Monday, October 31, 2011
Practicing for Heaven: Revelation 7:9-17
*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, OR on All Saints Sunday, October 30, 2011.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and Redeemer.
You’ve probably heard this joke, but I’ll tell it anyway. The punch line is worth the retelling. This joke comes in several versions and has been adapted to fit the audience in which it is told. I first heard it as a Baptist. Since this audience is Mennonite, I will make it fit us.
A man died and went to heaven. He met Saint Peter at the pearly gates, who gave him a tour of heaven. Peter and the man came to a cloud with a bunch of winged saints genuflecting, making the sign of the cross, and praying the rosary. Peter says to the man, “Those are the Catholics.” They came upon another cloud of winged saints rolling on the mist, raising their arms in the air, and shouting “Hallelujah!” Saint Peter says to the man, “Those are the Pentecostals.” Finally, they came to a cloud with winged saints hard at work on a project and Peter put his finger to his lips and says, “Shhhhh. Those are the Mennonites. They think they are the only ones here.”
That joke is funny and sad at the same time. We can laugh at it for naming our tendency to think that our group has a corner on God’s truth. It’s sad in that this joke about being arrogantly exclusive is so adaptable to different Christian groups that people across the church still get it! Even the heaven imagined in this joke is a place in which the church is still divided into separate groups of likeminded Christians or is considered to be exclusively for people like us.
I’ll bet whoever those saints are on that one lonely cloud, they probably died believing with all their hearts the kind of theology I heard in a children’s song for the first time this week. It was a song someone listened to as a child. It goes like this:
One door and only one
And yet its sides are two
Inside and outside
On which side are you?
One Door and only one
And yet its sides are two
I’m on the inside
On which side are you?
This self-congratulatory little children’s song presents a pretty exclusive view of heaven. This song doesn’t sound or look anything like the children’s song from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. Would you be mine? Could you be mine? This song gives the impression that the saints in heaven are those who believe they are the only ones on the inside, people on our side of the door, people pretty much like us. I’m on the inside. On which side are you?
Our scripture text for All Saints Sunday presents us with a different vision of the saints in heaven. John, the writer of Revelation, has a vision of a wide heaven, as wide as the sea. The saints he describes in heaven are not there because they believed they were on the inside of heaven’s door, that somehow those who believed like they did were the only citizens of heaven.
John describes two groups or perspectives of saints in heaven. What appears as two groups may be one group seen from a different perspective. The first group is numbered at 144,000 of the twelve tribes of Israel, who are sealed. That is, they are marked for protection. These may represent the new Israel, the people of God in all their diversity, Gentile as well as Jew. The number is a symbol of completeness.
There is second group or second perspective of the same group in John’s heavenly vision. He sees “a great multitude” of people that no one can count. They come from every nation, from all tribes and peoples. These saints are robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. In contrast to armies that wash the blood of their enemies from their robes after battle to be purified, these saints have been washed in the blood of the nonviolent Lamb. They cry in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Salvation does not belong to the Roman emperor and is not an exclusive possession of our particular group “inside the door,” but salvation belongs to God and to the Lamb.
The saints John sees in heaven are there not simply because they believed a certain laundry list of things or some salvation formula, but because they are witnesses. Interestingly, the Greek word for “witness” is the same word for “martyr.” These saints have witnessed to their faith with their own bodies. They have come out of a “great ordeal.” These saints have lived faithfully in the midst of persecution, trial, and tribulation. They have resisted the imperial Roman propaganda of divine emperor worship and remained faithful to Christ, the Lamb. They sing a subversive song that undermines the state’s bloody, violent, and oppressive idea of peace and salvation. These saints have lived their faith.
And here is what I want us to see. John’s vision of the saints in heaven is of a multicultural, multilingual, multinational cloud of witnesses. The saints are not . one homogeneous group of people, like most of our congregations. Neither are they cookie cutter Christian, made from the same mold, like what some Christians think we should be. As the universal, transcultural church of God these saints speak different languages. They come from different worldviews. They share in diverse customs and rituals. They have a rainbow of skin colors. They are from different social and economic locations. They each have their own stories, personalities, and family backgrounds. And I suspect these saints in heaven did not all believe exactly the same thing. This great multitude of saints stretches the word “diversity” to its breaking point! And they are all in unity! They all sit at the welcome table of God. They are united in praise of God and the Lamb! Hallelujah!
