052619 Easter 6c
Rev. 21:10; 21:22-22:5
Today we continue our exploration of what it means to be pro-life when the term has been hijacked and distorted by the way it has been framed. One of the things I love about Jesus is that he refused to accept the way others framed issues if it didn’t lead to abundant life for all.
- When religious leaders worried about paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus didn’t say it was an easy issue. Instead he mused out loud about what it means to be the image of God.
- When brothers fought over who should get the inheritance, Jesus didn’t decide for them. Instead he showed that assuming scarcity leads to greed while assuming abundance leads to generosity.
- When self-righteous men wanted to stone a woman caught in adultery because that’s what the law required, Jesus leveled the playing field by asking who was without sin.
Followers of Jesus cannot allow others to frame what it means to be pro-life. Like Jesus, we must admit that the issues are complicated. But if we let go of our positions long enough to ask what we mean by pro-life, we might at least be able to choose life for ourselves, and have conversations about the issues as adults.
Two of today’s texts tell stories of people who chose life. Lydia was a seller of purple who sought life. She worshipped God but not as a Jew. Her’s was a more inclusive view of what it meant to be seek God and life. In the Gospel we find a man lying by a pool in Jerusalem waiting 38 years for someone to help him wade in the water when God troubled it. Jesus asked him if he wanted life (to be made well). He said, yes, and Jesus told him to get up and walk, and he did.
How do we get to those adult conversations? Last week we explored why life in the new creation doesn’t always follow the rules we’ve been taught. Today we’re going look at how biblical images of a new Jerusalem are used to justify different views of life. Deepening our view of life may help us engage complex issues.
In the Book of Revelation, life is everywhere: there is the Book of Life, the light of life, the river of life and the tree of life. It all flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb. All people will see the Lamb’s face; the Lamb’s name will be on the foreheads of God’s servants. What is that name? The passage doesn’t tell us; but if we read the whole story only one name makes sense: LIFE. The name of the Lamb must be life. The image of a new heaven and earth, and of the New Jerusalem, is an image of Life.
Earth and heaven are new, and Jerusalem is new. In them life triumphs over death, order triumphs over chaos, and light triumphs over darkness; compassion triumphs over weeping, clamoring and pain; there is no more curse. Unlike many popular teachings about Revelation, last things are not endings but new beginnings. It’s not the end of earth; it’s a new earth. It’s not the material world that ends but death, chaos, curse, darkness and suffering; heaven, earth, city and history all continue, but without death and curse.
Through the risen Jesus heaven opens; not as an individual vision to console someone about to be martyred, but as a whole city coming down from heaven. God’s people collectively live out the opening of heaven; something comes down from God, made possible by the risen Christ. The whole project Jesus began is a new, collective story, woven out of the stories of those who’ve allowed them-selves to be illuminated by this God who offers life, mediated by a lamb who shows a new path.
But that description still leaves room for an inclusive or exclusive future. Our vision of life affects how we interpret that description to decide what it means to be pro-life at a time when the term divides rather than unites, narrows rather than broadens, and is used to curse rather than bless. How we understand where the world is headed affects what we try to accomplish today. Revelation says to wait for the New Jerusalem to come in fullness. But what is the New Jerusalem like? If we envision it as a place of life for all, we will view the world as a place of abundance, and religion will offer God’s radical hospitality to all people. If, on the other hand, we see the New Jerusalem as a place where only those who fulfill certain requirements enter, we’ll view the world as a place of scarcity, and religion will be a scorecard that determines who’s in and who’s out. Both views exist in the world today.
People see what they want to see. We’re predisposed to see things through certain lenses. For example, the verse that says nothing unclean will enter it nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood could be taken in two ways. It can be taken exclusively to mean that the “unclean” will be banished, or inclusively, in the sense that there will no longer be any “unclean” because they have been healed and declared clean by God’s grace. The river flowing from the city into the world leads me to choose the inclusive option. The new city then represents hope for inclusion of all into a community of justice and peace, enlightened by the living presence of God.
Once we choose the inclusive option, we find numerous images inviting us to announce God’s hospitality. A temple-less Jerusalem is a place where God is present without walls and hierarchy of access. For Jewish readers it contrasted sharply with the earthly temple with its series of walled-off sections: the court of the Gentiles; the court of women; a section for pious men in good standing; and the holy of holies, where one priest entered once a year. In that temple the closer one moves toward the center the more exclusive the access. In the new Jerusalem people from all nations walk through open gates into the light of God where there is no night, and where they are no longer called unclean. They will experience healing from all the strife and exclusion that religion has provoked during human history.
Revelation employs the image of a mark on the forehead to indicate which version one chooses. There is the mark of the beast, and the mark of God. That’s where the number 666 comes into play. Many believe that the mark of the beast is 666. What is the mark of God? I’ve already suggested that the name of God on the forehead is LIFE, which implies grace for all. Of course, choosing grace and life doesn’t mean we do what we want. It may mean we’ll have a more welcoming attitude; we won’t be so surprised to see those we have excluded included in the New Jerusalem. It also means that the shame we felt in isolation can be washed away in the healing waters of the new community. It surely means that God calls us to be good stewards of all the gifts and blessings given to us. When we make idols of money, power, institutions, relationships and sexuality, we’re in danger of not entering the city of light — simply because we’d rather stay in the shadows. Grace, in fact, animates and empowers our work for justice in this world.
How does this view of pro-life fit into today’s debates? The divisions between the views is as evident as ever. Yesterday, in the NY Times, Bret Stephens mused about Donald Trump’s possible victory in 2020 in light of right-wing populist electoral victories around the world: The common thread here isn’t just right-wing populism. It’s contempt for the ideology of them before us: of the immigrant before the native-born; of the global or transnational interest before the national or local one; of racial or ethnic or sexual minorities before the majority; of the transgressive before the normal. It’s a revolt against the people who say: Pay an immediate and visible price for a long-term and invisible good.
I know it’s not as simple as that. No side is pure. But at a deep level there is a battle between an inclusive and exclusive view of life; a view that puts my security first or puts life for all first. The abortion debate has been framed between pro-life and pro-choice Remember that Jesus refused to accept the terms of debate that were handed to him. I shared an article on Facebook last week entitled, What Does the Bible Say About Abortion? The most interesting part of the article wasn’t the author’s answer to the question. He gave that early in the article: It’s not at all what I expected to find when I first set out to discover what it says. It’s not at all what people around me think the Bible says about abortion.
The real meat of the article showed how the current debate came to be framed as pro-life. The conclusion was straight forward: Evangelical opposition to abortion was crafted by political operatives as a wsay to co-opt the Christian church into the Republican party to save it from extinction after its landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson in 1964. The author showed that the initial reaction by Evangelicals to Roe v Wade was mixed, with many leaders giving it a positive review. Many believed that personhood began with the first breath not the first heartbeat. One leader as late as 1978 described baptists as, They pretty much bought into the idea that life begins when breath begins, and they just thought of abortion as a Catholic issue.(Richard Land)
I don’t share that to agree with it but to show that the current consensus among evangelicals about abortion has been created for political purposes. A biblical theology of life won’t answer all the questions; but it will broaden the discussion beyond pro-birth to pro-life in a way that includes all the living. Friends, we may not be able to change anyone’s mind about abortion; but we can join the struggle for life in all its facets.