I saw a new sky and a new earth; for the first sky and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from the sky, 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 people.
God will dwell with them as their God;
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.”
GOSPEL Matthew 5.1–12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the Realm of the Skies.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Realm of the Skies.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.
Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in the Skies, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’
Blessed are those who are persecuted….
Today, Is the Earth blessed, or merely threatened? A New heaven and a new Earth?
Is that Good News – or is it the same story we’re living right now?
There are many heavens. And the first surprise is that when we look closely “the kingdom of heaven”, is plural. Not tidied up in a one-heaven fits all sort of way.
Unity through reconciled diversity. Diverse heavens. Just as it’s the peoples of God, rather than just one sort of people with whom that God will pitch their tent.
The choice of vocabulary in Genesis and John’s Gospel takes things wider still: God’s rainbow covenant is “with all flesh”, and the Word becomes “flesh” rather than just human when the specific alternatives were freely available. In the Isaiah 40:5 passage quoted for liberation by Martin Luther King, “All Flesh” has the privilege of seeing God’s glory, and I wonder if our time, when the refusal to acknowledge the fellow stakeholders in Creation has brought “all flesh” not just into danger, but a stone’s throw in geological time from premature extinction, it really is time to question – or reject – the cultural assumption that the ecological inclusiveness of scripture is a throwaway poetic device for a merely human salvation.
With the lead given globally by spiritual leaders like Pope Francis, we are reclaiming permission to see the Earth and all their Creatures as neighbours, partners; to neglect whose care, and love objectively endangers the justice, wellbeing of all.
In a story I wasn’t allowed to use in the Time for Reflection in Parliament last week:
In the days of firing squads, the condemned victim was blindfolded because soldiers wouldn’t fire whilst looking a fellow creature in the eye.
Today and from now on, with human fingers on that trigger, our own future depends on taking off that blindfold. Because whilst the gun is still in our hands we finally recognise, in the gaze we’re now vulnerable to, something of ourselves in the firing line.
Not least in the way we frame the deep reassurances and dire warnings of our scriptures.
Salvation or liberation? World or humanity? Spirit or breath?
(Blessed are those who are short of breath, for they will breathe clean air!)
And Heaven or Sky? Many ways of hearing that word, and in the readings today I have highlighted an indispensable one which perhaps English speakers regard as too humble, too real, too indecently accessible to qualify as holy.
Whatever else you want to mean by it -and realise, I’m ruling nothing out – just as Christ’s cross is also always a tree, a heaven is also always a sky, to which you relate every day of your life. The kingdom, the reign of such a heaven, the way it’s ruled is in the many intersecting cycles of carbon, oxygen, water and life. All the stuff that all the pomp and prayer and protest is about this week.
If the sky is any sort of heaven – and you have to work indecently hard to prove otherwise from Christian scripture and tradition – then this heaven is endangered in the crisis which points abruptly to the end of the Holocene, the geological age which has cradled most human cultures, civilisations and religions.
But in a constantly recycled world of endings, even the end of the age is not the end of the world. That’s good news.
The scriptural and other ancient resources of our faith take it for granted that everything that is, does pass away or pass on, though maybe, uniquely, Revelation looks even beyond that. Confirms it to the extraordinary extreme, that even death can be laid to rest.
In the meantime the relay continues: from one the Earth to the next recycled version, the handover from the first Earth to the new one, for whom continuity gives identity.
Recycling all the way through. Without the first Earth, there could not be a new Earth. Without Jerusalem no new Jerusalem. Without the birth in Bethlehem amongst the beasts and the testing time in fellowship with the wildlife of the Judean desert, there would be no Second Coming – that amazing spiritual assurance of God’s determination to keep faith and make victims of injustice into survivors, which ‘sensible’ churches have so neglected in our lifetime.
But think of what we’re doing to those heavenly cycles: burning out the carbon stored millions of years ago, overloading Earth’s capacity. And with plastics and more: defying the ability of life to break down and re-use what has already had a life.
We need, not the abusive relation of bondage to… but a grateful partnership with decay. Addicted to fossil fuels, we have preferred the slavery.
From the Beginning, and meaningfully reinforced by evolution in cosmic time, a single-use, throwaway culture is so very far from what God “sees to be good”, when “evening comes and morning comes” and evening comes again. Summer and winter, seed-time and harvest, not forever, but rather “whilst the earth lasts”.
So never mind the security barriers of the Green Zone or the Blue Zone at COP: Heaven is not aloof, nothing other than part of Creation.
Exactly as you should expect in a faith which insists that the divine Word became flesh, incarnate in the Earth. No part of our faith is exempt or irrelevant. The common experience of people under pressure is this: that the scary stuff has meaning.
Similarly to the skies, saints – occur predominantly in the plural in the New Testament. They impact on community. Saints are blessed to live out what it is to be God’s gift to the Earth. The rewards they bring, like the prophets, are shared beyond their immediate situation.
