Heaven on Earth

Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven, love comes first
We’ll make heaven a place on earth
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_ju7o4Kl6Y

I am grateful to Bret Neely in the blog A Plain Account for reminding me of Belinda Carlisle and her song, a veritable blast from the past for all us 80’s boppers. Belinda Carlisle spoke about the song as a song of hope that might encourage each of us to make our lives a little piece of heaven on earth.

I am today, by which I mean that I have not always been, a card-carrying member of the Tom Wright fan club. Tom Wright is an Anglican bishop and our Tradition’s foremost biblical scholar -more commonly known in his writing as N.T. Wright.  

I am not uncritical of some of his more socially conservative opinions, but in the area of biblical scholarship I find him inspiring. In his book Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright tells us that:

Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. 

Many Christians today think that resurrection means being raised to spiritual life after death. According to this view resurrection is a triumph of love over death. We don’t need to worry too much about what did or did not happen at the resurrection of Jesus – empty tomb and all that – because resurrection is really an internal spiritual experience that means that all of us will go to heaven to live with God after we die. This is the theology of pie in the sky when you die. This may be a cleaver example of alliteration where each succeeding word repeats the sound of the proceeding one, but it is truly, terrible theology.

In fact, this is not a Christian theology at all because it severs resurrection hope from its context in God’s age-long promise.  Throughout the Old Testament God continually affirms his promise of a final resurrection of creation in a new heaven and a new earth at the end of time. It’s only within the continuity of this promise of final fulfilment of creation itself, that the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Day makes any sense. Jesus’ resurrection is not a generalizable spiritual event. It’s a next step in the unfolding of God’s purposes, made plain in the promise of total renewal of the creation in a new heaven and new earth.

On Easter day I spoke about living between two bookends. Our earthly life unfolds between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of in a new heaven and new earth. Tom Wright speaks of the resurrection of Jesus as a foretaste of the future brought into real time as God’s promise of the kind of future we should anticipate in the present.

This first point is this. There is the important distinction between simply looking forward to a future fulfilment of the promise and anticipating the future promise as if it is already in the process of being fulfilled in the present. Anticipation is all!

Anticipating the future promise as if it is already in the process of being fulfilled in the present. Anticipation is all!

Tom Wright contends that the first Christians deliberately used the Jewish concept of resurrection –a belief they shared with many other Jews, in particular the Pharisees.  Here is the second point to note. For Pharisee Jews and the followers of Jesus, resurrection did not mean spiritual life after death, but the fulfillment of God’s age-long promise of a return to a new physical life, that comes after the phase of life after death. This is what is meant by a new heaven and a new earth. Which brings me to the 21st chapter of the Revelation to John, the epistle appointed for Easter V.

Resurrection did not mean spiritual life after death, but the fulfillment of God’s age-old promise of a return to a new physical life, that comes after the phase of life after death

In the N.T. we have possibly four Johns. There is John the beloved disciple, John the Evangelist, the gospel writer who must have been closely connected to John the beloved of Jesus, John the Elder who is the author of the letters of 1st and 2nd , a early second-century leader of the community established by John the Evangelist, and John of Patmos or John the Divine, the recipient of a powerful dream of the end time, which he wrote down in the book of Revelation.

Revelation is a tricky book to interpret and most Episcopal preachers stay as far away from it as we can for fear of being tarred by the wilder excesses of literalist interpretations that circulate in Pentecostal and fundamentalist versions of Christianity. Yet, Revelation is part of the apocalyptic (end time) literary genre that is woven-throughout the Old Testament and on into the New; a genre couched in dream imagery and the language of mystical symbolism.

The main thing to note in Revelation 21 is that the heavenly new Jerusalem, bedecked as a bride for her wedding day is not ascending into heaven, but is coming down from heaven to establish a new order in this world. In the promise that there will come a time when there is no more mourning and crying , a time when pain will end, God proclaims not only that he is making all things new, but that the home of God is not in heaven but down here among mortals, with us, in real time.

Between the resurrection of Jesus and the final completion we live in the here and now of eternal life. That does not mean we will live forever and never die. It means that the purpose of our earthly lives is eternal. Eternal life – whatever it might mean after physical death – is in this life a purpose and energy not subject to the limitation of time.

Eternal life is to live in anticipation of the resurrection as something that is already taking place and not simply something that happened to Jesus alone, or is still to come.

