“New Heaven, Renewed Earth”

What makes us who we are? What identifies us as this or that? Christian or Muslim, progressive or conservative?  How do people know we are followers of Jesus? This week I’ve been working on visioning around the ministry I’ll be engaged with at the U next year. I have many hopes and dreams for this emerging ministry with the students. I hope to build relationships and foster authentic and deep community through inviting students to share their stories, ask questions and work alongside one another. I hope to offer opportunities for them to learn new skill-sets (like community organizing, networking, and using consensus as an effective model for inclusive decision making) that will help them develop confidence and leadership skills, and encourage civic engagement. I hope this community will be a place where students can explore their faith, articulate their identities and integrate what they are learning with their deepest values. And I will provide support and direction in student’s spiritual formation as we journey together in deepening our faith.

In trying to articulate some of the goals and outcomes for this work, I’ve been challenged to really look at the language I use to describe these hopes and dreams, particularly given the growing number of people who grew up un-churched, or who self identify as spiritual but not religious. Like the students in our community, some will come from UCC backgrounds where they have been nurtured by caring communities of faith; others will have had bad experiences in the church; still others will come from families with mixed religious heritage or perhaps they will be questioning what they were taught as children. But college in particular is a time of asking big questions. So what picture do we paint to describe being a follower of Jesus?

Today’s texts from the Book of Revelation and John’s Gospel seem particularly appropriate to the Easter season. During this time we celebrate the risen Christ and, in the days leading up to Pentecost, we consider the forming of the first Christian communities. In the gospel lesson we are revisiting what are called the farewell speeches as Jesus prepares the disciples for what is ahead. He uses an intimate form of address, not treating them like students, but tenderly calling them “little children.” He is saying dear ones, this won’t be easy for you to hear, but my time with you is almost over. Where I am going, you cannot come, and I need to tell you something important.

This time, there are no opaque parables, or Zen koan-like metaphors. Simply, “I give you a new commandment, that you should love one another.” This is how people will know that you follow me. It’s not just that Jesus is leaving them, or that he will be crucified. The context of this scene is just after the last supper. Jesus has just washed the disciple’s feet, being the incarnated example of the command he will give them. And he has done so with Judas and Peter, both of whom will betray him in different ways.

I think it’s worth pointing out, that Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples what they must believe. He doesn’t say memorize this creed, or adhere to this doctrinal standard. He tells them how they should behave; what they should do. Love one another. That is how people will know you follow me. Not by fancy theological ramblings, not by philosophical treatises, but simply by showing love to those around you, because how you live communicates who you are. Revelations also paints a picture of who we are, but it does so through a vision of the coming kin-dom of God. In his vision, John describes a new heaven and a new earth where no one will mourn or cry or be in pain. And it puts in sharp contrast that new reality, with the Imperialism, oppression and life devaluing “luxury” of the old reality.

The vision in Revelation describes a holy city because, as scholar Dana Ferguson puts it, “cities are places where people live together in dependence upon one another. A city works when everyone in it does something to contribute to its welfare. It is the welcome place where people arrive home at the end of a long and confusing journey. . . . The new heaven is plainly and simply the place where God is and [where] humans are fully united with God.”[1] Pretty heady stuff! But it isn’t a pie in the sky, rose-colored glasses, isn’t that lovely, sort of place. Instead, Ferguson goes on to describe,

John offers us a vision we can sit down in front of, taking in all that he shows us about it. That way, when it is time for us to stand up again, we may be able to move on from whatever devastating place we have been, strengthened with the knowledge that something new lies ahead. With the vision of the new Jerusalem fixed firmly in our minds—the place where the God we love and worship stands right beside us—we can continue walking until we arrive at that city where God makes God’s home among us.[2]

Like John’s Gospel, the promise of new life in Revelation is also a guidepost for how we should act in the present. It is both the hope that is promised, and a way of being now.

If Revelation paints a vivid picture, Jesus Emmanuel, God incarnate with us, puts it into action. His last act is to wash the disciples feet, to be the least among them – to demonstrate for them the kind of love and forgiveness that is the embodiment of God. And he does it in the midst of betrayal, loss and pain. It is the tension of suffering and hope that is the essence of life. Erik Heen describes it as freedom of all of creation that has resulted in

a glorious universe that has life at its very heart yet also carries within itself remarkably deep sorrow and grief. [The Apocalyptic vision of Revelation] reveals that the pain that comes with life as we know it is acknowledged by a God who, once mortally wounded by our sin, continues to stand in solidarity with us in the midst of the suffering experienced by all of creation (Rev. 21:3).[3]

It is the same kind of solidarity we are called to give one another.

When a group of First Church members went to Duluth last year to talk with and learn from members of Peace Church’s Dismantling Racism team. One of the wonderful things they offered us was a panel discussion by people of color working for justice in Duluth. When we asked them, what can we, as people who experience privileged in the systems we all live in, do to join with you in this work, the answer was: “Stand with us in solidarity. Stand with us when it would be easier and you have the choice to leave.” We who have the privilege to walk away from the difficult, painful work of justice must choose to stand in solidarity with those who don’t have the option of walking away. Whether it is in addressing racial injustice, marriage equality for all loving couples or standing up for the earth, the message of Revelation and the Gospel is clear. We must love and stand with our neighbor. And our words and our actions will show how well we follow Jesus.

It is by loving our neighbors as God has loved us, that we show who we are and whose we are. We must stand in solidarity with those who have no voice, and we must love those whose voices we would rather not hear. In the midst of the suffering experienced by all creation, we are able to stand up again and again because of the promise of new life: the vision of hope that says, one day the God of love, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, will wipe every tear from our eyes, and death and mourning, crying and pain will be no more. Amen.

[1] Feasting on the Word, 462.

[2] Ibid., 464.

[3] Ibid., 466.