Life in Heaven: An All Saints’ Sermon

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached yesterday at Faith Anglican Church in Cordova, TN. It’s a sermon for All Saints’ Day.

All Saints’ in Autumn

It’s fitting, I think, that All Saints’ Day falls in the middle of autumn. Autumn is that season—at least in the Northern Hemisphere where the celebration originated—when dormancy and death fall over the earth’s vegetation. At this point the harvest has already been gathered, the merciless winter draws nigh, and we look around wondering what’s next. It’s the season when our minds are gently turned towards considering again our own mortality, the fact of our deaths yet-to-come. When many of us remember acutely those who have already gone before us. 

Culturally, we get this—even as All Hallows’ Eve get commodified and twisted, we still recognize, as every culture has, that we can’t escape death, that we’re powerless before some forces still greater than us.We put fake skeletons in the yard, dress up as the ghostly and uncanny. But we keep it at an ironic distance, we sugar it over with candy. 

On All Hallows’ Eve, we ask the question as old as sin—what happens after we die? Or maybe, when we’re a bit less self-focused, we ask the corollary question, the same question we find ourselves asking when we’re especially engrossed by a compelling story: what happens at the end?

On All Saints’ Day, we receive the answer. 

All Hallows’ Eve and All Saints’ Day remind us that, though we do not yet see it, the world to come is closer than we imagine. The border between heaven and earth is thin, even porous. And what happens in heaven matters for how we live on earth, and vice versa. 

This is why our passage for this morning is from Revelation—a book which has the same sort of purpose. It’s a vision of heaven, intended to make sense of our own time, place, and experience. Revelation is also known as the Apocalypse of John. And apocalypse means ‘unveiling,’ the taking away of a veil. Something which has been hidden, for reasons best known to God, is being revealed to his people. Apart from God, we live lives bounded by powers and ideologies, bounded by our own habits and small vices. We have lenses through which we understand our lives of making and doing, getting and spending. But these lenses are corrupting, distorting, they’re more like blinders than glasses. Revelation would knock these off and restore our eyes to see “the greater purpose of the world’s transcendent Creator and Lord.” (Bauckham)

Reading Revelation

Now, if you think anything like I do, Revelation intimidates you. Because these visions John witnesses and records are bizarre. It’s heavy on sensational imagery, it’s overflowing with Scriptural references we may or may not catch, it’s now laden with a whole lot of theological and cultural bickering and baggage, and you’re never quite sure what you’re supposed to take literally, or symbolically, or figuratively, or spiritually.

But for all its complexities, we can bring to Revelation a couple simple observations which help us hear it more clearly. Most importantly: Revelation is a book about Jesus Christ. Revelation 1:1 lays it out plainly: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw.”

Jesus is the one who has unveiled parts of God’s ultimate plan to his Church. He’s letting us in on the secret. And He Himself is the central part of that plan. Jesus is the Lamb of God, who alone is worthy to break the seals and judge the world and receive the praise of the saints, and He is the protagonist here, the central character.

And a second observation that will help us hear Revelation clearly:  All throughout the visions, Jesus acts towards humanity in two fundamental ways: either Judgment, or Blessing. And it’s the relationship to Jesus that determines which you will receive from him. At times, Revelation seems to be a litany of judgments that Jesus unleashes on the sinful and rebellious world. And indeed God’s wrath towards wickedness will be unleashed in power, and all evil will be eliminated. It is a fearsome thing; more terrifying than the worst horror we’ve seen in life or on a screen. God’s judgment is so terrible and just that at the end of chapter six, those under judgment are begging that mountains and huge rocks would fall on them, just so they could hide for a moment from their terror at God’s holy judgment.

But interspersed between these judgments we get glimpses of the transcendent blessing received by those who know and who serve and who have been saved by that Lamb and his sacrifice. And what form does that blessing take?—the privilege to worship, as the Psalmist says, “to dwell in the house of the Lord… to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.” 

And that’s what we’re peering into in our text from Revelation 7. We get a glimpse of life in heaven. 

Salvador Dalí | Heaven Canto 20 (The Divine Comedy) | Available for Sale |  Artsy
Salvador Dali, Paradiso Canto 20, illustration

Hearing & Seeing

Our passage begins, “After this, I looked,” which means to understand what’s going on we have to go back a bit. 

The vision of chapter 7 reiterates a pattern you can find throughout Revelation: John hears a promise of the First Covenant, and then raises his eyes and sees its New Covenant fulfillment.

So for example, in chapter 5, John is weeping because there’s no one to open the scroll. The scroll that is the Father’s plan for the judgment of the Old Order and the redemption and recreation of his New Order. Then an elder tells weeping John that the promised “Lion of the tribe of Judah” has conquered, John raises his eyes and sees not merely a muscular, confident, glimmering King–one like the Apostles we saw back in Acts were expecting when they asked Jesus about the Kingdom of Israel–John sees instead a “Lamb standing, as though it had been slain”. Is this what conquering looks like? Is this victory? To be slain like a lamb?

To we who know Jesus, yes! We know that our Lord Jesus conquers sin and evil and death not with swords and armies, but by becoming sin for us, for paying the debt of death our sin deserves, for rescuing us from our captor Satan and leading us in a final exodus out of bondage and into his kingdom. Jesus subverts our notions of power and victory; He shows us that glory accompanies sacrifice. And we’ll come back to in a minute, that glory accompanies sacrifice. But back to chapter 7.

