, who harbor only good will towards others no matter what others do to them.  And there are the true prophets of our world who are able to see right through the charades and pretensions we put on and thus are able to speak the Word of God by which we are simultaneously judged and saved when we take that Word to heart.  These are the ones who are 'God-intoxicated'.  There will be a time and a place, says the elder John, when that presence of God is known and felt by all.  And that presence will put an end to all war, death, crying, suffering and pain.

There was another prophet by the name of John who dared to imagine such a time and place.  This is how he described it in his revelation:

Imagine there's no heaven,
It's easy if you try.
No hell below us,
Above us only sky.

Imagine all the people,
Living for today.

Imagine there's no countries,
It isn't hard to do.
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too.

Imagine all the people,
Living life in peace.

Imagine no possession,
I wonder if you can.
No need for greed or hunger,
One family, one clan.[1]

Imagine all the people,
Sharing all the world.

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one.
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will live as one.

I used to be slightly offend by that song for it implies that religion is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  Well, that may be.  As I studied this text from Revelation of the New Jerusalem, I realized that it wasn't much different from John Lennon's 'Imagine.'  When we come to the end of Revelation, there is no more religion, there is simply God.  Where John of Patmos imagines only heaven, John the Lennon imagines no heaven, but they describe the same thing, no more death, no greed or hunger, and a world at peace living as one.  Where John the elder says there is no temple, John the Beatle says there is no religion; for both there is no more cause for division, nothing to kill or die for.

The more I study scripture, while simultaneously I get to know people of other faith traditions on the one hand and watch what is going on around the world on the other, the more I am convinced the answer to the turmoil we see is not to convince others that they need to believe as we do, the answer is to accept others as believing as they need to do.  That is not to say that all beliefs are created equal.  Clearly when one's beliefs leads one to harm others, be it by suicide bombings or humiliating prisoners in an Iraqi prison, then we must challenge the underlying assumptions of such beliefs.  One of my fears regarding the current investigation into the Abu Gharib scandal is that the basis for the abuse which occurred there will not be investigated.  I am convinced that the biggest problem is not what seven reservists did wrong, the biggest problem is what the domination system does to even the best soldier and the power of the beast that can corrupt any of us.

The real power of this vision of John's is not that all good Christians are united in this heavenly city, but that all nations can be found there, where there is nothing to kill or die for.  Earlier we read in Revelation 5 of a multitude too great to count, dressed in white robes, who come before the throne of God.  Anthropologists who study social movements and the growth of new religions tell us that by the end of the first century, there were probably about 10,000 Christians, a very countable number.  If John's vision was intended for those 10,000 believers, then clearly he too must have had a larger group in mind. 

Further, note that the gates of this new city are always open.  Anyone may come and go anytime they choose.  And the leaves of the tree of life, reminiscent of the tree in the Garden of Eden, are for the healing of the nations.  The only ones excluded are not those who do not profess correct beliefs, but those who do not live in the correct way.  Here they are described as those who practice abomination or falsehood.  Earlier they are described as the cowardly, faithless, polluted, murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and if that is not enough, liars.  We need not get hung up on specifics here, you know, if you tell a lie you'll be thrown into the lake of fire!  If so, we are all in big trouble. 

The point John is making is that there are consequences for our actions, unlike some in government, and we will be held accountable.  Therefore, let your life be guided by the power of the lamb, self-giving love.  This is the way of the lamb and those who live this way, who 'wash their robes in the blood of the lamb,' whose lives are guided by the two great commandments to love God with all of your heart, soul and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself, they are the ones who will be and who are the citizens of the New Jerusalem.

Can we, dare we, imagine a world where such 'lamb power'[2], such self-giving love, is the rule rather than the exception?  Where the way of the cross, the way of dying to this world and being born again to new life in the Spirit, is the way by which not only we are transformed, but the world is transformed.

It is not hard to imagine, especially when you realized that this way of surrendering to God as taught in Islam, of letting go of our attachments as taught in Buddhism, of dying to the world as taught in Taoism, or of being born of the Spirit as taught by Jesus, is common to all the great spiritual traditions.  If that is so, could we not, should we not, work together to create such a world where self-giving love is the way by which we all live?  What would such a world look like?  Can we imagine it?

The National Council of Churches has just issued a pastoral letter to churches, printed in your bulletin, which calls, in essence, for self-giving love to guide our foreign policy.  One of course we cannot speak of love in matters of national policy so the authors use more acceptable language, calling for an end to the cycle of violence in which we seem trapped and policies based on human rights and justice, rather than narrow self-interests.  These visionary leaders of the church dare to take the vision of the prophets seriously, when swords shall be beaten into plowshares and mourning, crying and pain will be no more.

Yes people of faith will have disagreements on national policy matters as the letter notes, but surely we can all agree that the call to be peacemakers is central to the vision of Jesus for us and to honor every person as a child of God means we must never associate violence against others with the will of God.  When such an understanding becomes the norm in this country, then the kind of abuse we have seen in Abu Gharib will be unthinkable.  Until it does, we will be caught in the unending exchange of an eye for an  eye that will only make us more blind than we were before.  What if instead we take Jesus seriously and begin to show real love for our enemies?  Can you imagine it?

President Bush went on Arab television last week, a gutsy thing to do.  I applaud his effort and do not mean this as criticism because I think he took a big step in the right direction.  But I just wish he had taken one more step.  As a born again Christian he knows the importance and value of asking for forgiveness.  What if, in addition to explaining why this abuse was not what we are about and that the perpetrators will be brought to justice, what if he had looked the camera and the Arab viewers in the eye and said, 'I am truly, deeply sorry for what we have done and ask for your forgiveness'?

Secretary Rumsfeld went to Iraq, went to that very prison of Abu Gharib, as he needed to do to bolster the morale of our troops who have been taking hits from all sides.  And the Secretary did apologize for what occurred there.  It was a big step in the right direction.  But again, I just wish he had taken one more.  What if he had gone personally to those prisoners and to their families and said, 'I am truly, deeply sorry for what we have done and I ask for your forgiveness'?

Is this not what we teach as our Christian duty?  If our leaders did such, would that not do more to change the hearts and minds of our enemies than bombs and bullets?  Would that not do more to redeem the death of Nick Berg and other innocent victims of this war than hunting down their killers and assassinating them?  Would that not be God's will done here on earth as in heaven?

You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.  If you agree with me, then I hope you will join us, but look not to our leaders, look to your own heart.  The vision of the New Jerusalem, of heaven on earth, begins with each of us.

[1] With apologies to John Lennon who originally wrote 'A brotherhood of man' but who undoubtedly would have used more inclusive language today.

[2] My thanks to Ward Ewing who coined this phrase and to Barbara Rossing who cites it in her new book, The Rapture Exposed.  See chapter 6.


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