I was privileged to be part of group of musical saints which took as their name Revelation 7:9. It was a bit of heaven. Not just because we played Rock, soul, jazz, spirituals, and African music, but because we were composed of a European-American, two African-Americans, a Mexican-American, and a Puerto-Rican-American. And believe it or not, we were all Mennonites! And we were only a fraction of the diversity of the saints in the Mennonite Church.
As I ponder John’s vision of the saints in heaven, my vision of heaven has been shaped by images from the World Christian Gathering of Indigenous Peoples. This is a triannual gathering that brings together indigenous peoples from around the world to worship together and discuss how they can bring their diverse worldviews, cultures, and rituals into their worship and practice, just as white Europeans have done for centuries.
When Iris worked for Mennonite Central Committee she was part of this gathering when it met in Australia. She brought back some videos of the worship services she attended. The images were amazing. Here was the church in all its diversity, from many tribes, nations, languages, cultures, worshiping God together in unity! Maori men with tattooed faces thrusting out their tongues in defiant dances. Hawaiian women in grass skirts dancing the traditional hula. Native Americans in full head dress and beaded leather outfits stomping and twirling. Painted-faced aboriginal people playing the digeridoo and clacking their boomerangs together. All were praising, dancing, singing, and worshipping God together as one church! Amazing! Praise be to God and to the Lamb!
If heaven looks like that, count me in! At the same time, if heaven looks like that, we may need to “practice for heaven.” What do I mean by that? In a rhetorical or figurative sense I mean living into the vision. John’s heaven is a literary vision whose purpose is to shape how the church is to live in the here and now. John’s Revelation is not so much a blueprint for the future as it is a vision for shaping how we live in the present. Revelation not only constructs a vision of the world in which principalities and powers are in a cosmic struggle. It also creates the vision of a world healed and whole, a faithful church with saints from across the globe gathered in praise to God. These visions or revelations are not like a crystal ball that allows us to peer into the future. Rather, they allow us to see what the church can be when it resists the powers of division, demonization, death, and destruction and become the diverse, divine, determined church God meant for us to be.
In a more literal sense, “practicing for heaven” means getting ready for the future church. That is, if we think of heaven as a literal place where we go, a place where all the saints are gathered together, then we might be in for a rude awakening when we get there. Remember the faces of God’s neighbors from last Sunday? If heaven is a place, well, we may see a lot of those kinds of faces in heaven. Are we prepared for that? If we are having a hard time tolerating some of the people in our own generally homogenous congregation, we may be in for a big shock in heaven!
And try to get this picture in your head. God will not be expecting from us just a distant, cool welcome of all these diverse people. God will be throwing a party, a feast, a banquet and throwing her arms around a bunch of strangers, misfits, prodigals, and people that don’t look like any kind of Christian we would warm up to! Are we ready for that?
If not, we better start practicing. Practicing for heaven will mean more than arrogantly believing that I’m on the inside of heaven’s door and you, I’m not so sure about you. Practicing for heaven will mean not just rubbing shoulders with people with different worldviews, Christian perspectives, customs, cultures, languages, nationalities, economic and political ideologies, but it will mean embracing them as saints, God’s children, brothers and sisters.
So, look out over this congregation and ask yourself, “How do we practice for heaven?” What will that mean for worship at Zion? One race or ethnic group? One language? One type of music? One way to worship? How do we show hospitality to new people? Make them fit into our mold? Make them find their way into the center of our church life? How do we deal with people in the congregation who have different perspectives from us? Ignore them? Complain about them? Love them? That may take some heavenly kind of practice.
Look at our surrounding communities and ask yourself, “How do we practice for heaven?” What will that mean about how we relate to other Christians? Who is our neighbor? Should we invite people who have never set foot in a church to come through our church doors? Or should we stand on the inside, look out at our neighbors and arrogantly ask them “on which side are you?” If I know anything about Jesus, he may be standing outside the doors with the misfits and outsiders!
Look out across our wild and wonderful global community and ask yourself, “How do we practice for heaven?” Can we learn something about being church from our brothers and sisters around the globe? Maybe then heaven will look more like a fiesta or a dance.
What will practicing for heaven mean for you? Our congregation? Our Mennonite Church? Our ecumenical relationships? Our global community? Just imagine all of God’s people gathered together in praise. Imagine a truly global, multinational, multicultural, multilinguistic communion of the saints?
After this I looked, and there was a multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Holy Word.