Remember the pattern: John hears the First Covenant promise and sees its New Covenant fulfillment. By chapter 7, the triumphant Lamb has opened the first six seals, and judgment is prepared to fall on those who live in rebellion against God. But in chapter 7 we pause, and get a sort of parenthetical detail. Before the judgments of chapter 6 are enacted, four angels at the four corners of the earth are holding back the winds of judgment so that another angel can move through the earth, marking on the forehead those who belong to God with the “seal of the living God.” 

And here at the beginning of Chapter 7, John hears (v. 4) “the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel.” John hears those who are sealed, that is, those who bear the seal of God on their foreheads, those whom God claims as his own, and who will be preserved through God’s imminent judgment. And those whom John hears of are members of the tribes of Israel, those with whom God covenanted, but when he raises his eyes, he sees an innumerable multitude, composed not just of Israelites, but of those from “every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”

Are these different groups? No! They’re the same, just understood in two different ways. Let’s start with the number: 144,000–This is a number of perfect completeness in biblical symbolism–12 tribes x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10. Who are the 144,000? They are a completed Israel, the full company of God’s covenant people. 

And I use the word “company” intentionally, because the passage then lists the subgroups, very methodically and specifically, right? “12,000 from the tribe of Judah, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben…” Why does John take the time to list all this? Because this is a census, like we’ve seen in the Old Testament, this is an accounting of the people. And in ancient times, you take a census when you’re about to march into battle. These 144,000 who have been sealed are God’s warriors, meant to go out and wield the gospel of Jesus the Lamb in and against the world. And as that word goes out, people of every tongue and tribe and nation and people join the ranks. So when John looks and see an innumerable multitude, he’s seeing the real dimension of the true Israel.  The New Covenant people of God are the true Israel—and they are from every age and every language and every people. 

Here is a vision of God’s promise to Abraham in its fulfillment. What were the promises to Abraham? “Look toward heaven,” God tells him, “and number the stars, if you are able to number them. So shall your offspring be.” (Gen 15:5). Not only countless descendants, but also that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. And John sees it realized—in that vast vision. 

But what are they doing? What does life in heaven look like?

Agnus Dei Painting by Jose Campeche y Jordan
Agnus Dei (Cordero místico), Jose Campeche y Jordan

The Worship of Heaven

Heaven, as it’s revealed by Scripture, is a worship service.  It’s a liturgy. Look at what the multitude are doing (v. 9-10): “standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

Notice their position: these blessed saints, Christ’s body, the Church—are  standing before the throne of God. Do you remember the Old Covenant? Only the highest priest could enter the holy of holies on one day a year, after a week of washing and offerings and preparation, and even then they tied a rope around his waist because he was as likely as not to die from being in the presence of such a holy God. And yet, in this vision, here is every believer, every person marked with the seal of God, standing, unveiled, seeing God face to face, gazing upon the beauty of the LORD.

Notice their clothing: white robes, which an elder will tell John in verse 14 were  “washed…and made white in the blood of the Lamb.” Do you remember where clothing first appears in Scripture? Do you remember in Genesis, when God sewed animal skins to cover the shame of nakedness that a sinful Adam and Eve brought on themselves? What a long way these robes are from those tunics. These white robes don’t merely cover shame; they proclaim the gospel of forgiveness, they proclaim the glory of purity, of righteousness, that Jesus shares with us when we are united to him by faith.

Notice what they’re holding: palm branches. These recall the palm branches Israel carried and waved at the Feast of Tabernacles, where they celebrated God’s provision of fruitfulness and remembered his protection as they made pilgrimage after the Exodus. And, let’s just notice here–they’re wearing clothes, they’re waving branches–they have bodies. The saints in heaven are not disembodied spirits floating around, they’re not projecting avatars in some metaverse; they, like Jesus, stand before God’s throne in resurrected bodies. 

And notice what they’re doing: crying out, in unison, in a loud voice, the acclaim of their Savior and God. While judgment is soon to fall around them, they declare with joy “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (v. 10). 

Here they proclaim an inverse Hosanna. You probably remember that “Hosanna” means something like, “Save us, we pray! Deliver us!” This Jesus’ admirers shouted as they waved their palm branches, when Jesus entered Jerusalem before the Passover, “Hosanna to the son of David.” But now, since the Jesus the Lamb has been slain and has claimed his victory over sin, death, and the devil, and has and ascended into heaven, the saints now proclaim, “You have saved us! Deliverance belongs to our God!”

You Are a Member of the Communion of Saints - The Bishop's Bulletin


But, wait a second, we’ve described them, but who is it exactly we’re seeing worship in Revelation 7? We’ve said they’re the full multitude of the sealed, but what does that mean? Who is this host? That’s the question one of the elders asks John, and for which he has no answer. 

It’s a crucial question for us, this morning, because if this is the vision of what  life in heaven is, we should want to know who gets to participate. 

Chapter 6 closed with a desperate question: “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord?” Chapter 7 provides the answer. Those who can stand in the presence of a holy God are martyrs, they’re priests, they’re sheep of the Great Shepherd. Let’s consider each of those. 

First, they’re martyrs. Let’s go back to some of the details. After the fifth seal is opened in chapter 6, John sees martyrs come out from under the altar of heaven, and the martyrs cry out, “How long, O Lord, before you judge? How long before you vindicate us?” They’re given white robes and, then, unexpectedly, told to wait. What are they supposed to wait for? They must wait until “the number their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” They have to wait for more martyrs. 

