“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.
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
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.”
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven … those who mourn, for they will be comforted … the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled … the merciful, for they will receive mercy … the pure in heart, for they will see God … the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Those of you whose tradition follows the Revised Common Lectionary may recognize the above Scripture passages as the Epistle and Gospel lessons for All Saints’ Day (Year A). Both of them contain depictions of “the saints”—in the first case, martyrs; in the second … well, Jesus could have been describing saints in heaven or on earth. Or both, which was probably his intention.
Several themes weave their way through those two readings. But the one that spoke most loudly to me on this particular All Saints’ Day was the theme of reconciliation. Of life in a realm where all things are made right. Where there is no more hunger, no more thirst, no more forced labour in the noonday sun. Here the poor in spirit rejoice with the meek and the persecuted, as earth becomes the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. Here, mourning stops because there is no more death. Weeping ceases, for there is no more sorrow. Here is the fulfillment of all that has been promised to the children of God.
Here, everything—and everyone—is reconciled, and all things are made new. Here is atonement—“at-one-ment”—as all divisions and borders and barriers fall away. And with one voice, saints and angels sing together:
Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honour
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! (REV. 7:12)
Reconciliation. Peace. Joy. Unity. Harmony. Because God’s people form one big, happy family … right?
Or, sometimes, not so much. Whether we’re talking about congregations or clans—or any other kind of human “family”—harmony is too rarely the correct descriptor.
Every family has its measure of discord—of conflicts and frictions, resentments and grudges. Over my years in pastoral ministry, I’ve watched families gathering for all sorts of reasons. And—not surprisingly, I guess—when the reason has been associated with severe illness or death, I’ve witnessed family dynamics at their best and at their worst. Maybe that’s because tragic circumstances tend to strip away our veneer of civility—thereby forcing the kind of emotional honesty most of us find terrifying under normal conditions.
Funerals and memorial services … and deathbed visits … they are, very often, occasions when rough feelings get smoothed out and crooked ways are made straight, when long-festering wounds get healed, and long-ago slights and insults are forgiven, and estranged people are reconciled.
But not always. And never completely. And let’s face it, one person’s saint is another person’s devil.
Yeah. Families. They’re peculiar. These days, we like to label them as dysfunctional. Which is a fancy way of saying that people just cannot—or will not—get along. It sets me to wondering what heaven is going to be like once all of the feuding siblings and sullen children and warring spouses and other adversaries arrive there. Will we like each other any better then?
How will souls be reconciled if they carry their grievances and resentments with them? And if they do that … how can it be heaven?
Maybe it isn’t.
Clive Staples Lewis (1898- 1963) was a British novelist, poet, academic, theologian, broadcaster, lecturer, and Christian apologist. He wrote many books. One of them is called The Great Divorce.
The Great Divorce is a work of fiction, wherein Lewis uses a dream motif to reflect on the Christian conceptions of Heaven and Hell. He begins by introducing us to a narrator, who is never identified.
The narrator finds himself in a grim and joyless city—the “grey town”—which is either Hell or Purgatory, depending on whether or not one stays there forever. Eventually, he comes across people who are boarding a bus. The bus is there to load passengers for an excursion to another place, which—we find out later—turns out to be the edge of Heaven. The narrator enters the bus and engages his fellow passengers in conversation. As they travel on, the people on the bus—including the narrator—are gradually revealed to be ghosts. When they arrive at their destination, the passengers disembark into the most beautiful country they have ever seen.
However, every feature of the landscape—including streams of water and rolling meadows—is unyieldingly solid compared to themselves. The land is material; they are not. And this is a huge problem. Even walking across blades of grass causes them excruciating pain, and a single leaf is much too heavy for any of them to lift.
Suddenly, luminescent figures—men and women whom they have known on Earth—come to meet them, urging them to repent and enter Heaven proper. They promise that as the ghosts travel onward and upward, they will become more and more solid, and thus feel less and less discomfort. These figures—who are called “spirits” to distinguish them from the ghosts—offer to guide them along the journey toward the mountains and the sunrise.
But here is an amazing thing: almost all of the ghosts choose instead to get back on board the bus, giving various reasons and excuses. What kind of reasons and excuses? Well, they sound very familiar.
An artist refuses to stay, after learning that he cannot sell his paintings in Heaven; a bitter cynic claims that Heaven is just a hoax; another is offended by the presence of people whom he considers undesirable; a nagging wife is upset because she will no longer be able to dominate her husband.
One man, however—who while on Earth had been enslaved by lust, which takes the form of an ugly lizard—permits an angel to destroy the reptile … which is then resurrected as a great and beautiful stallion. At the same time, the man is transformed into a shining being who mounts the horse and rides triumphantly into the everlasting dawn.
But he is a rare exception. The majority of the ghosts choose to return to the grey town. Why? Because—as it turns out—life in Hell is not that different from the life they led on Earth. Early in the story, as the narrator rides the bus, we hear the following exchange:
“It seems the deuce of a town,” I volunteered, “and that’s what I can’t understand. The parts of it that I saw were so empty. Was there once a much larger population?”
“Not at all,” said my neighbour. “The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarrelled so badly that he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarrelled with their neighbours—and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house.” *
This is the opposite of reconciliation. And this, according to Lewis, is a vision of Hell. It’s like a city that expands continually, as its citizens move further and further away from one another—all because they cannot get along. They are as quarrelsome in the grey town as they were on Earth.
Today, Jesus offers us, instead, a vision of Heaven. He also provides us with a travel brochure with tips about how to prepare for our destination. If we would receive mercy, we must show mercy. If we would see God, we must strive for purity of heart. If we would be God’s children, we must embrace peaceful living.
On All Saints’ Day—or any day we stand before our Lord’s banquet table—we should ask ourselves: is unity our heart’s desire? Is reconciliation something we truly want? And if we say it is …
What are we doing about it, right now? How are we actively pursuing reconciliation, here on Earth?
I wonder … will we heed the advice in Jesus’ travel brochure? Or … will we simply … get back on the bus?
* C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 9.