All Saints Sunday
Texts: Revelation 21:1-6a;
John 11:32-44; Isa 25:6-9
THE GOOD NEWS OF NEW CREATION: LIFE AFTER LIFE-AFTER-DEATH
It is an honor to be with you today, and in the weeks ahead, as your Bridge Pastor. While I’m here, there will be an underlying issue that I’ll address in all my preaching and teaching. In the background to everything I do will be the sadness we feel most weeks when we look around us on Sunday mornings. Mostly missing from our congregations are our children’s and grandchildren’s generations. There’s the pain of simply missing them, of not sharing with them something so important in our lives. But there’s also the existential question of, ‘Who will come after us?’
My passion as a preacher these days is to work toward possible answers. There are no doubt a number of factors in the dramatic drop-off of the younger generations from church. Some of them are largely out of our control, like global secularizing trends in human societies. But I firmly believe that there is a crucial factor which is very much in our control: we need a revitalization of our basic Gospel message.
So each week while I’m with you I will gradually unpack an element of a revitalized Gospel message. This week I begin with my strong conviction that our message has been far too focused on the afterlife, on going to heaven when we die. Here’s the thing for our children’s and grandchildren’s generations: they assume that part of our message about life-after-death, but then they ask:
‘How is the afterlife relevant to my life right now? This world is such a mess, isn’t it? When you’re feeling overwhelmed by the many crises currently facing you, why hang around with folks who talk so much about what comes after this life? Don’t you want help for what’s on your plate right now?’
But, and here’s the big question I’d like us to consider in the weeks ahead: what if the central part of our Gospel message is really about this life – namely, that God on Easter began a project of New Creation through raising Jesus from the dead? And what if God needs us right now to join in that project? Would our children and grandchildren find that relevant to their lives and be more motivated to join us at church?
I’d like to share a story from a Christian writer and teacher who has been very important to me, Brian McLaren. We’ve become friends over the past ten years. In his latest book Faith after Doubt (pp. 132-34), he very much addresses the questions we’re asking this morning. He tells of a recent encounter with a young woman named Charis.
Charis came up to Brian after a talk he’d given and invited him to coffee. She began, “Look, I’m almost thirty and I’m dating someone and it’s getting pretty serious. And eventually, we want to have children. . . . I wish I could find some group of people who have sifted through all the best from the past and use it to help people like me get a little more of that harmony in our lives that you talked about this morning. For all the problems I have with what I was taught growing up, I do feel that having a faith community was worth a lot to me. And I think the world will not be a better place unless we can find a way to have healthy faith communities without all the ______.” (Expletive deleted)
Brian began to respond regarding the struggle right now most churches are having in attracting the younger generations, but Charis interrupted, “I get it. I get it. They want the ‘millennials’ like me to come and save them. . . . Look, I do all the [trendy] stuff. I do yoga. I go to therapy. I do these online self-awareness-unleash-your-inner-goddess courses and stuff like that. But I’m not an idiot. I know about climate change and nuclear war and economic inequality and all that. The world is in such a mess! I don’t just want to be a good, happy, fulfilled, spiritual consumer while it all goes down the toilet. I want to be part of a group, a movement, that’s trying to . . . you know, save it. There. I said it. I want to be part of a community that isn’t obsessed with just saving their own damned souls, but that actually wants to try to save this world that we’re on the verge of destroying.”
Does this encounter sound at all familiar to you with any of the under-forty crowd in your lives? Have you had this kind of conversation with a friend or loved one of the younger generation? Do they express a hunger for ways of not just saving souls for the afterlife, but for saving people and God’s good creation here in this life? Something that will help them in the here and now? Well, if we recenter our Gospel message, then I think we might better satisfy their hunger.
It’s been there in Scripture all along if we only reframe our reading of it. Our frame, our lens through which we’ve been reading, has been focused on the afterlife, on going to heaven when we die. This is indeed a comforting part of the Christian message, but one that takes us off-center. In the Gospels, we see Jesus proclaiming the Gospel as, The kingdom of God is at hand! That definitely sounds like he’s talking about this life, not just the afterlife. And then for St. Paul — if we read him in terms of Jesus’s version of the Gospel — we realize that for him the kingdom of God has already been launched! Jesus being raised on Easter morning is the first day of a New Creation. (Paul uses language of “new creation” in 2 Cor 5:17, Gal 6:15, and Eph 2:15.) In other words, the center of the Gospel is God’s reign coming into the world through Jesus in order to redeem the entire creation.