And now, in Revelation 7, here they are. These martyrs also have white robes, cleansed by blood. They have been witnesses on earth, they are the one who have endured what the elder calls a “great tribulation.” Whenever the Gospel of God’s Kingdom goes forth, it converts hearts and it provokes opposition. Those who bear public allegiance to God, over and against the rulers of this world, will face opposition, persecution, perhaps even death. But remember—these martyrs did not and could not possibly face their persecution, their suffering for Jesus’ name’s sake, alone. Remember the beginning of this chapter—these martyrs have been sealed. God has put his name upon them, and He preserves them, keeps them faithful, all the way through their suffering. And now these martyrs worship in glory the One to whom they were faithful.

We notice that martyrs are also priests. That seal on the forehead. Who else in Scripture bore the seal of the living God on their forehead? The high priest! In Exodus 28 we learn Aaron wore a golden plate on his forehead, identifying him, representatively, as “Holy to the Lord.” The elder says in verse 15 that these martyr-priests now come “before the throne of God,” just as the high priest did before the ark of the covenant, and they “serve him day and night in his temple.”

How else do we know these are priests? Look at what they’re doing. They are leading the worship of heaven. They’re leading it! In Revelation 5, it’s the four living creatures and the twenty-four elder archangels who lead the service. “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” And then the angels join in. And then every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea joins in. 

But here, as the martyrs have been gathered in, we notice a change. It’s the human host of heaven now leading the heavenly service. The people declare God’s glory in salvation, to which, now, the elders and living creatures and angels all respond, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Martyrs will lead as priests in the worship of heaven, before the throne of the God who will bestow every heavenly blessing upon them. 

And they do receive every blessing. Every blessing promised to Israel, every blessing promised by Jesus, every blessing for which you long in your moments of deepest need, or sharpest pain, or greatest joy, finds its fulfillment in the presence of God who now tabernacles with his people. 

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water,and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

This is life in heaven. This is the life that will be, when, as we sang, “the saints triumphant rise in bright array.” 

Life in Heaven, Life on Earth?

This is the life of heaven. What does it mean for our life on earth?

For one, we can respond in worship.  Revelation has preached to us the gospel to which we respond in worship. Jesus, the Lamb of God, has triumphed over sin, death, and devil. He has trampled down death by death. Only the Christian can truly say, “Happy Halloween,” Happy All Hallows’ Eve, because only the Christian can face the forces of evil and the fear of death with a goodness and hope surely secured by the conquering Lamb. 

So we should worship, we should join in with the saints triumphant, the martyr-priests already leading the liturgy we will get to join. And we do! We worship with the saints in glory every time we gather before our common Lord to ascribe to him glory and honor and wisdom and power. It’s there, explicitly, in our Eucharistic liturgy, “Therefore we praise you, joining our voices with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your Name: Holy, Holy, Holy.” 

So we can respond by worshiping. We can also respond by receiving comfort. We can rest a while in the unveiled knowledge that one sure day we shall stand before the throne of God and offer him with our whole being, in resurrected bodies, the worship which He is due. We can take comfort and take strength that we, too, have been sealed, in our baptism—you who are baptized have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance in glory. You have been marked as Christ’s own. And if you have not yet been baptized, let me exhort you to speak to Fr. Herb, to myself, to a fellow Christian about being baptized posthaste.

And finally, we respond by living as martyrs. Every Christian—every one of us who has been buried with Christ in baptism and raised into the power of his resurrection life and given the Holy Spirit—is called to martyrdom. Jesus was a martyr, and we do what Jesus does. What does a martyr do? A martyr witnesses and sacrifices. Jesus witnessed to the love of the Father, to the joy of the Kingdom. He sacrificed himself, that we might be forgiven and set free. And so we, too, must witness and sacrifice. Our lives must bear witness to the authority and lordship of the risen Jesus. We must bear witness to the forgiveness of sin that we have received at Jesus’ hands. And this witness we bear may cost us, as it cost the martyrs of Revelation. Perhaps we won’t be called upon to shed our own blood, but you may well be called to forfeit status, comfort, a promotion, a job for the sake of your witness to Jesus. And the reward for  your witness—to rule with God in heaven—far exceeds the light and momentary affliction and tribulation we might face. We shall overcome, the martyrs say later in Revelation, we shall overcome by the blood of the Lamb, and the word of our testimony. 

It that’s an intimidating call, it’s supposed to be. It’s a call to no less than sainthood. But take heart. It’s All Saints’ Day. 

When the strife is fierce, 
the warfare long,
Steals on the ear
The distant triumph song.
And hearts are brave again,
And arms are strong,
Alleluia, alleluia.

Jesus the Lamb has overcome the world, and to him, and to the One who sits on the throne belong salvation. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.

Empyrean, Gustav Dore.

What Is It Like to Be a Jesus?

A Sermon for Proper 8 | Mark 5:21-43

Raising of Jairus’ Daughter | Paolo Veronese | 1546
Audio of the sermon as delivered on June 27, 2021 at Christ the King Anglican Church in Birmingham, AL.

Introduction: What is it like to be a bat?

There’s a famous essay by the philosopher Thomas Nagel entitled, “What is it Like to Be a Bat?” Now, I realize it’s probably not the best time in human history to talk about bats, but, here we go anyway.

From their pinched creepy faces to their webbed-hand wings, bats are weird creatures. Perhaps most strange is the way they sense the world around them—through echolocation. You know the expression “blind as a bat” because bats have eyes less for function and more to complete that terror-inducing, soul-shriveling look. Instead, to get around, they screech out their sophisticated and creepy bat-noises, and then they have just unbelievably fine-tuned ears to catch and interpret the echoes such that they know precisely where they are, what their environment is like, and how big the nearest prey or predator is.

And Nagel talks about bats in this essay as a way of exploring the elusive nature of conscious experience. He’s asking the question: Can we know what it is like to be any conscious subject other than ourselves? And he uses bats because their mode of being in the world—while sophisticated, is so utterly unlike our own. And he’s genuinely asking, can we have any idea what it’s like to be a bat?

