a sermon on 1 John 3:1-3 and Revelation 7:9-17 for All Saints Sunday
preached on November 6, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
“What will happen to me when I die?” People ask this question a lot, particularly as children or in facing a difficult illness or old age, and questions like this are very much on the minds of many people who make their way to church. The afterlife is a part of religious belief and practice around the world and across many centuries, and a great deal of our human thinking about religion and spirituality is centered on this question. The church culture in which I was raised also had a lot to say about these things. I remember hearing about an evangelism program at the church where I grew up that would start conversations about Jesus with the question, “If you died tonight, where would you go?”
While this is an important topic of faith for many people, there are others for whom the afterlife isn’t quite as important – the focus instead is on the ways in which our faith, belief, and practice can change and transform our current world as much as the next. The old gospel hymn “When We All Get to Heaven” doesn’t speak so clearly in this mindset – the traditional images of heavenly mansions, clouds in the sky, pearly gates, and streets of gold represent an incomplete vision of what lies ahead for us as people of faith in this mindset, for the important things lie in this world as much as in the next.
Nonetheless, after we have looked back over the past several weeks to our 140 years of life and ministry here and then with our remembrance of the Reformation last Sunday, our eyes turn heavenward today more than they do at any other time of year as we celebrate All Saints Day. Today we remember the generations of women and men who have gone before us in the life of faith and shown us how to live and love as Jesus did. Today we remember the saints, known and unknown, celebrated and ignored, dead and still very much alive, whose witness strengthens us to live the life of faith each and every day. Today we remember that there is an unnumbered multitude of the faithful who still sing God’s praise with us, but from another shore.
And so today our texts direct our attention to that place I so hesitate to go – to our understanding of what lies ahead for us in the world to come. These two texts are among many throughout the Bible that give small glimpses of the world to come. In the gospels, we hear Jesus describing the coming “kingdom of God” that looks very much unlike any of the kingdoms of this world and suggests a very different way of God at work in the world even today. The prophets of the Old and New Testaments speak words of longing for a world where justice is done for everyone and sorrow and pain are no more. In several letters in the New Testament, the apostles warn us not to inquire too much about the things that are ahead. Daniel and Revelation give us dark insights into the future for those who do not meet God’s approval. And John’s vision in Revelation offers us moments of great joy that come alongside the arrival of a new heaven and a new earth.
All these incredible words are too often merged into one single popular vision of “heaven” and “hell,” with angels and souls of faithful women and men floating around in the clouds of heaven and servants of the devil suffering in the eternal fires of hell. But the overall picture that emerges of the days ahead for us can’t be summed up so easily and wrapped up so neatly.
Our first reading from 1 John today reminds us so clearly of this, and it shows us the first of two really important principles I think we can keep in mind as we think about that day when we all get to heaven. The apostle tries to address the question of what is ahead for people of faith, for women and men who struggled with the challenges of living their faith in a time and place that didn’t welcome their different way of life, for people who knew the reality of persecution and struggle for their faith firsthand. So he reminds them that they are already children of God – an incredible and wonderful gift from God in and through Jesus Christ – even when the world doesn’t recognize it. Still, though, this status as children is not everything – “what we will be has not yet been revealed.” Things are not over, and there is something more to come that isn’t fully known yet – but we do know that “when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” In the midst of all that we don’t and can’t understand about the life of faith that is ahead, we can be sure of this much – that we are already children of God and that what is ahead will only make us more like God.
Our second reading tells us the second most important thing I think we can know about the time when we all get to heaven. In this portion of the book of Revelation, we have a brief interlude from John’s vision of great destruction to get a glimpse of the eternal praise that seems to one of the few other things we can be sure about for the days ahead. In this passage, John describes his vision of the new kind of life that lies ahead: a great unnumbered multitude robed in white from all nations and peoples singing God’s praise around God’s throne, an incredible gathering of people who have emerged from great trial and tribulation to celebrate and praise God, a new way of life and living that leaves hunger, thirst, and scorching heat behind for the wonder of life with God guiding and leading and caring for the people at every step of the journey. And so I think this is the second great image of the days ahead that we can take with us: that a multitude will praise God for all eternity because of the incredible ways in which God’s presence is finally and fully known in the world to come.
Beyond these two things, I don’t think we can say much more with certainty about the days ahead. When we all get to heaven, we can be sure that we will see God as God and be more like God and join the multitude praising God for all eternity for overcoming all the hardships and perils of our lives and this world. All this is reason for rejoicing here and now – for giving thanks to God for all the saints who already are making their way to this new way and place of life with God and for the possibility of new life for us and all creation in this world and the next.
But alongside our rejoicing, all this gives us the opportunity to join these faithful women and men in working with God to make all things new. We can embody the reality that we and all people are children of God now by standing up for those whose full humanity is not welcomed. We can show the wonder of God’s glory in our worship and praise and prayer every day. And we can work to make this world one where there is no more hunger, thirst, or scorching heat as we make our way to springs of the water of life. These are the things we should undertake to make our own in these days – the possibility and reality of God’s new thing taking hold in our lives and our world, in the here and now and not just in the world to come.
So until we all get to heaven, may God strengthen us for the living of these days by the memory and witness of all the saints and by the feast we share with them and all creation here as we look forward to the great feast that awaits us in the world to come.
Lord, come quickly! Amen.