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!

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