Spring is a time for wondering about things: When will the tulips come up? What will summer camp be like? How many miles can I do on my bike before it snows again? Will the rhubarb come back this season?
Every spring I wonder if there will be baseball in heaven. If there will be baseball then there will be those we love and they will have bodies. If there will be baseball then there will be burgers and beer and soft pretzels drenched in butter. There will be ice-cream. If there will be baseball then there will be movement, speed and grace. There will be the luster of grass and sunshine. If there will be baseball then there will be agriculture and music. There will be the fabric and plastic arts. If there will be baseball then there will be nature and culture, story and statistic, spectacle and minutia. Baseball includes the world. It even includes cats, Detroit’s mascot is a tiger.
I take it for granted that there will be no rectangular games in heaven, no basketball, football, hockey nor soccer. In those games you must go through your opponent to win. You must take them on and dominate them. Rectangular games always carry whispers of war. There will be no war in heaven. Surely rectangular games will be banished too. In baseball you must cooperate with your opponent to win. The hitter must accept the offering of the pitcher. The fielder cannot even play unless batters and baserunners have some success. Therefore, baseball requires you to love your enemies, even if they are the Kansas City Royals or the New York Yankees.
Baseball is more powerful than the CIA. It is baseball, after all, that is undoing the dictators of Cuba. More than that, baseball is an icon of divine eternity. It is played without a clock. Why else would Jesus sit for so long at the right hand of the Father? They must have box seats.
You’ve probably guessed that I carry a few doubts about my own logic. What I’m coming to doubt, though, is not the lasting character of baseball but the fact that I’ve set the hereafter in heaven. This is one of the ways my reading of Scripture has changed over the years. Being a person of faith and hope isn’t about having everything nailed down and never changing. That’s just being bullheaded.
To be honest, for a long time I didn’t think much about what the biblical writes have to say about the next age. I’ve largely been content to simply say Scripture gives us hope that death is not the end of a person’s story. What has pushed me to pay more attention to Scripture on this is the fact that such a vague conviction isn’t terribly helpful to those who are approaching death or to those who have recently lost ones they love. We need more than a vague psychological suggestion; we need a way to frame the signs and symbols used in Scripture to shape this hope. If an image of heaven complete with cherubs, harps and precious-metal asphalt doesn’t fit with the eschatology of the biblical writers, what does?
The New Testament reading for this Sunday takes us to Revelation 21:1-6. In our reflection on John’s Apocalypse over these last weeks we’ve noted that the book is less about the future than we may have thought. We’ve noted that it has a lot to say about allegiance and worship. Allegiance and worship don’t drop away in the second-to-last chapter, but here John’s vision does tip toward the future. The images he offers are still signs of a mysterious reality, not video from a cosmic security camera. Nevertheless, the one seated on the throne says to John, “It is done.” There is no missing the sense of completion in this passage.
Let me point out a few other things about these verses: First, the central image. It’s found in the second verse. John writes, “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” The symbolic city comes down; John doesn’t see people floating up and away as disembodied spirits.
Christianity is an earthy faith. I’m increasingly convinced of that. Whatever cultural barnacles have attached themselves to the Scriptures over the years, the Bible’s eschatology, its vision of the future, is not a fanciful flight away from the world we know. What this means for John is that ultimately “the home of God is among mortals,” and “[the Creator] will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”
In her book Gilead Marilynne Robinson tells the story of an aged pastor named John Ames. He’s a baseball fan, and he’s lived most of his life as a single man. He ate a lot of fried egg sandwiches listening to games on the radio, but then, late in life, the Reverend Ames got married. His wife bore a son. Robinson’s novel is a series of letters the old man writes to his seven year old. Here’s how it begins:
I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where , and I said, To be with the good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it. I told you you might have a very different life from mine, and from the life you’ve had with me, and that would be a wonderful thing, there are many ways to live a good life. And you said, Mama already told me that. And then you said, Don’t laugh! Because you thought I was laughing at you. You reached up and put your fingers on my lips and gave me that look I never in my life saw on any other face besides your mother’s. It’s a kind of furious pride, very passionate and stern. I’m always a little surprised to find my eyebrows unsinged after I’ve suffered one of those looks. I will miss them.
It seems ridiculous to suppose the dead miss anything. If you’re a grown man when you read this—it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then—I’ll have been gone a long time. I’ll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I’ll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things (3).
As Rev. Ames describes the world to his son, even the mundane world of a small Iowan town, it is a sacramental place. He finds signs of God by paying attention to the intricacies of life, not by looking for grandiose experiences or bulletproof arguments. The world that the dying man describes to his son is complex, confusing and painful—but it is good. Marilynne Robinson must be one of the most theologically astute contemporary writers.
What Scripture suggests on the whole is that we hope for a renewed creation. It doesn’t give a scientific explanation of how it works or how we get there, but the resurrection sets the precedent. In Acts 3 Luke writes of a “universal restoration”; in Romans 8 Paul says that creation itself will be set free from bondage to decay. What we hope for is a new, livelier existence in a world that includes the choir described in Psalm 148: mountains, hills, cedars, wild animals, creeping things and flying birds. This fits with the claim in Genesis that creation is “very good.” What Scripture leads us to hope for is creation without death and fractured relationships—a world with hills and creatures but without mourning, crying and pain.
