The Heavenly Church

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 12, 2016

Revelation 7:9-17

Did you know, that women make up 51% of humans, and men only 49%? Perhaps that explains why men are so insecure. And, did you know, that our bodies are made up of about 60% water? I think that of that 60%, I’m at least 10% coffee. 60% of humans live in Asia. Sorry folks, North America humans only represent 8% of humanity. But most important of all, is that 100% of humans are going to die.

I hope this doesn’t surprise you. Because it should be pretty obvious. Death is simply part of the human condition. And in this sense, death is the great equalizer. There’s no getting out of it. Now, we try to avoid this. We cover up. We get plastic surgery to make ourselves look younger. We dye our hair so that the gray doesn’t show. We use euphemisms like “passing away” so we don’t have to say the “d” word. But whatever word we use, our fate is inevitable. We are going to die.

But where the world might be scared of death, and run from it, we as Christians, death means something else for us. Death, we believe, is not an ending, but only a new beginning.

We get a glimpse of this in the great vision from Revelation. Now, the book of Revelation is often misunderstood. You might hear that Revelation is scary, and that it’s about the end of the world and the apocalypse. Neither of those are true. So, just a little background. The word “apocalypse” in Greek means “revelation.” That is, a revealing. It’s the same word the Greeks would use to describe pulling back a curtain to seeing what’s beyond. If anything, Revelation is a book of hope. When Revelation was written, Christians were being persecuted and thrown to the lions. John, the author of Revelation, had been exiled from his community because he refused to worship the Roman Emperor and instead would only worship Jesus.

So the curtain has been pulled back, and we hear this description of the heavenly throne room. Here’s what it says: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.”

The vision might be a little startling. Who is in heaven? You’ve probably had this question before, who goes to heaven? Well, I don’t have the answer, but we have a description of who’s in heaven from Revelation. Who is in heaven? “A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” So, we oftentimes think that in heaven we’ll see grandma and grandpa, and our favorite dog. Yes, I do believe that all dogs go to heaven. Along with all dinosaurs and vultures and scorpions and spiders, and even mosquitoes. Yes, God loves the whole world. But it’s more than that. In heaven we’ll see a great multitude from every country, from every language, every color and gender and ethnicity and persuasion. Death, for Christians, is the great ingathering of all creation.

This vision of heaven also tells us that heaven is not about us. In our self-centeredness, we can think that heaven is about us. That it’s about being reunited with our family. That it’s about seeing the ones we love. But that’s not the vision. The vision of the heavenly throne room is that we are gathered around the throne and that we are facing the throne. We are not facing each other, we are all facing the Lamb. We are all looking at Jesus. Heaven is not about us, it’s about Jesus. Heaven is the continuous and eternal worship of the Lord Jesus and the Lamb.

And look, worldly possessions have no place in the heavenly throne room. The only things the saints are holding in their hands are palm branches. Those are signs of victory. Signs of God’s protection and shelter. No matter how much stuff you accumulate in this life, you don’t get to take it with you to the next. Your diamond ring, your car, your 401(k) – it all stays here.

Perhaps most radical of all, persecution and suffering and death is not bad for Christians. One of the elders addresses John and says, “these souls that you see, these are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The great ordeal. That means persecution and suffering for the sake of the Lord Jesus. See, in Christianity, when you suffer for Jesus, that’s something to celebrate. I know that in our culture we want to be comfortable. We hate it when somebody says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” But that is nothing. There are stories of Christian martyrs in the early days of the church who took their infant children with them to be killed. That way, their children would die as Christians rather than be raised as pagans. Death, for Christians, is a crown of glory not a badge of shame.

This vision of the heavenly throne room – a vision in which a vast multitude is there, in which there is no money or wealth, a vision in which death is a sign of victory – that vision is not just for the future but it is for today. As we pray in the Lord’s prayer, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The whole point of Christianity is not to live a good life that so that you die and go to heaven. The point is to follow Jesus in this life so that this world begins to look like the next one. So that when heaven does return to the earth, the project has already started. We work to make a beautiful, even a heavenly world here on earth. And that is the mission of the church. Imagine a church, imagine a church that looks like this vision from Revelation.

Imagine a church that gathers all people together, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. Imagine a church that does not discriminate or exclude, but a church that celebrates and embraces diversity. That is a vision of heaven. Imagine a church that gives itself away. Gives away its resources, its money, its people. Imagine a church that does not get concerned wound up with pettiness – what kind of donuts we have at coffee hour, who shows up for bible study and who doesn’t, who comes every week and who comes but twice a year. Imagine a church whose main priority is to worship God around the altar and the throne of the Lamb. Imagine a church that is not afraid of death. Imagine a church that celebrates and rejoices when our brothers and sisters die because we know that they are around the throne of the Lamb of God, where there is no thirst or hunger or tears. Imagine a church that itself is not afraid to die, and that when certain ministries have run their course, they’re allowed to die. Imagine a church that is bold enough to step out into the streets to proclaim the gospel even if it means that we will be ridiculed and mocked and scorned. Imagine a church that looks like heaven.

Yes, I believe that we’re going to heaven when we die. There will be no weeping, no hunger, no thirst. We will be united with the great cloud of all the witnesses and there will be no pain there. But we don’t have to wait until we die to experience heaven. Jesus invites us to live heavenly lives right here and right now. The joy of the heavenly life is not some pie-in-the-sky future, it is the life of discipleship in our own day.

That is the truth that John reveals to us. Following Jesus is a heavenly experience. And the church, including Holy Comforter, invites you into that heavenly life. And so here at Holy Comforter, we will not be defined by our superficial differences, but by our identity as baptized disciples of Jesus. We will not be afraid of death. We will not be afraid of letting things die so that new things can be born. We will not be distracted by the petty things, but remain united in the big thing which is the Lamb at the center of the throne. We will live knowing full well that our money belongs to God, and that we will all leave this world penniless.

From my perspective in this pulpit, I see a great multitude from many countries. From many continents: from South America, from the Caribbean, from Europe, from Asia, even as far as New Jersey. We speak many languages, our skin color is not all the same. Our ideologies and lifestyles are all different. But we are united around one altar, one lamb, one Lord. I invite to live your life with the church, to put away your fear of death, and start living like you’re already in heaven.