And his answer is: No. 

We love to explain things we don’t understand in terms of things that we sort of do understand. So when it comes to something as mysterious as consciousness, we humans will grasp onto anything familiar to try to explain it. 

We’re also very good at seeing ourselves in other things—we anthropomorphize, to use the high school English class word. We attribute human qualities to non-human things. 

So when it comes to bats, we humans can project, we can analogize, we can close our eyes and let out an “eeeee” and see how it sounds in the room, and think, ‘Yeah, I more or less know what it’s like to be a bat.” Or perhaps the more scientific among us can devise ingenious experiments and instruments to measure the pitch and quantify the decibels and pinpoint the mechanisms of echolocation, and then can think, “Yeah, I more or less know what it’s like to be a bat,” but even then, we only know a few things about bats. Our best objective observations lack entirely the first bit of subjective experience of being and always having been a bat. Whatever we imagine it’s like to be a bat is our human projection of human experience onto what we as humans can observe about bats. But it’s not actually what it’s like for a bat to be a bat. So we don’t actually know what it’s like to be a bat. 

Egyptian bats

Where am I going with all this? Well this week, as I meditated on our gospel passage, a question persistently pushed itself to the front of my mind: “What is it like to be a Jesus?”

What is it like to be a Jesus? 

That probably sounds like a silly question, even just grammatically. “What is it like to be a Jesus?” That indefinite article just sounds wrong. “A Jesus?” It might even sound a little blasphemous. Jesus refers to one person, thank you very much. But I think having the “a” there can be helpful, at least for a moment, because it forces us to consider that when we’re talking about Jesus, we’re talking about a truly unique person, a unique being. 

It’s worth pausing from time to time and being overwhelmed at the brain-breaking puzzle of what a Jesus is. To ask, “What is a Jesus?” is another way of asking the question we heard out of the nearly-shipwrecked disciples’ mouths last week: “Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”

And strong, true statements about what Jesus is and who Jesus is are possible because God has revealed himself in Christ—he has, in his mercy, stooped down and made himself comprehensible to us. The Gospels themselves are eyewitness accounts from the disciples, testifying to the identity of Jesus as Messiah and Lord and God.  So we are, brothers and sisters, on firm ground in knowing who Jesus is. 

But again, we’re faced with the bat question—we can affirm things about Jesus, absolutely. We can confess the creeds with surety of faith. But do we know anything about what it’s like to be Jesus? Do we have any idea what his experience was and is? Scripture tells us that Jesus knows our human experience as his own—he knows what it’s like to be a human—frail, tempted, tested, broken, joyful, despondent, hopeful, desperate. 

But can we take a similar step: can we know something of what it’s like to be Jesus? Can we know something about the internal experience, the way of being, the way of seeing, the way of interacting with others, that Jesus introduced to this world? Can we know the heart of our Savior? Can we know the mind of our Lord? 

Unlike Nagel and his bats, I think we can know what it’s like to be a Jesus, we can know, by God’s gracious revelation, something of how Jesus perceived and felt and acted, and that that knowledge reveals to us more of the glory of the Jesus who is the image of the invisible God. 

Let me try to show you what I mean, in classic three-point fashion.

Jesus and Time

So our question is: What is it like to be Jesus? First, it is to inhabit time in a unique way. In this story packed with urgency and longsuffering, Jesus is unhurried, he is patient. His sense of urgency is tuned to a different frequency than every other person in the crowd and in the story. Time orders itself around Jesus, Jesus does not need to order himself to time. 

Our gospel reading opens with Jesus and his disciples re-crossing the Sea of Galilee after the remarkable incident with the Gadarenes, who respond to his miraculous exorcism of the demoniac with rejection, in the words of a Richard Wilbur poem: “If You cannot cure us without destroying our swine, We had rather You shoved off.” So he does. And there, on the other side of the sea, is—you guessed it—another crowd ready to press him. Each person there likely has his or her own agenda—idle curiosity about the pig-killer, earnest desire for blessing, desperate need for healing. But in this great crowd, there are already two people in particular marked for Jesus’ unique intervention, one in a moment of acute crisis, another who’s at the end of a twelve-year trial.

Jairus is a man who leads the local synagogue. He is a respected, respectable, religious leader. He’s the man to whom you bow before you address him. But the urgency of a situation beyond his authority–the fading life of his beloved daughter— leads Jairus to push through a crowd and fall at Jesus’ feet. You might’ve experienced this same acute sensation of time passing in a crisis moment—Jairus can feel the minutes, the seconds clawing away at his daughter’s life. 

Mark says simply that Jesus went with him. A whole crowd clamoring for his attention, and Jesus responds to Jairus’ desperate need. You can imagine pretty easily Jairus’ desperate relief in that moment, how he tried in a dignified way to get Jesus to pick up the pace, how annoyed he must have been that the huge crowd decided to just tag along to spectate the worst day of his life. But the hope that’s there, “The teacher is coming; she’s gonna make it!” And I’ve always been crushed to consider what Jairus must have felt when Jesus suddenly comes to a dead stop, and asks, “Who touched my garments?” Does Jesus not remember that Jairus’ daughter is at the point of death? That every second counts? The disciples definitely think he’s joking—“You see this crowd, Jesus? Who isn’t touching you? Let’s go!” 

