|"before & after" by funcrush28, on Flickr|
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." 6Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. (Revelation 21:1-6)
When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (John 13:31-35)
This week, I attended a gathering that involved a number of area clergy, of many and various denominations. And as we introduced ourselves, there were at least a few folks who blinked a few extra times and forced polite smiles when I, a woman, introduced myself as a pastor. I generally have two reactions to moments like this. First, I feel a little defensive and defiant, and square my shoulders up as if to say “Yup, I’m a girl. What are you gonna’ do about it?” And then I get over myself, and my second reaction is to remember that I am hitting against a longstanding boundary, one borne out of faithful people trying to live faithfully according to their understanding of who God is and how God works, and that people of faith come to different conclusions about all sorts of things, and that crossing or giving up certain boundaries is really difficult.
This recent encounter of mine is not entirely unlike the disciples’ reaction to hearing that Peter, a Jew, entered the house of Cornelius, a Gentile. They, too, blinked a few extra times, and raised their eyebrows, and then went one step further, openly criticizing him for crossing a longstanding – and yes, even God-given! – boundary, a boundary that was, for them, a mark of faithfulness.
To combat the criticism, Peter tells them the story of what happened to him; the story of the sheet and the clean and unclean animals, the voice of God speaking directly to him, changing his own rules about who was “in” and who was “out” of salvation, the story of Peter’s own new revelations about the gift of the Holy Spirit. And Peter closes his testimony with one hard-hitting, humbling, knock-out punch of a question: “If then God gave [the outsiders] the same gift [of the Holy Spirit] that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?"
Having grown up in a church that emphasized the consistency of God, and that took comfort in a God who never changed, today’s passage from Acts blew my mind the first time I read it all the way through. Because this story, perhaps more than nearly any other story in the Bible, reminds us that our greatest comfort is not a God who remains static and unflinching, but a God who reacts and responds to the world around us, who is willing to be a little bit unruly and do unexpected things and even change course if it means bringing more people into his kingdom. It tells us that God is far more interested in making us new than he is in sitting back, hands-off, just observing creation from afar.
This is the whole point of Christ coming to earth - that the world might change course, that God might offer us the new news of resurrection and life instead of the old news of sin and death.
Paul writes to the church at Corinth, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
The good news? You are a new creation. In Christ, God has birthed his new heaven and new earth in you and for you.
The bad news? You are a new creation. And so you can no longer simply rely on your old ways of being. The former things have passed away and you are now an agent of newness and transformation in the world, whether you like it or not.
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard writes, “The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?...Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God.”
And I would add, “Dreadful it is to fall in with a God who is constantly making things new!” Because once we’ve been made new, then we are a part of making the world new, and real, deep, lasting newness is hard.
It is so much easier to buy into the world’s small, false, or shallow images of newness than to live into God’s overwhelming, sweeping promise of a new heaven and new earth.
It’s easy enough to walk down the cleaning supply aisle of the grocery store and grab the spray bottle of tub and tile cleaner that has a “new formula!” sticker on it. But it’s hard to advocate for opening up the arms of the church to new people that the church has historically left out of its mission or ministry or leadership.
It’s easy for most of us to go out to eat and try something new off of the menu that we haven’t tried before. Bt’s hard to let God lead us to new depths of sacrifice for our neighbors, like the hard sacrifices of our time or our money, or the especially hard sacrifice of giving up our egos and our desire always to be right (not that I know anything about this one...).
It’s easy to buy a workout DVD or subscribe to a nutrition plan that promises us a new body in sixty days or our money back. But it’s hard to cling whole-heartedly to God’s promises not just of health but of wholeness, for our bodies and for our creation.
It’s easy to buy a new novel and read an enthralling, romantic love story. But it’s hard to live out God’s new and alternative definition of love that isn’t bound to romance, emotions, or likability…but rather to commitment and action.
This, my friends, is why Jesus gave us the directive to love, not just as a nice suggestion, but as a commandment. “A new commandment I give you,” Jesus says, “that you love one another as I have loved you.”
How did Jesus love? By smashing through boundaries and limits to touch the unclean and to eat with tax collectors and sinners. By widening the circle to include women and slaves and outcasts and children and fishermen as leaders and disciples. And to what end? That the ends of the earth might be a part of God’s kingdom of newness and life, a kingdom that transcends all the human divides that plague our existence.
And so in this post-Easter world, on the far side of the resurrection, God has set a challenge before us. That we take a risk with Peter in believing that God is really, truly, honestly making all things new. That we take a chance on love that transforms the world, even as we ourselves have been transformed.
Let me tell you. It’s hard work.
You know it as well as I do. I mean, think for a moment about your own life. Where are the places in your life where you would rather draw boundaries than tear them down? Who is that one person or group of people that you struggle to reach out to in love? What is one piece of tradition or history that you are reluctant to give up in order to let God widen the circle?
Stepping fully into God’s new heaven and new earth means taking a risk. It means taking a leap of faith.
And this is precisely why we keeping coming back to this place to worship and study, and why we read and re-read our Bible, and why us preachers keep preaching, and why we keep repeating confessions and creeds and keep coming back to this holy meal: because we need help entering again and again into the flow of God’s new and living water. We need help trusting that God is making our world new. We need assurance that we too can be bearers of this newness.
My friends, each one of you is a beautiful child of God. And each one of you is a new creation. May God continue to refresh and renew you, may Christ guide you to love as he loved, and may the Holy Spirit carry you on the rush of the wind to new places, smashing through old boundaries, that you might come face to face with the new heavens and new earth that God is creating in and among you.