Fifth Sunday of Easter
Texts: Revelation 21:1-6 and John 13:31-35
I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven … Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. (Rev. 21:2, 4b)
How many of you like to go to the movies? Did any of you see Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? How about Moonfall (the newest Halle Berry film)?
It strikes me that, for the longest time, North American movie-goers have had a real obsession with science fiction. Looking back over the half-decade, we recall titles like:
- Dune (2021)
- Underwater (2020)
- I Am Mother (2019)
- Annihilation (2018); and, of course,
- Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017).
Why do we love these movies so much? I wonder if part of the reason has to do with the harsh realities of the actual world in which we live. Good people suffer. Children die. Admired leaders in church and state turn out to be untrustworthy. Many of us worry about how secure our jobs are—and many of us don’t have jobs. We are surrounded by war and disaster, famine and disease and looming environmental catastrophe.
I remember that when I was a little boy, my grandmother once told me that she sometimes thought this world was hell. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realize that—in a way—she was right. Life is a hard thing. It is no wonder that we seek an alternate reality upon which to project our hopes for the future. Who among us cannot assemble a list of the past year’s tragedies and losses?
Collectively, we are desperate for reassurance, for some testimony to goodness—for something to offset our shock and dismay, our sense of hopelessness toward our human condition. We have not experienced collapse, but we live in expectation of collapse. In such a world, it is easy to become discouraged—or even to despair.
It is easy to think that God has forgotten us. Our faith tells us that Christ is Lord and King of the world—but our experience makes us wonder why he doesn’t act on behalf of his people. And so, we are left with a tension between our faith and our experience.
The book of Revelation addresses precisely that tension. It was written to give hope to a people who felt that their God had forgotten them. They were oppressed and persecuted in the Roman Empire because they placed Jesus as Lord above the empire—and above the emperor. This experience of persecution and oppression and daily poverty ran counter to their conviction that God—in Christ—does indeed prevail.
To encourage and strengthen his fellow Christians, the author (traditionally, John the Apostle) presents to this disheartened people an entirely new future with possibilities greater than any they had ever imagined. He describes this future in terms of a “new earth,” one very different from the earth we know and experience.
It is a world transformed—so totally transformed that it is “heaven.” In this world there is no destructive or oppressive power, and no reason to shed tears. The world is entirely at peace and there is no death. The transformation to “heaven on earth” is God’s act, for God proclaims, “See, I am making all things new.” It rests upon God’s choice to be with us:
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” (Rev. 21:3)
Transformation happens when God comes to our world and exercises power—just as if this world were heaven! God’s coming is the event which liberates the world. This vision holds out hope for our future, even as it did for the Christians of the first century. Like them, we are still moving toward a future that has not yet fully come upon us—the long-awaited return of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Part of what John’s community was waiting for is what we are still waiting for. On every front—global, local, and within each of our hearts—we can see that evil has not been overcome. Neither have all tears been wiped away. Violence and injustice yet prevail. We have not ceased mourning, and we have not yet stood together in the presence of God.
But there is another aspect to all this talk of a new earth—something more than a hope for the future. Consider today’s gospel reading—also, traditionally, from John’s pen. Here, Jesus assures his disciples that his death is not an ending, but a return to the One he called “Father.”
And here, God’s power to transform is revealed in the glorification of Jesus. In this unparalleled act, God is unveiled as a God of power—One whose power is expressed not so much in terms of force as in terms of love. This is a God who can overcome the deadliness of death. And this is a God who has done exactly that!
This glorification is God’s act—but it is God’s act in this world, on the body of Jesus Christ. This action on the body of the One who was crucified has a twofold significance. On the one hand, God’s action moved Jesus into a new dimension of existence. But on the other hand, we see that Jesus remains—in a very real sense—entirely in this world. It is not that Jesus “goes up” to heaven, but that his resurrected body is transformed. His body itself becomes heaven.
Is that confusing? Think of it like this. Remember that the church—which is you and me—is called “the body of Christ.” It is made up of faithful people—not perfect people, but people who have faith, who have their hope and their peace in Christ. Together, we make up this body. It is that portion of this world that has been taken up into the life of God. The church is the place where Christ dwells in the midst of his people; he is lodged in us—we who are his body.
For we who believe in Christ, his coming into history—and his death and his resurrection—have signalled the beginning of the end of the world as we know it. A self-evident, common-sense interpretation of this world no longer holds. We are summoned to decide whether or not we will see reality from God’s vantage point.
Scripture directs our thoughts—uncomfortably, to be sure—to the judgment that has already come upon us:
“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)
The unmistakable sign that God has already claimed the earth is the love—the visible, demonstrable love—that we have for each other. We are summoned to witness to the transforming power of God, then, not in escape from this world, but precisely within this wounded world of time and space.
We can only witness to God’s power in the terrible order of freedom, in which we allow ourselves to become instruments of God’s saving love. Once, that love was incarnate in Jesus alone—now, it lives and breathes in Jesus and in us. Jesus came announcing “the time of fulfillment.” In that fullness of time, that hour and day of the Lord, we are strangely privileged to live. It is our calling to work for justice and for peace on earth. It is our calling to seek reconciliation, and wholeness, and healing. That is God’s will for us, living as we do in the fullness of time—in the risen Christ’s own time, in the age of the Holy Spirit.
Our comfort in the face of tragedy and loss cannot be escape from this world. Rather, it is the promise and gift of the risen Lord—the assurance that something lasting, something permanently worthwhile, is being formed now. It is being formed at the core of our personal histories, and at the heart of this redeemed world.
What a time to be alive! Thanks be to God. Amen.