Part Two of this series entitled “You Can’t Go Home Again” ended with the suggestion that Christians should best be envisioned as pilgrims rather than wanderers. Pilgrims are on the move toward a goal. They are not homesteaders, but they do have a destination. If our primary calling is to “follow Jesus,” we must be on the move. “Bastion Christianity” is a contradiction of our mission. We are to be on the “offensive” bravely seeking to “mend this world” after the example of Christ. Defensive Christianity is a waste of time and perhaps evidence of our own doubts and suspicion regarding the Kin-dom of God. (Jesus statement to Peter in Matthew 16:18 that “the gates of Hades” shall not prevail against the church assumes an “assault” by the church on the principalities and powers addicted to greed, arrogance, and violence. The “weapons of the Spirit” used in this assault are love, truth, and faithfulness to the way of Jesus.)
Christianity was born in the cradle of Judaism. From the Jewish faith we learn that history is going somewhere. God is present and active in history and is directing that history to a goal worthy of both the Creator and humanity made in God’s image. Genesis 12:1-3 records the call of Abraham and Sarah through whom God plans to bless all the nations of the world. Through this aged couple’s descendants, God will overcome the confusion and division of Babel and achieve the blessing God intended for humankind and creation reflected in the first chapter of Genesis. Through that blessing, creation will reclaim its “goodness” which has been marred by sin, greed, arrogance, and violence.
This divinely intentioned trajectory is illuminated by the prophets. Three of the many passages which point to this intended goal by God to bless the world are:
- Isaiah 11:1-10 in beautiful poetry speaks of the wolf and the lamb dwelling together, the security and safety of little children in a predatory world, and the whole earth filled with the knowledge (experience) of the Lord.
- Isaiah 2:1-4 promises that the day will come when the nations of the world will flow to Jerusalem and learn God’s ways of justice and peace. From this instruction, the nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Micah 4:1-3 repeats this promise but provides an additional insight. “They shall sit every person under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” This addition reflects the equality and abundance possible for each child of God when justice and peace prevail in this world. We will all have enough and be content with that enough as we are blessed by universal shalom.
- Isaiah 42:5-9 and 43:18-19 charge the Jews in Exile to forget the former things because God is in the process of doing “a new thing.” This novel act of God will allow Israel at last to become “a light unto the nations” fulfilling its mission of blessing the peoples of the world.
It’s critical to remember that these prophets understood this goal of God would be met in history. Except for the Book of Daniel written in the second century BCE, we have no concept of a life after death in the Hebrew Scriptures. God’s purposes for creation must be fulfilled in this life and in history. The Jewish faith was this-world oriented without speculations and hopes for an afterlife.
It was not until the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus IV Epiphanes that a belief in a resurrection emerged. The Jews who were faithful to Yahweh during Antiochus’ brutal attempt to annihilate the Jewish faith were tortured to death. How could God’s people see God as just when their faithfulness resulted in such horrible suffering? A concept of resurrection slowly emerged and developed in partial answer to this perennial question of theodicy. Although God would continue to work toward shalom in history and in this world, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s goals for humanity and creation would be transcendent in nature.
The New Testament assumes this transcendent fulfillment in light of the resurrection of Jesus. What happened to Jesus would happen to creation and human beings as a part of creation. Somehow God would take up all of history and “resurrect” it in ways which would assure the healing and transformation of the world. Resurrection was never about “pie in the sky when you die.” It was always about the fulfillment of universal justice and peace for God’s good creation. It was God’s way of finally “mending” every part of that world.
The Book of Revelation ends with several metaphorical images of this universal fulfillment. “The New Jerusalem” comes down from heaven to earth. (The gospel is always about heaven coming to earth and never about our going to heaven leaving behind this beloved creation like a stage which has served its purpose. “The New Heaven and New Earth” will be this heaven and this earth healed, emancipated, and transformed.)
The New Jerusalem has its gates eternally open so the kings and nations of this world can bring their glory into the city. By the “light of the Lamb,” the nations shall walk into God’s New Creation. In the city there will be the tree of life, and the leaves of this tree shall be for the healing of the nations. Throughout Revelation, kings and nations are portrayed as enemies of Christ as they pursue the idolatrous paths of greed, arrogance, and violence. Yet at the end of John’s vision, they enter the New Jerusalem. John assures his readers that those addicted to evil will never be allowed to enter the City. And yet they do enter and are healed. John never explains this contradiction. It is enough for him to have faith that evil will be abolished and all will be “saved.” The means for this paradoxical conclusion to history is never provided. (In many ways, the Book of Revelation is the most hopeful book in the Bible. It is not a celestial almanac or a doomsday prophecy. It is a poetic presentation of the good news of Jesus Christ—the good news that God’s love for this WORLD will find its ultimate expression in the healing of all creation. John never ignores or downplays the reality of sin and suffering in this world. But he never loses his faith that in the end, “love wins.” In fact, like Paul and the other writers of the New Testament, he understands that only love can “conquer” evil.)
As the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven, God finally speaks. “Behold, the dwelling of God is with humans. God will dwell with them, and they shall be God’s own people,” and God shall personally “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:2-4). God and creation (with humanity as a part of that creation) find their home together. This was the goal of God even before the beginning of time—a home for everyone and everything—a home where all belong—a home of justice and peace, compassion and sharing, communion and reconciliation.
It’s true that we can’t go home again–not to the home of the past because the former things of transience, death, and evil will pass away. But we can find our ultimate home in the heart of God along with all others. However, we must make sure we do not let this hope detract from our calling to be loving, faithful, and courageous in our world today. As pilgrims we are called to live as though that ultimate reality of a New Heaven and New Earth is already dawning in our lives in the time and space we live. We are called to be previews of God’s great “coming attraction”—appetizers of the eschatological banquet—colonizers of God’s Kin-dom right in the belly of the Dragon. We are to be the “now” of that New Creation even as we continue to experience the “not yet” of a world alienated from all that is good, loving, just, and beautiful of God’s dream for Her creation. Only faithful and compassionate pilgrims of Jesus’ way can understand and anticipate the glory of our final home. We are all destined for joy, but that joy can only make sense and be experienced in this life as we follow the Great Pioneer into God’s eternally unfolding tomorrow—in the words of Gregory of Nyssa, “an everlasting stretching out in greater growth throughout all eternity.”