Jesus provides a saint-spotter’s guide for the benefit of his disciples, which even in its original form shockingly breaks the fourth wall to encompass those who would follow him. After the rest of that terrifying list list, it’s rather scary to hear “blessed are YOU….” but the way of Christ is a way of engagement not escape.
These are the ones from whom we will learn. Whose cover we need to blow. Not our dependants, not recipients of grudging charity, but those sent by God to give us a lead. They don’t need to be “right”, but their voices need to be heard. Without their blessed witness we fall into the hands of the powers and principalities who precipitate the injustice which in the Bible curses the land and their creatures as well as human beings. All creatures, souls, and saints.
That’s why indigenous voices, from the Small Island States, and all those communities hit hardest and first, are so blessed vital to the processes going on in this city this week. Those who, alongside the scientists with their honest and disciplined observations, can ensure the inclusion of the blessed voice of the Earth alongside the domineering voices of polluters and plutocrats
Is the Earth blessed, or merely threatened?
Persecuted – check!
You might argue whether nature is merciful. Nature wants to eat you, make no mistake .
But we also eat nature. We’re part of it. How much mercy do we show?
The hunger and thirst for a cosmic justice is built into the staggering complexity of the interdependence of life. The ecosystems and cycles wonderfully pursue a justice which is not punitive but providential.
How can we not – when the church celebrates the grace of the communion of saints and the fellowship of human souls living and departed – how can we not learn from such as Mungo of Glasgow, Francis of Assisi, and especially Columba of Iona, of the Communion of Creation? Of the joy and sadness of so much life?
When we think of how little of what we are is exclusive to our species, does it make sense do deny the dignity of ‘soul’ “after their kind”?
For all this we are already equipped as people of faith. With gifts we can, however, both take or leave. Blessings which emerge as meaningful only in times of threat.
When I was new to the church, I heard people proudly quoting from the German rebel theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was imprisoned and murdered by the state for standing up to Fascism. Bonhoeffer scores highly as blessed in Jesus’ defining presentation. What is a saint, but a blessed one?
Persecuted, imprisoned, – check!
with integrity. – check!
Many have quoted his letters from prison, but neglected the context of a man terrified and constrained, struggling to comfort from prison, a fiancée he never really had much in common with. Read all the letters, and yes, to some extent here is a man going off his head. Given the collaboration of German Christians with Nazism, he expresses huge reservations about “religion”, which many have picked up and run off with, without appreciation of the very narrow way in which he used that word ‘religion’.
As a grassroots pastor, I have seen how religion keeps people going at the edge. It gives us, when we let it, the spiritual resources to encounter bad news. Church is the place to bring your fears, receive your hopes. Be sustained by joy.
And because local churches are sanctuaries first and foremost, before ever they can be hotbeds of activism, faith can propel ordinary, vulnerable people into vital action for justice and peace and the integrity of Creation.
Local churches make available to those looked down on by the elites a sustaining spirituality. Glib talk about the failures of ‘religion’ betrays this blessing. Endangers this treasure.
A letter from prison is a different beast from a theological dissertation. And in the New Testament these insights of the sharp end, the final blessings that flow from ultimate threat are highly valued in their own right.
In the face of very real threat to his person, and having witnessed an obscene betrayal of Christ, Bonhoeffer found blessing in a very positive vision of Christianity as a life lived with integrity for the neighbour and their needs. Recycled, repurposed, re-embodied as a spiritual resource in times of crisis.
My discovery on reading was the comfort Bonhoeffer found in that when Jesus was afraid, he prayed. Strength in weakness. The realistic recognition of faith as a last resort, when the way ahead is impossible. Sharing something with the palliative approach I experienced in the last days of my late wife’s life. The joy of the hospice.
Having accepted our frailty, having accepted that we are not in charge, having accepted that though humanity has learned to harm the global ecosystem, we are a long way from controlling or governing it… to sum up, having accepted what we can’t do, we are set free to think of who we can be. Whatever happens or not this week in Glasgow.
Though when in the whole of recorded history has a ‘reward in the skies’ made more sense than now? What else are we looking for? Why insulate your religion from the reality you live in?
I’ve met too many Christians who point-blank refuse to acknowledge the unity of Creation: the healing recycling of heaven and earth both in the vision of Revelation.
The Book of Revelation is prison literature, expressing those wild freedoms of expression that emerge when other freedoms are abolished. Along with Jesus’ own robustly apocalyptic sayings preserved in the Gospels: this end-of-world spirituality, which has accompanied God’s people through so much that seemed hopeless, confirming hope as by far the most practical option.
This week, may we learn a wee bit more how to drive such apocalyptic vehicles for the journey of spiritual resilience, for the glory of God, the comfort of the groaning Creation, the calming of the stones grown hoarse at shouting aloud in the face of the silence of Christ’s disciples.
This week, may we be finally be church for real. In fellowship with all Creatures Souls and Saints.