On Sunday morning we will baptize a new baby girl named Amaya.  Amaya will be baptized into eternal life. By this I don’t mean her soul will be saved. I believe that in the beauty of her birth, her soul is already God’s. No, though baptism Amaya will be made a member of the holy people of God, a member of Christ’s body on earth, a servant of heaven in this world. Amaya will be made a Christian, and to be a Christian is to be a member of the holy people of God in this world.

Remember Tertullian’s cry: one Christian is no Christian. You can be a spiritual person and you can even perhaps have a generalized spiritual experience of the triumph of love over death, but neither of these makes you a Christian.

Being a Christian is about belonging, before believing. It’s about being part of a grand project if working tirelessly for the healing of the world, of being partners with God in putting the world to rights. It is living a life bracketed between the bookends of Jesus resurrection and the resurrection of the world. A living in anticipation of resurrection as already taking effect.

A life of anticipation that is the hallmark of bringing about the new heaven on earth – in real time!

In the resurrection God raised Jesus to new life after life after death as the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven (Tom Wright). Or as Belinda Carlisle sings it: Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth? Ooh, heaven is a place on earth. They say in heaven, love comes first. We’ll make heaven a place on earth, Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.

It might come as a surprise to many of us to discover N.T. Wright and Belinda Carlisle in the same company – ha!

Of Shepherds and Mothers

I find myself reflecting on two parts of Jesus’ metaphor I am the Good shepherd. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life  – a life that is – not restricted by the limitations imposed by time.

They hear my voice

In John 10, Jesus plays with the metaphors of sheep, shepherd, wolves, hirelings, and sheep pens to explore images of the relationship between God and humanity. Jesus is the true shepherd as contrasted with the hired hand; he is the defender of the sheep against the ravaging wolf; he lies down on the ground to become the gate opening of the sheep pen – through or over which the sheep tramp into the safety of the pen.

Throughout Jesus’ word play of rapidly shifting metaphors there runs, like a continuous heartbeat, the familiar sound of his voice. We hear his voice, not with our ears but in our bodies, in the yearning of our hearts. To borrow from T.S. Elliot for a moment -his is the sound of a voice … not known, because not looked for -but heard, half-heard, in the stillness between two waves of the sea. (Little Gidding)

In 2019, the good shepherd imagery of Jesus in John’s Gospel occurs on the second Sunday in May, otherwise known as Mother’s Day. Whether it’s by design or not, it’s an interesting coincidence that emboldens me to reframe Jesus’ metaphor the good shepherd.

Jesus says I am the good mother; my children hear my voice; I know them and they trust me. I give them eternal life – a life that cannot be measured or restricted by the limitations imposed by time.

We hear Jesus’ voice -the voice heard, and yet not heard, remembered, and yet not looked for but viscerally felt; a voice we trust because it resonates through the finely tuned strings of our memory. For the divine voice first enters our lives through that particular experience with our mothers. Nurture echoes nature. The human bond of mother and child is an echo of the bond between God and humanity. Jesus says I am the good mother, my children hear my voice, I know them, and they trust me.

In John’s story of Jesus, there is no distinction between Jesus and God the Creator; in each, the other finds its own reflection. God the good shepherd enters at first into our human experience as God the good mother. We learn to trust God the good shepherd; the one who calls us each by name, who protects us from danger,  because God has first loved us like a mother with a quality of unconditionality that is breathtaking to contemplate.

Imagine being loved because you are already good-enough? The problem for many of us is not that this reality is not true, but we dare not risk seeing ourselves as God the good mother made us to be. In life we come full circle – God the good shepherd enters our lives as God the good mother, eventually re-emerging at later stages of life into our awareness as God the good shepherd.

Jesus is a voice heard and yet not heard, remembered, and yet not looked for but viscerally felt; a voice we trust because it resonates through the finely tuned strings of our memory.

Donald Winnicott, the renowned 20th-century British pediatrician and psychoanalyst coined the phrase the good-enough mother. Winnicott was a formative influence on my own evolution as a psychotherapist and priest. My own analyst had been analysed by Winnicott himself and he was powerfully present as my analyst and I worked to find the good-enoughness in my experience of life. He was for me in a very real sense a good-enough mother.

By good-enough, Winnicott meant that mothers did not need to be perfect. The mother infant relationship, though vulnerable to mishap is also robust and able to withstand a variety of imperfect conditions. That mothers needed to be good-enough and not perfect, is a reminder for us all that the quest for the perfect in this arena of life is certainly the enemy of the good.