One of the great benefits of an inter-generational church community is that we see both growth and decline in the flesh of those with whom we worship. One of the things we love about children is that they grow in their abilities. At some point they start to crawl, and then walk and speak. We mark those milestones because seeing little ones grow in their power to shape the world brings us joy. Having a youngster about is one of the things that brings joy to the Reverend John Ames. It gives balance to his perception of his own decline. It’s precisely that juxtaposition that evokes his reflections on his own life.
Some of us are young and we might not have found ourselves in need Scripture’s hope yet. Others of us know intimately the fact that our bodies will not last forever. We are losing our ability to shape the world. As Jesus once told Peter, we know that someday we will need to be led by the hand and someone will need to help us dress. For some of us this is now. Add to that the fact that we are constantly vulnerable to disease, a fact to which our prayers and conversations regularly bear witness. Our flesh grows old, our steps become uneven and our powers decline. Where we once charted a course across oceans, now we need to concentrate to cross the street. Our minds churn memories in place of dreams. How might our story continue when the ratchets and pulleys of our bodies wear out?
Scripture offers us hope, and these verses from Revelation attest to it. Yet, we haven’t always seen it. Part of the reason is that we’ve been misdirected by a line from the fourth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. There Paul is writing about the coming of the Lord. In verse 17 he suggests that those who have died in Christ and those who are alive will meet Christ “in the air.” This little prepositional phrase has confused us, because from it we have drawn the idea of the rapture. We have come to envision our hope as disembodied and detached from God’s creation. However, biblical scholars tell us that instead of thinking of this meeting Christ in the air as the first stage of a flight off to heaven, it’s better to read it as a part of the ancient tradition of greeting an arriving king.
In the Ancient Near East when the king was coming to a city, perhaps returning in victory from a battle, the inhabitants would often go out to greet the monarch. They would greeting him outside the city and then process back with him. Official delegations still perform a similar ritual today, welcoming an arriving head of state at the airport and then traveling together to the heart of the capital.
What seems to have happened to our reading of Scripture is that we’ve paired a misreading of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians with biblical passages that speak of Jesus preparing a place for us in heaven (Passages like I Peter 1:3-5; Colossians 1:5; II Cor. 5:1-5; John 14:1-3; Phil. 3:20-21; and Heb. 11:13-16). Through this pairing we’ve developed the idea that the biblical vision for the hereafter takes place in some other dimension.
The biblical scholar J. Richard Middleton points out is that when we read about Jesus preparing a place for us we often jump to the conclusion that this means an abandonment of this earth. For instance, in John 14 Jesus says, “I go and prepare a place for you.” But is the implication that we expect to go there as well? What we should do is think of this alongside Revelation 21. Jesus goes to prepare a place, yes, but that prepared sanctuary comes here. That’s the biblical vision!
When the biblical writes refer to ‘heaven’ they are generally naming a realm where God dwells. In that realm the kingdom of God is fully in place. Think of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If heaven signified our future, there would be no point in praying for God’s reign on earth.
Before we close let’s note a couple of features of the heavenly city John envisions. Further down in the chapter he describes an angel measuring this city. It is 1,500 miles long and the same in width and height. J. Nelson Kraybill notes that this means its footprint is roughly as large as that of the whole Roman Empire. The place is “yuuge,” to quote an obscure American businessman. It’s essentially the whole world that John knew, and it is all sacred space.
Notice that the nations are there (verse 24), even the earthly kings whom John had so harshly described earlier in the book. And yet doesn’t seem as though everyone is ground into a homogeneous pulp. John writes, “People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.” There’s a sense in Scripture that what we hope for is a way of life that includes the wild diversity of the many cultures of the world. It’s a global vision but without the bland sameness of globalization as we know it. In a particular sense John’s is an inclusive vision. The word ‘inclusive’ is always particular. It always involves a specific entity including others in a particular way for particular reasons. Inclusion is always a display of power, and it always requires exclusive as well.
The new Jerusalem is inclusive of the nations through Christ for the purpose of communion and the glory of the creator. It’s a God-centered inclusion of the feeble and the frail. It’s an exclusion of death and an exclusion of predatory self-interest. It’s an inclusion of worship and thanksgiving. It’s an exclusion of the nonchalance and narcissism that mark our own culture. It’s an inclusion of those we love and those we don’t. It’s an exclusion of our hate and our desire for revenge. John tells us this city has no abomination and no falsehood. Life there is safe and it’s honest.
In worship we anticipate this future. It’s the future of life on God’s good earth, of unity with those we love. It’s a future where pain is alleviated and where we are no longer divided by nationality or ethnicity. This is what we anticipate and what we envision, what we imagine and what we practice when we worship.
This it is what Easter heralds, and this is what Peter learned in Acts 11. If Jesus is alive and on the loose then death and division will continue to be challenged. The old boundaries do not hold. If all the animals are created good, then Peter realizes, the victory of Jesus over the power of death is for the gentiles, for all the nations. This is a bigger deal than he had thought, and he only stumbled into the beginning.
It’s a bigger deal than another spring and another season of baseball. It’s a big enough deal to hold the loved ones we have lost and those we love who suffer still. So finally, as we hold John’s vision in our mind. Let us hold these ones there too. Let us imagine that their story goes on. Let us envision the renewal of all things. Let us envision the Creator of the universe wiping away each and every tear.
And the one who testified said, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”