In short, the comfort of the afterlife is one of being on the way to something much grander — namely, someday having a resurrection body like Jesus’s so we can enjoy a fully completed creation brought to harmony and peace. The really Good News, in the meantime, is being called to take part in God’s Easter project of New Creation. When millennials like Charis long to save the creation they’re living in, the Good News is that this is precisely what God is calling us to!
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright wrote the massive study eighteen years ago that has rocked the world of our understanding the New Testament (The Resurrection of the Son of God in 2003). In subsequent books for wider audiences (for example, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church in 2008), he refers to the wider Christian hope as life after life-after-death. In other words, the final destination is not life-after-death, in some heavenly paradise detached from the rest of creation. The final destination is the entire creation brought to complete fulfillment and us having new resurrection bodies to enjoy it. The Easter stories show us a Jesus who has a body, but it’s different somehow. It is a resurrection body, the kind St. Paul tries to describe in 1 Corinthians 15 (especially vv. 35-58). When we die, there will be life-after-death. We will somehow rest in God’s power of life. But then someday God’s work of completing and fulfilling creation will be done, and we will be given a resurrection body like Jesus’s so that we can enjoy that time when death will be no more, and God will wipe away any tears from our eyes. The final destination is not just life-after-death. It’s life after life-after-death.
When we have this different frame and center for the Good News in Jesus Christ, it gives us a different lens through which to read the Bible. Passages like today’s Second Reading jump out at us. There we don’t see people going to heaven as the final destination. No, in fact, the opposite! We see heaven coming down to earth to complete God’s good creation. The glorious vision is not just of a blissful heaven. It’s of a new heaven and a new earth because God’s heavenly way of doing things has finally brought peace to the whole creation.
And have you ever noticed that this is also true every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer? We don’t pray for God to take us to heaven when we die. We pray the opposite: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is heaven.” We’re praying for that vision of Revelation 21, of a new heaven and a new earth, the so-called New Jerusalem come down to earth — God’s reign of peace (Jerusalem means “God’s peace”) transforming the human reigns of war and domination.
Notice, too, in the hymn we will sing in a couple minutes, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ great All Saints Day hymn, “For All the Saints.” It certainly begins with that picture of life-after-death: all the saints go to their well-deserved rest in God’s power of life. But then notice, too, in verse 6 (in Evangelical Lutheran Worship; verse 7 in the Lutheran Book of Worship) the proclamation of life after life-after-death: “But then there breaks a yet more glorious day: the saints triumphant rise in bright array.” In short, the day of resurrection that comes after the heavenly time of rest, when we will rise with new bodies to enjoy the New Creation.
So let’s end with why this matters so much — two quick observations, one personal and one that’s at the heart of the church’s mission and message. First, the personal. On this All Saints Day, the people I miss the most are my Mom and Dad, who both died in the last ten years. In the Good News of New Creation, my parents feel closer to me. They aren’t in some far-off heaven. They are part of what I pray for every time I pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” I’m praying for the closeness of heaven to help me in my work of seeking to bring God’s peaceful reign to this earth. I’m praying for Jesus and all the saints — Mom and Dad included — to give me the courage and strength I need to face this world’s mess, working to make it a better place for our children and grandchildren.
It’s a bit like Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter Jaime was murdered in the Parkland High School shooting. Every time I hear him speak, what strikes me is the closeness he feels with Jaime. He talks about the closeness he feels with Jaime each and every day as he dedicates his life to making the world a more peaceful place. What kind of things do we dedicate our lives to, in seeking to make the world a better place? Do you feel the closeness of the saints, those loved ones who have died and now abide in Jesus? Do you feel the strength and courage of all the saints every time you pray for Jesus’s help to persevere in striving for the New Creation?
Here’s the bottom line of revitalizing our Gospel message: this world matters very much. It’s the same world that God made good in the beginning, and it’s the same world God sent Jesus to save from the powers of sin and death. Ask yourself: If our focus is mostly on the afterlife in the sense of leaving this world behind to go to heaven when we die, then why would this world ultimately matter? But if the final destination is actually heaven come down to earth, a creation brought to completion and fulfillment, then not only do we look forward to a life after life-after-death, but that very hope is what drives us to help bring it about. God so loved the world that God gave the Son to save it, and so we love the world, too, and we join God in seeking to save it. The project of New Creation was launched on Good Friday and Easter, is bolstered by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and is calling us to take part in making it happen. If we become more clear that this is what our mission and message are all about, do you think that Charis and our children and grandchildren might be interested? Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethel/Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, November 7, 2021