But Jesus’ sense of time is not that of the world. The order of his days is not the order of the minute agenda, or the optimized schedule, or the triple-urgent please read now. He—the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end—has all the time in the world. So when it serves his divine purpose—in this case, the healing and restoration of a woman who has suffered and been marked as unclean and divided from her people and the worship of God for 12 long years—Jesus is ready to pause in the midst of a time-sensitive crisis to look around, to give the woman a chance to work up the courage to tell him the whole truth, to look into her eyes and affirm her faith and restore her to wholeness. 

But to Jairus, even as he witnesses this miraculous healing, that pause has to seem like a terrible mistake. Because in that pause, what Jairus sees as his last hope is extinguished, and the news breaks in from the urgent world—”Your daughter is dead. It’s too late. Don’t trouble the teacher anymore.” Again, we have a marked contrast in the perception of time. Where the world says, “It’s too late. It’s over. Time to move on.” Jesus can yet say, “It’s not. It hasn’t even started. Don’t be afraid. Only believe.”

When they get to the house, the world of efficiency has already set the mourners to mourning. When Jesus tries to recalibrate them, “Why are you mourning? She’s not dead, only sleeping,” they mock him. They don’t have time for a man who can’t see what time it is. But it’s they who have misread the clock, that when Jesus is present, today is the day of salvation, now is the year of the Lord’s favor. 

So Jesus takes with him to the girl’s room only those who believe—Peter, James, John, and Jairus and his wife–he sits tenderly at the bedside, he speaks the girl back into life, and suddenly it is not a day of mourning, it is not the hour of grief, it’s breakfast time. To be Jesus is to determine, and not be determined by, time. 

Raising of Jairus Daughter, 1871 - Ilya Repin
Raising of Jairus’ Daughter | Ilya Repin | 1871

Jesus the Conscious Conduit of God’s Restoration

What is it like to be Jesus? Second, it is to be a conscious conduit of the triune God’s work of restoration. There’s a detail we get in this story that I don’t think we get anywhere else in the gospels, outside the versions of this story in Matthew and Luke. It’s in verse 30: Jesus “perceived in himself that power had gone out from him.”

Isn’t that fascinating? I don’t think Jesus is being disingenuous when he stops and asks, “Who touched my garment?” There really is a crowd jostling around him, but someone in that crowd reached out to him in faith, even perhaps a confused faith, but a genuine faith that Jesus was the only source of restoration in a world which had only multiplied her suffering. And Jesus, God in the flesh, without physically seeing her, feels power go out of him, feels power respond to that faith, to the effect that this woman feels immediately her ailment leave her. 

This is a bit speculative, so take it with a grain of salt, but I think we could extrapolate from this detail that Jesus always has some sort of sense perception of the kingdom of God working in him. I don’t mean some sort of spooky sixth sense. I definitely don’t mean Jesus is walking around like some video game character with a little green bar under him that depletes a little when he uses his power and then he needs some sort of power up or potion. I mean simply that Jesus, the God-man, in every interaction in his earthly ministry, could feel himself perched between the world fallen and the world redeemed, and can feel himself as the agent of that world’s restoration. I don’t think it’s too wild to imagine that at every healing and every exorcism and every natural miracle we read about in Scripture, Jesus can feel the world being put to rights, being restored to the created order which he also made in the beginning, and which God called “good.” 

Which is just another way of saying that Jesus lived in the constant communion of the triune God, whose common work is the redemption and recreation of sinful humanity and this fallen world. Jesus is a conscious conduit of God’s restoration because Jesus is in in constant communion with his Father in the Spirit. He feels the good pleasure of his Father, he feels the anointing of the Spirit, he feels the righting of the wrong like the resolution of a song. And we get a suggestion of that feeling, just in this moment. 

Ioan and Camelia Popa
Baptism of Christ | Iohn Popa & Camelia Ionesco-Popa | 2003

Jesus as Divine and Tender

And this brings me to the the third point. What is like to be Jesus? It is to wield the fullness of divine power in perfect tenderness. 

Let’s not miss one of the points of this passage: Jesus does what no human can do. Remember that the woman with a flow of blood has exhausted all of her options many times over. Verse 26 is just brutal, she “had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse.” For over a decade, she has suffered without relief, and then Jesus restores her health in a moment. 

And what Jesus does for Jairus exceeds his original hope. Jairus had begged our Lord to save his daughter from the brink of death. Instead, Jesus does the unprecedented: he reaches down and pulls her back up from death’s valley. 

And yet we must also notice that Jesus does not perform these divine acts as a cold god, stoically dispensing divine favors to those who say the magic words. He performs them as a loving, tender savior, attentive not just to the most pressing need, but to the deepest need. 

Consider again the woman: her suffering goes beyond the physical. For 12 years she has been unclean, untouchable, forbidden from joining her people, her family, in worship. Her approach to Jesus is not the desperate and bold begging of Jairus the synagogue ruler; her touch is defiling, she doesn’t want to be noticed. 

Jesus will heal this isolation, this psychological scarring as well. He not only restores her to bodily health, he calls her forward, to make herself known that she and the whole crowd might know that her faith has been placed in one who would see her in full fellowship, fully accepted. ‘Daughter,’ he calls her affectionately, ‘your faith has made you well.’ She who has been cast out is welcomed back. 

To the frantic and panicked Jairus, frozen at the news of his daughter’s death, Jesus doesn’t scoff at his loss of hope, “Don’t you know who I am?” Jesus looks him, eye-to-eye, and invites his deeper trust. “Do not fear,” Jesus says to him, not because there’s nothing fearful in this situation, but because He himself is there, alongside Jairus, even to the bedside of his daughter’s deathbed, and faith in this Jesus who accompanies us is the only means by which we will overcome fear and death. 