The essence of a good-enough experience of mothering lies in our experience of love that is consistent and unconditional. Some of us may find it difficult to locate the experience of consistent unconditional love within our experience of our biological or adoptive mothers – mothers can’t be perfect. Yet, if we didn’t find the memory of good-enough-ness in our early experience with our mothers, maybe we found it with them at a later stage of life? Countless others have experienced the qualities of good-enough-ness in a devoted teacher or mentor, a grandmother or grandfather, in the compensating love of an aunt or uncle who truly saw us and got us.

Yet an early experience of a disinterested or unavailable mother will leave its mark.  An early experience of the promise of love being restricted by conditions – I will love you only if — is not an uncommon experience. Yet, there are very few people who cannot locate an experience of unconditional love somewhere in their formation as a person.

Jesus says I am the good-enough mother who has no choice; for I cannot -not – love my children.

And I give them eternal life

Jesus says I am the good mother, and I give my children Eternal Life, that is, life that cannot be restricted by the limitations of time.

We live in a period of time between two bookends: the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of the resurrection of the world at the end of time. Because eternal life cannot be restricted by the limitations of time, between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of a new world we live in eternal life in real time, here and now. Our experience of life is eternal in the sense that our hopes, dreams and tireless collaboration with God have a lasting effect far beyond our time-bound life span. If God is our good mother, then our dream is to work for the building of a society configured by the priorities revealed in the experience of mothering and being mothered. Putting the world to rights begins here and now with you and me.

As a society, we frequently fail the women and men who are responsible for mothering through our failure to promote social and economic policies supportive of family life and child development. In a country that eulogizes mother and apple pie, the US ranks very low down on the scale of nations where public policy concretely supports family life and child development. A society configured by the divine mothering template will take care to ensure maternal and paternal paid leave, supported child care through public pre-school and free kindergarten education. The paradox at the heart of American society concerns the disproportion between our concerns for the unborn and social neglect of the born.

Human mothering and the experience of being mother only needs to be good-enough not perfect.  For some of us, Mother’s Day will be an opportunity to reaffirm the forgiveness of heart that soothes the discordant strings of our early memory. For most of us, Mother’s Day will be an opportunity to express feelings of gratitude for the love our mothers gave us. Whichever maybe the case, for each one of us God as the good mother encourages us to be good-enough mothers to those who trust us to love and care for them. Through the template of motherly love, both in our individual families and in the whole community of wider society, may we be led to the reality of the love with which God loves us.

I am the good shepherd. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life  – a life that is not restricted by the limitations imposed by time.

Great Expectations

A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs for Easter 3

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

So, what now? This is the Third Sunday of Easter—day 15 of a 50-day season–and this is the question that should confront us. How are we different from who we were before the lights came on at the Easter Vigil, before the Alleluias returned from their Lenten exile, before we had digested that yummy Easter brunch?

We are people of the Resurrection, Alleluia Alleluia!

What does that mean?

The first people to encounter the Risen Christ changed the world. They did it because they themselves were deeply affected by the Resurrection, and they shared that experience by creating a magnetic community and by showing others that the Way of Jesus—the Way of Love—was the way of abundant life, healing and reconciliation. The Good News of Jesus Christ turned the known world on its head.

What does that mean now?

How are we changed by Easter today? Because of course we should be changed. The Good News that God has done a new thing in the Resurrection, that death does not have the last word, should transform how we see God, one another and the world around us. And yet Easter Sunday doesn’t seem to have changed us at all—we just—move on. Is it that we expect too much of Easter? As my spirit animal Anne Lamott says, expectations are resentments under construction. And certainly this year, as we awakened on Easter morning to news of suicide bombers in Sri Lanka; as we heard last week of a new synagogue shooting and of the rise of anti-Semitism and hate crimes when we had hoped that our society was moving beyond that; as we hear this week of still another shooting at still another university, all of this collides with what we expect to be Easter joy—it seems to give the lie to the resounding affirmation of the triumph of love over death and evil. We look for signs of Easter, and it seems all too elusive. If Easter has changed us and the world, we want evidence. And not seeing it, we let the lilies wilt, the Lenten discipline lapse forgotten, and we get back to the routine of coping from day to day.  We move on. Like Peter, we go back to work. We go fishing.

