In the book of Revelation, John of Patmos recounts what God has unveiled before him in visions and in voices. One of the most famous passages from John’s writings is the one we hear today: a vision of a new heaven and a new earth. In this new reality, John writes, God is at home among the people. There is no mourning or crying or pain anymore. Even death has ceased to exist. All things are made new, and God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
Is this what is in store for us? I have to say, I hope so. It is one of the more beautiful passages in scripture about what might come next.
People often turn to the church, and to scripture, when they are wondering about the great mysteries of death and dying, heaven and eternity. And it’s not only adults. In confirmation class, this is always one of the most popular topics. Children like to ask questions about it, too. We all want to know what will happen to us in the great beyond. We are curious, also, about what will happen, and what has happened, to those we love.
These questions are particularly prominent in this time of year. I often think of this as the dying time. Leaves are falling and plants are sinking back towards the earth. People often find their way back to the earth, too, following the tidal movement of the season. This is a time when the barrier between the living and the dead feels thin, as we celebrate All Hallows Eve and The Day of the Dead and All Saints and All Souls. Today we’ll continue our series of visual sermons, focusing on what lies beyond.
When we think of the church’s view of what lies beyond, I am afraid that too many of us think first of the Last Judgement, an idea based around passages from the Gospel of Matthew and Luke. Here is Michelangelo’s depiction of God judging the people, sending some to heaven and others to hell. The idea is attractive because it is so concrete. Do good and end up somewhere good. Do bad and end up somewhere bad. Trust that God will mete out justice in the end to anyone who treats you badly. But what does this theology say about God?
Looking at the upper left hand part of this picture, you can see the people who are being elevated into heaven. This is the good news part of the picture. Everyone should look happy. But even though they are safe in the clouds, surrounded by light, they don’t seem to be enjoying themselves. Instead, they’re staring to the side in apprehension.
Maybe that’s because, right next to them, they see this: an absurdly muscular God making a threatening gesture, sending lots of other people down below…to flaming torment. I find nothing here that could be the will of a loving God.
Our scriptures and our church traditions were inspired by God, but formed and recorded by humans. Therefore, when an idea like the Last Judgement fails the test of demonstrating God’s love, it is best we look elsewhere for guidance. Thankfully, we have many other scripture passages that suggest an entirely different reality after death.
In the Gospel of John (Ch 14), Jesus is saying goodbye to his disciples. He tells them: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. I will go and prepare a place for you; I will come again and will take you to myself,so that where I am, there you may be also.”
In the book of Romans (8:38-39) Paul writes: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Throughout the scriptures, we learn that God loves us; that we belong to God; that we are made and remade in God’s image; that we are a precious part of God’s holy creation. It is fitting, then, that after our human lives are over, we would all return more deeply, more fully, to make our home in God, who is our beginning and our end.
This leaves, still, the question of saints, and souls. Where are those we have loved and honored? How can we visualize the great cloud of witnesses who are hovering around us?
Probably you have seen pictures like this: saints in gold, carefully posed. Most of our images of saints in the west are like this: white people, in fancy clothes, often with halos, lined up in orderly ways, as if for a photo opp. The saints knew how to stand in a line, apparently. These images are beautiful, but limited. Thankfully, some artists have tried to help us expand the way we imagine the saints.
Some of my favorite saint images are from the Catholic Cathedral in LA, where tapestries depict saints of all ages and cultures and skin tones, both famous and unknown, including children. These images help remind us that there have been holy people all around the world, and in every social location.
Another favorite is the work of Robert Lentz. He who writes icons and creates images that depict those who have not normally been recognized as saints: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Caesar Chavez,and Eve, mother of us all. Brother Lentz also depicts those who have been formally recognized as saints by the Catholic Church, but whom we may not be as familiar with, or choose to feature, including ancient Armenian saints Polyeuct and Nearchus, and the recently sainted Josephine Bahkita., from the Sudan.
While I love to be inspired to by the images and stories of courageous people who have changed the world, I have to admit that the most powerful saints and souls in my life are the ones that I have known, and cared for. Each of us have our own group of those we remember tenderly; here are a few images of those who many of us remember from our shared life here.
Beautiful, aren’t they?
Many of us experience fear or anxiety in thinking about death. All of us experience grief at the death of those we love. As we stand on this side of the mystery, God offers us at least two gifts. First, the promise that she is not only our beginning, but also our end, that she will provide a loving home for us. And also, that we will have with us in that home each person who has made our time on earth better: legions of saints and souls, a cloud of witnesses, also safely in God’s care, and accompanying us into eternity. Thanks be to God.