And for the daughter, who has had her own terrible day, has lived her own death, Jesus has tender, unforgettable words, “Talitha cumi,” “little girl, arise.” And having raised the dead, while the room goes giddy with amazement, Jesus has the presence of mind to tend even to her rumbling living tummy. 

File:Gabriel Max, La Résurrection de la fille de Jaïre (1878).jpg
La Résurrection de la fille de Jaïre | Gabriel Max | 1878

What is it like to be like Jesus?

So what is it like to be Jesus? It is to be perfectly unhurried and unpressed by time. It is to be a constant and conscious conduit of God’s restoration. It is to wield divinity with tenderness and total care. 

Let’s take these observations one step further. Because the Gospels not only reveal to us what is it like to be a Jesus, they not only reveal to us the life and experience of the God-man, they also reveal that this Jesus who heals and makes clean and raises to life intends for us to become like him. 

It matters that we know what it’s like to be Jesus because we are meant to be like Jesus. Paul is often on about it, “We have the mind of Christ. Your life is hidden with Christ in God. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. Indeed, those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom 8:29).” Jesus came down from heaven, was made man, laid down his life and took it up in again in resurrection power that we might become like him. Not only freed from the bondage of sin and death, but freed for the experience of his divine life. 

So I have some questions. 

What would it be like for you to inhabit time in the way Jesus did, and does? What would it be like—not in some hypothetical or ideal life, but in your actual, daily life—to  walk through your day not pressed by an unforgiving agenda or flitting from emergency to emergency, or from distraction to distraction, but instead to live as though this day is a day made by the Lord. What might you perceive, what ministry might be given you, when you see the child you need to calm, the traffic you need to endure, the tasks you need to get done, not as hindrances to your flourishing, or drains on your time, but as a moments intended by God?

What would it be like for you, like Jesus, to become a constant and conscious conduit of God’s restoration? What would you feel and see, again in your daily life, as you lived in full communion with the Father, through the work of the Son, in the union and power of the Spirit? How would your life—your same life, with the same relationships—come alive when you perceive that God intends to act for the restoration of the world in and through you?

And finally, what would it be like for you, like Jesus, to speak the gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation, with tenderness and total care to the world in which God has placed you? What needs have you been divinely equipped to meet? What hospitality, what welcome, what relief has God sent you to offer?

I haven’t worked out the answers to these, they deserve your own reflection and prayer this week.

But let me offer a place to start.

Think of where Jairus and the woman begin and end their interaction with Jesus—with faith. And not a perfectly secure, flawlessly reasoned, impenetrable faith. Their faith is desperate, and opportunistic, and perhaps tinged with magical thinking. But it is real faith and it is effective faith because of its object. Jairus and the woman have a straining, vital trust in Jesus. If you are overwhelmed at the prospect of knowing what it’s like to be Jesus—if the very idea seems lightyears away from your own experience, look again at the Jesus that you long to be like. See him still the urgent minute, see him in an instant heal the years of pain. See him restore the woman, see him raise the girl. Then think of what would keep you from following this Jesus—and hear him say, “Do not fear, only believe.”


Who Is It That Overcomes the World?

An Eastertide Sermon
from 1 John 5

Audio of the sermon as delivered on April 11th at Christ the King Anglican Church, in Birmingham, AL.

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

1 John 5:1-5

Keeping the Feast

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

I’ll be honest, I’m exceeding glad those get to be my first words from this pulpit. Because that’s what every preacher really just wants to do. I mean, sure, of course, there’s the need for instruction and warning and correction and consolation and exhortation, but really it’s all aiming at that word of pure exultation. It’s all so many words to get to say with real feeling that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed, Christ the Lord is risen today, let us keep the feast! Amen?

And I hope you’ve been keeping the feast, brothers and sisters. I have. I’ll give a small example. Some days at my school we’ll have speakers come and there will be lunch provided. And all Lent, I’d eat my way through those boxed lunches until I got to that cookie at the bottom. And every week, I’d sigh, I’d question the wisdom of fasting—“Did Jesus really command this?”—but then I’d finally relent, and offer the cookie to a Baptist. 

But this week, brothers and sisters, we had a guest speaker, and I ate through my little boxed lunch, and came to that cookie at the bottom, and you know what I did? I ate that cookie to the glory of God. It wasn’t even good. It was an objectively disappointing cookie. But let me tell you, I experienced in that moment the joy of my freedom in Christ. 

So here we are, sittin’ pretty only one week into the great Eastertide feast. The celebratory beer has been cracked, the festal steak has been grilled and devoured, you posted that Easter selfie on the social media site you’d set aside for forty days, and you looked great, by the way. You really did. 

However, in the midst of the abiding joy I hope you are experiencing, you might also, in this past week, have had some rather un-Easter-like experiences or feelings. You might be experiencing not only Eastertide, but also Post-Easter Slump-Tide, or PEST, as I’ve called it ever since… I needed an acronym for this sermon. 

But, truly, I don’t actually want to make light of the experience—it’s typical, it’s emblematic of the conflicted life we live on the near side of Jesus’ return, his final victory. It’s the flip side of the experience Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 6: “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing… as having nothing, yet possessing everything… as dying, and behold, we live.” In Eastertide we might find ourselves rejoicing, yet somehow still sorrowful; we possess everything, and yet we continue to experience loss; our life is eternally secure in Christ’s resurrection, and yet here are bodies are, still dying. 

Already this week, perhaps, you’ve squared up against the world. You faced down what John had previously identified for us as “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life” (1 John 2:16). Perhaps your sweet release from fasting revealed that certain pleasures still have too strong a sway over you. Or maybe the world has tried to reassert itself in response to your joy—a long illness continues to flare, a strained relationship continues to sting, an absence to which you will never adjust continues to cut a hole in the pit of your stomach. 

