Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Nov 1, 2020 ~ All Saints Day
Revelation 7: 9-17
In this time of pandemic, as much as anything else, we’ve been inevitably caught up in a conversation that has a lot to do with death. It’s a conversation we’re all familiar with so today we won’t talk about that. What we’ll talk about is life. Eternal life. The thing that makes us cry out with Paul, “Death, where is thy victory? Grave, where thy sting?”
Often we look forward to eternal life after death, the day when at last we are in eternity with God who loves us and knows us fully and completely and we live into the fulness of who God has created us to be. We look forward to it because we know our limitations in this present life and we are aware that our lives are short, and also because we long to be with our Lord.
But today I’d like us to look backward from it—to look at our lives from the perspective of people who are guaranteed eternal life after death. We who believe, and very likely many who do not believe, are guaranteed everlasting life in God’s Kingdom. That guarantee is unshakeable. It is not based on anything you or I do, and it can’t be undone by anything you or I do. It’s not based on our virtues or vices. It is based on the infinite, overwhelming, unchangeable and eternal love of God.
Our passage from Revelation gives us a short but important list of the qualities of that eternal life. In the Kingdom, we stand before the throne of the Lamb. That is symbolic language that means we have direct access to God.
We’ll be worshipping the Lord day and night in the Temple. Heaven knows that sounds boring. I often think of the scene in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Aunt Polly is trying to convince Huck to follow the straight and narrow. She tells him if he does he’ll go to heaven. He asks her what that means and she says he’ll have angel wings and play a harp and that heaven will be like church. To which he replies, “If that’s the way heaven’s gonna be, I want to go to the other place!” Which doesn’t please Aunt Polly much but given her answer, you can understand his perspective.
But the way that the Bible means “worship” is a reminder of what worship on earth is supposed to be, but can only hint at. Worship in God’s Kingdom is two things: It is directly being in the living presence of God and being one with God. Even the best of human worship can only hint at these things. We try to attain something of the living presence of God through the Lord’s Supper and through the overall atmosphere of the sanctuary and worship itself. For instance, at St. Stephen our magnificent sanctuary and music can do a really good job of conveying the awe, wonder, and majesty of God. Awe, majesty and wonder are definitely what you and I will feel standing in the presence of God in eternity. But even our best effort here on earth is
barely even a hint of the measure of awe we will REALLY experience in that eternal day.
It’s the same with the idea of oneness with God. Oneness with God the true virtue and meaning of life after death. God longs for deep, passionate relationship with us. And though we often don’t know it, and often life distracts us from it, you and I long for the same deep, passionate relationship with God. The Bible directs us to what that relationship is meant to be like through beautiful metaphors: father or mother to child, an eagle to its nestlings, a married couple or two people in love, and so on. Likewise the real-life experiences of those very things point us to the even deeper true and fulfilled experience of God as parent, lover, and friend.
Again, worship tries to get at those things through the fellowship we experience, through the metaphors of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, through words and music that touch our soul. It may be that at moments, we experience something close to oneness with God in worship. More likely, worship lays the groundwork for our experiencing closeness to God in other ways.
If we were to take a poll right now of the times you and I have felt we were closest to God, the answers would be as varied as the audience for this webcast. Worship in church lays the foundation for how we worship beyond the church’s doors, in our lives.
Some of you have felt especially close to God at times of loss and suffering—this our scripture hints at when it assures us that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” and “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” We find a sense of closeness to God through the comfort God provides, or through feeling we are one with Jesus in his suffering.
Others have felt closeness to God in times of joy. For me a distinctly memorable moment was the birth of our first child, Sara Caitlin. I was awed by Margaret’s courage and joy and the whole process of mothering and birthing, and by watching the whole thing happen, and then by this small amazing creature we’d produced together. That combination of awe, appreciation, oneness with Margaret in parenting, and the joy of this amazing new creature was an incredible fraction of the tiniest hint of what being in the living presence of God will be like.
