Sermon for Easter 5 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“See, I am making all things new.” God’s proclamation from the throne struck me in this week’s reading as it had not done before, because I had always heard it in the older translations, which I usually prefer: “behold, I make all things new.” The two translations seem to indicate two quite different things- the former, newer translation implies a process of re-creation; God is making all things new. The latter, older translation seems to imply a more instant re-creation, at whatever point in the future the vision from Revelation becomes a reality.

The more modern, process oriented translation might strike us as being more compelling. It suggests the re-creation of the world, the making of all things new, might already be in process, and we might have a part to play in it. If such were the case, there would be great fodder in this little verse for an inspiring sermon about how we’re building the city of God now, so let’s all join in and help.

Unfortunately, the more modern translation which we heard read this morning, as is too often the case with the particular translation (the New Revised Standard Version) which we use and which has gained a great deal of currency in the Church, makes an interpretive leap here. The verb ποιῶ, or make, is found in the verse in question in the present active indicative, which could be understood as bearing either of two aspects (something we don’t have to worry about in English), either the linear or the punctiliar, that is, either the continuous or the complete. While older translations seem universally satisfied with the latter, the NRSV opts for the former, I suspect, though I cannot prove it, based on what last week I called an “idealist view” of Revelation.

This is an important translation issue, and not just from a Greek scholar’s perspective. It is important, because the older, and I believe more faithful, translation implies a reality which is hard for us relatively progressive Christians to hear- namely, that the Kingdom of God is not primarily some building project in which we’re involved as architects and workers. Rather, the Kingdom of God, at least as it is in its fullness after the general resurrection, is a project whose blueprint is already drafted in the mind of God and whose completion is God’s alone to effect.

This fact has, during certain periods of the Church’s history, been ignored. Most notably, as I suggested last week, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Industrialization had taken hold in Europe and the United States, the pioneers were moving farther west on our own continent, and relative peace and prosperity had been established. Theologians believed that the world was in the midst of a process leading to perfection through human ingenuity. Growing peace and prosperity, along with a particular interpretation of the work of Charles Darwin, had led many to believe that humanity was evolving into the Kingdom of God, that the establishment of God’s reign on this earth was within the grasp of men meaning to help build it. If God were making all things new, it was believed, now had come the time to accomplish God’s work for him.

Of course, all this came to a crashing halt with the eruption of the First World War. Humans had not lifted themselves from the reality of sin and death by their own cleverness. They had not grown to the point where they could accomplish all of God’s work for him after all.

There are, however, still some who hold the view of the nineteenth century liberal movement, who believe that if they just try hard enough, they’ll build the City of God. They have the best possible intentions, and no doubt many have accomplished great things for the sake of the Gospel. Even so, nothing we do or have within ourselves by virtue of being ourselves can possibly effect the glorious vision God has given us of the life of the world to come, and we need the humility to recognize our limitations in this regard. Hear again, the vision God gave to John of Patmos of the Kingdom at its completion:

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 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.”

We are no doubt called to make the world a better place, but if we think our own efforts can eliminate all our ills, we are sadly mistaken.

This might at first sound discouraging, but it is, in the final analysis, very good news indeed. It means that eternal life in the presence of God is not some metaphor for peaceful human society built by human ingenuity, but is exactly what it sounds like: eternal life with God. It’s good news because it means that it’s not all on us to make it a reality. God makes all things new. He’s not in some process of helping humanity perfect itself and build its own Kingdom; he will on the last day raise us from the dead and he will come down to dwell with us into eternity. This takes a lot of the pressure off. It does not, of course, exempt us from living a Christian life and loving our neighbors in word and deed; but it does mean that our own eternal happiness is not ours to effect, but God’s to give as his greatest gift. We need only to be humble enough to recognize that it is God who gives us the victory and not we ourselves, and to offer Him the only thing we can, which is genuine thanks.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.