Yesterday I was in North Carolina to help bury my Papa, my dad’s dad, who on Easter Monday slipped all too suddenly from this vale of tears. 

Already, in the first week of the feast which celebrates Jesus’ great and final victory, you’ve experienced loss, defeat, despair. 

Already, we’re asking again that question which John poses in today’s epistle reading from 1 John 5: Who is it that overcomes the world? Who is it? Who overcomes the world? 

Now, because most of you here are followers of Jesus Christ, and any of you who aren’t yet at least know you showed up this morning to a Christian church to observe or participate in Christian worship, you can probably guess what my answer is going to be. But I want us to earn that answer, and show why it’s not just the pious response, but the true and vital news which we call gospel. Because that is the vital question, for each of lives: who is it that overcomes the world? 

What does it mean to overcome?

As any researcher worth her salt will tell you, seeking an answer is a useless exercise if you don’t have at least some grasp on the question you’re asking. 

We already have a pretty strong grasp—at least an intuitive one—on what John means when he says “the world.” The world is anything and everything that opposes the delightful rule of God. It’s your twisted will, it’s the devil and his works. It’s your lust and your gluttony and your anger.  It’s every human system of oppression and exploitation. It’s your little addiction. It’s every spirit that does not confess Jesus. It’s internet porn. It’s chronic illness. It’s death. We know “the world” all too well. 

But that verb—to overcome—that thing we’re supposed to do to the world—what does it mean? Actually, take a second, do some free associating. What pops into your mind when I say, “to Overcome”.

That word probably conjures a host of images, each of them, in its own way, a valid application of term. 

You might go the literal and violent: to overcome is the valiant warrior victorious in battle or, more sinister, the invader who kicks down the door and claims what his not his own. Or, with March Madness right behind us, your mind might have gone to the underdog and the buzzer-beater.  Or perhaps, your mind goes to that song, first a gospel song turned union protest song turned anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome” with its stirring melody of solidarity and hope. 

Each of these images has its truth, but I want to offer this morning one more picture of what it means to overcome—an image given by our other Scripture readings—and one which I think will best unlock the meaning of, and the answer to, our question from 1 John: Who is it that overcomes the world? 

Picture a house, better yet, picture, if you can, a walled city, standing tall and proud. It is serene, it is noble, it is unmovable. You might be picturing Gondor at this point, but even that’s not grand or secure enough. Its walls are thick and its ramparts high, it’s pinnacled with blue pennants pointing in the breeze.  

File:N. Roerich - The Fortress Tower. Nizhny Novgorod. From the Series of  Architectural Sketches - Google Art Project.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
The Fortress Tower, Nizhny Novgorod. Nicholas Roerich. 1903.

But it was not always so. This was a besieged city—a city hard pressed by natural disaster and human attack. The enemy was at the very gates. But this city could not be shaken. It has weathered the worst storm; its enemy is utterly spent and empty. No threat can any longer stand against it, for this city has overcome, and it cannot be overcome. 

That is the picture we are given in our reading from Isaiah 26 this morning.

In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: “We have a strong city; he sets up salvation as walls and bulwarks. Open the gates, that the righteous nation that keeps faith may enter in.”

Isaiah 26:1-2

This song of salvation appears in the midst of a section of Isaiah which is primarily concerned with to the judgment of God against the world. “In that day,” it says, looking forward, from Judah’s present experience of imminent threat and uncertain existence to the day when God will judge the nations, and vindicate the people He has chosen for his own. So this promised city of Isaiah 26 stands in stark contrast to the city of Isaiah 25, in fact we have a sort of tale of two cities. If you simply cast your eyes over to chapter 25, verse two, we read there that God’s enemies can expect their cities to be turned into heaps, their fortified towns into ruins, their strongholds into rubble which can never be rebuilt. 

So overcoming the world does in fact have that sense of conquering. God will overcome his enemies, which is to say God will soundly and permanently disempower, judge, nullify all the persons and forces which oppose his restorative purpose. He will turn every evil purpose to nought. 

But all that judgment serves the higher, saving and renewing purpose of God–the establishment of that strong city. “As always,” one commentators writes, “God destroys the false, only to raise up the true.” 

And so indeed, in response to God’s triumph over evil, Isaiah pens this song of thanksgiving in chapter 26: “We have a strong city; he sets up salvation as walls and bulwarks.”

Who is it that overcomes the world? We here have our answer: whoever lives in that strong, unconquerable city of God. 

Where is this city? How was it built?

Well Deacon Zack, you might think, that’s all fine and pretty, it’s a lovely image, Isaiah’s a very nice poet. But what does it have to do practically with overcoming the world? What is this city? Where is it, exactly? How does a person enter it?

I’m glad you asked. 

“In that day” Isaiah introduces the song. From Isaiah’s perspective, from Judah’s, this is a city yet to arrive. In fact, it’s a city that will come at the end, a city to remember in song until it arrives in God’s timing and God’s power. 

We, beloved, are fortunate to hear this song on the far side of God’s mighty act of salvation. God has established this city, he has built it upon the chief cornerstone—the one the builders rejected—our crucified and risen Lord Jesus. This tall and proud city, unable to be conquered, has been established by Jesus who was and who remains “the light shines in the darkness, and which the darkness has not overcome.” 

In the very Passion and Resurrection which we have just celebrated, God has established his salvation through Christ Jesus. He has sunk the walls deep and thumped the bulwarks into place. 

This is the wall that protects: not only that Jesus has borne our sin, but that he has trampled down death by death.