Others have felt that closeness in times of prayer, meditation or reflection. Still others have experienced it in times of deep fellowship and communion with close friends. I know many people who were part of strong fellowship groups at some point in their lives and for them these groups were an amazing experience of the love and grace and fellowship and oneness with God that we were made for and will experience fully in the world to come.
Still others experience a sense of closeness with God through generosity and self-sacrifice. This directs us toward
the unique witness of the life of Jesus Christ, because Jesus shows us how to live in close relationship to God even while we’re still just bone machines walking the earth. He told us that the key way to follow and find oneness with God is through losing ourselves to find ourselves, through putting selfishness on the back-burner and loving neighbor as if our neighbor was ourselves.
This isn’t the same as just submerging one’s personality and self into what others want. I have a friend who runs a non- profit. She said that when she started in the business, she was often too self-effacing, too conciliatory, too worried about hurting other people’s feelings or acting like a know- it-all. This is often true of service-oriented people—they have such a servant attitude that they can become pushovers.
But over time she found that her commitment to the larger cause of serving those most in need forced her to submerge her self-effacing nature. She might be the sort of person who would never say a harsh word to a service person doing work on her house—but as a non-profit CEO she would rake a negligent vendor over the coals if his negligence affected the well-being of her clients. Likewise she may have shivered and shook to assert her opinion over someone else’s—but if she felt like it served the larger good of those she served she’d find the nerve to do it. In the process of shedding her self-negating tendencies, she discovered how to really live into her larger purpose of serving the needs of others rather than herself. “I had to lose myself to find myself,” she said.
In the Kingdom of heaven, in oneness with God, this is what we will experience. We will lose ourselves to find ourselves. “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord,” said St. Augustine, “And our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” It is in union with God that we find the self that we were meant to me. When we allow ourselves to be subsumed into the highest good, the highest purpose, the highest love, the highest wholeness and the highest holiness, then we find
our greatest good, our highest purpose, our highest love, our highest wholeness and our highest holiness.
Having said all this, I want to return to Huckleberry Finn’s concern that heaven is boring. He’s not the only one worried about that. I’ve heard people say that one of the key things that drive human life is a sense of challenge and of adventure. They wonder if, once we’ve attained the total fulfillment of eternal life, we’ll just be eternal boring bumps on a log. Good question!
There are two primary and persistent images of the Kingdom of God in the Bible. One is the return to the Garden of Eden. The other is the image of the eternal heavenly city. The return to the garden of Eden is a very personal image of God. Remember Adam and Eve walking with God in eve of the day. It is our souls experiencing oneness with God, with one another, and with all of nature.
The heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, is a corporate image. The heavenly city is the primary metaphor of the Book of Revelation. It is a lively, diverse place, full of people from
every corner of the world, from every race, of every sort. It is an all-inclusive place. It is about community, about energy, about excitement.
The Garden of Eden is a peaceful image, but it is not a boring image. I imagine that if Adam and Eve had never eaten the forbidden fruit, they’d spend their days communing with the animals, with each other, and with God. They’d always be learning new things about one another. They’d explore the world beyond the garden. They’d climb Mt. Everest and white water in the Grand Canyon. They would not be bored.
As to the heavenly city—there we’d get to know intimately people who are entirely unlike us. We’d be fascinated by and appreciative of difference rather than fearful of it. We’d try new things and find new adventures. We’d never be bored.
What we will not be is afraid. Fear will be done. It will be over. Fear would not block us from experience. Fear would not block us from one another. And fear would not block us from God.
And finally, and most importantly, we would be doing what we were made to do, what is the truest fulfillment of our truest nature. We would be living into a deep, passionate love of the one who loves us more than anything or anyone, God.
Here’s a question worth asking: Why do we have eternal life? Why do we need it? What purpose does it serve?
And the answer is: We have eternal life because God is eternal. And it takes an eternity to know an eternal God.
And likewise God’s love for us is eternal: and so we will spend eternity discovering the height and depth and width of God’s great love for us, always in new and unexpected ways.
So will we be bored? No. Not even close. We will be complete. We will be joyful. We will be whole. And we will be one with one another and with God.
We will, at last, be who we are meant to be. Thanks be to God.