So the safer alternative to high Easter expectation is to expect nothing. But if we expect to remain unchanged by the empty tomb, that is an expectation that will probably be met.

Do we expect too much of Easter? Or too little?

Perhaps we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking what we expect of Easter we should be asking what Easter expects of us.

Perhaps, when we’ve been thinking of Easter joy, we’ve really deep-down been thinking of Easter happiness—that gorgeous chill-bumpy feeling that comes with the scent of the lilies and the resounding organ—so lovely to sing the well-loved hymns, surrounded by family and community. But as we often hear, happiness is not the same as joy. Joy is more mysterious–deeper than happiness–it gracefully accompanies real-world suffering and difficulty. We find joy when we know that we are upheld in prayer when we grieve. We find joy when we are loved and supported when we meet a tough challenge. We find joy when we find perspective—when we can hold our successes and our failures equally lightly because we know that we are loved for who we are, not for what we do or what we have or how we look.

The difference between Easter happiness and Easter joy?

Easter joy hasn’t forgotten the Cross.

Consider Saul and Peter. Their two stories, each rich with nuance in its own right, actually converse with one another. They offer us a compelling invitation as People of the Resurrection—an invitation to see this season in a potentially more fruitful and life-giving light.

So we see Saul, who breathed threats and murder against the disciples of God; Saul who held the coats of the people who stoned the deacon and first martyr Stephen to death. This same Saul will become a tireless, if irascible, proclaimer of the Good News throughout the Mediterranean world. And Peter, devoted but impetuous follower of Jesus who denied his Lord three times—Peter will become the first bishop of the Church. We see two men, one a respected Jewish official of the tribe of Benjamin and Roman citizen, and the other the son of a Galilean fisherman. The two could not have been from more divergent backgrounds and life experiences. Yet between the two of them, and the communities they gathered around them, they profoundly and irrevocably transformed the Jewish and Gentile religious landscape within a few decades of Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension.

Why? Because of Easter.  But not on Easter morning. On Easter morning Peter was in hiding until the women brought him the news of the Resurrection. On Easter morning Saul was just waking up from his regular weekly Sabbath observance, oblivious to the turn his life was about to take. The lives of Saul and Peter converged, not on Easter morning, but later, in their encounters with the Risen Christ.

We’ve heard the stories: Saul, plunged into blindness on the Damascus Road—brought face to face with Christ and with his own violent past. Peter, plunged into the water of the Sea of Galilee at the sight of his teacher, and suddenly confronted by the shame of his earlier threefold denial: “Peter, do you love me? Do you love me? Do you?”

Saul, blinded. Peter, blindsided. Face to face with guilt and shame. An encounter with the Risen Christ is not always a journey to the Comfort Zone. And yet.

Saul, raised up, led by the hand into the care of community. Forgiven, healed, renewed. A new life, a new name, a new mission.  Peter, fed, forgiven, and given charge of a flock: “Feed my sheep.”

Grace upon grace offered to two flawed men who would turn the world upside down. Grace upon grace received by them, now knowing that they were truly known; nothing left to hide. There is a freedom in that; a freedom to embark on a new path, equipped with humility, purpose, and the unconquerable love of an Easter Christ.

What does that mean, now?

The stories of Paul and Peter offer us an invitation to see Easter in a new light; not as a single bright moment in time, but as an ongoing process that transcends time and history and that encompasses both light and shadow. It’s important to know that the Risen Christ came to Saul and Peter—and confronted them—in the days and months after the Resurrection. In other words, Easter is never really over. It continually challenges us to see the world through Easter eyes that see life-giving potential in even the most barren and difficult places. Especially in those places. Paul and Peter had to confront the barren places in their own lives before moving forward—before accepting the challenges that Jesus presented. They had to understand that to be a person of the Resurrection is to carry a small part of the Cross within you—to be able to see the world and all of its pain with at least a measure of the compassion and forgiveness with which God sees us. And when we can do that , we, like Paul and Peter, are freed to offer ourselves to God knowing that we are fully known.  But also like Paul and Peter, we are not promised a smooth path. We are equipped, though, with courage to live hopefully, creatively, compassionately, and, yes, joyfully for the healing of the world.

So, what now? The tomb is long empty, the lilies are fading, and the jellybeans are getting a little stale. But our Easter life as People of the Resurrection is just getting started—Alleluia!

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