This is the sure bulwark: not only that Jesus Christ is risen, but that the Lord is risen indeed

How do we dwell within it?

“We have a strong city” Isaiah’s song continues. Who is this “we”? Dare we number ourselves among them? Well remember, the gates to this city are are open! The salvation is so secure, is so well-established and founded, the enemy is so spent and soundly defeated that the city doesn’t need to keep its gates closed. 

And the gates are open to you who have faith. You who trust. Notice! When Isaiah writes that the gates are open to the “righteous nation that keeps faith” this is precisely in accord with John’s statement in 1 John 5: “This is the victory, this is the conquering power: our faith.” 

You who believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah, you who believe that in Christ God has established his salvation: welcome in! For you “who trust in the LORD forever,” for you who “love the Father,” for you who “love your fellow children of God,” for you who “obey his commandments,” God flings open the gates and ushers you straight to the feasting table.

File:N. Roerich - And We are Opening the Gates. From the «Sancta» Series - Google Art Project.jpg
And We are Opening the Gates. Nicholas Roerich. 1922.

What if I don’t have the faith?

But. Perhaps this still doesn’t quite sound like good news to you. You whose faith is feeble, or faltering. What if—like Thomas—doubts assail you? What if the whole promise of salvation by faith seems a little too tidy to your cynical mind to be true?

What if you still feel the enemy—the world—assaulting you? What if temptations still hang on your soul like vampires? What if your very own body seems to have turned against you? 

What if you feel far, far removed from a city of peace and light and security? What if you have built up your own walls, your own private bulwarks, which you desperately hope will fend off, even for a moment, your sadness and your pain? What if you feel alone—even utterly alone—in your suffering or your fear or your grief? What if, instead of the proud citizen of the peaceful city, you feel, instead, huddled and afraid and trapped in your own room? 

Well, here is where I want to turn to our gospel reading from this morning, John 20. There’s so much in these post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, but I want to draw our attention to one detail that shows up twice. In John 20, when Jesus appears to his huddled disciples and when he appears to them again, when Thomas is with them, we read this, “the doors were locked.”

Indeed, by this point, the disciples had heard their own eyewitness testimony: the tomb was empty. But as last weeks gospel reading from Mark reminded us: the fact of the empty tomb was not immediately and unambiguously good news. The women who found it trembled in awe and fear. The disciples, speechless at the wonder, knew that, practically speaking, this might end in accusations of grave robbing, of further insurrection, of, in the worst case, their own crucifixion. So the doors were locked. They were afraid. They had been faithless. They were not, in that moment, those who overcome. 

And what happens?

Jesus laughs at the locks on the doors, he denies the deadbolts, he walks through the walls and he says, “Peace be with you!”

And so would Jesus step through the walls you’ve erected out of doubt and fear and sin and striving, and say to you, “Peace be with you. I am with you.”

The faith by which we enter the City of God, the faith by which we ourselves also overcome the world isn’t some abstract belief in the hypothetical might of an omnipotent God. You don’t get access to God’s festal city by figuring out a sufficiently grand concept of absolute power. No, the faith that overcomes the world is trust in Jesus, the Son of God who came to us and still comes to us in the midst of our weakness and fear and bids us peace. 

Nor is it an abstract peace, an eternal coffee break or mindfulness exercise which would distract us from the horrors and evils and bitter griefs of this world. It is the real peace of the real reconciliation which Jesus made when he gave his body and shed his blood for you. It is the real peace of death’s defeat, of the resurrected Messiah sharing his incorruptible life with us. Of the only one who actually has it offering us peace.

In fact, this is the only way into the City of God, his dwelling place. The faith by which the righteous nation gains access to the city is not a clean moral sheet, a catalogue of perfect doctrine and flawless obedience. It is absolute dependence on our Lord and Savior Jesus. 

This is our victory, John says—our faith. Or as Isaiah puts it, “He who trusts in God, she who stays her mind on Christ, will be kept in perfect peace.” This trust is  not just a stubborn hope that someday things will go your way, someday you’ll finally catch your break. God doesn’t deal in vague, airy-fairy hopes; He puts skin in the game, He puts blood on your head. It’s a real victory Jesus has won, which means we respond with real, living, daily trust in Jesus who is Israel’s promised Messiah and the very Son of God. 

When you fear, Jesus would burst in and say, “Look at me.” When you doubt, Jesus shows you the wounds by which he has overcome the world. 

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. Caravaggio. 1603.

You who feel with each new day that you have not yet overcome the world–indeed, you who feel that perhaps the world has overcome you, take heart. For in the moment you cast yourself on the mercy of God, and every moment you place your trust in Christ, you belong to the one who says, “Take heart, you who will have tribulation in this world, for I have overcome the world.” We who die with him with also be raised with him.  

Jesus is the Paschal Passover lamb broke down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility between humans, whose perfect and final sacrifice rent the curtain which divided the Holy God and we impure persons. And he broke down that wall and rent that curtain that he might open wide the gates of God’s city and say, “Enter, my beloved.”

Alleluia. Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast. Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. Its energy is spent. Its strength is split. The death that Jesus died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 

So—peace be with you!—also consider yourselves dead to sin, brothers & sisters, and alive to God in Jesus Christ our LORD. Alleluia. Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die—as in Adam all face down the world flesh and devil—so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Shall all overcome the world. Alleluia. 

Who is it that overcomes the world? It is you, my brother. It is you, my sister, who see Jesus the deliver of Israel, Jesus the Son of God Incarnate, who see him come to you and say to you, “Peace be with you!” Trust him, and walk through the gates. Sing the song of salvation, taste the feast of victory, of life which has overcome the world.