We Believe in the Coming of God’s Realm and Reign to the World

I’m very much enjoying being back in the pulpit on a weekly basis.  At Duke Memorial United Methodist Church, we are entering “The Great Fifty Days of Joy” that is Easter.  With all Christians, United Methodists proclaim Christ’s resurrection as the point of our faith, the hope of the world.  Here are some Easter thoughts on Christ’s resurrection along with some citations (in bold italics) from the UM Book of Discipline that show what resurrection means to us.

 

We Believe in the Coming of God’s Realm and Reign to the World

            We pray and work for the coming of God’s realm and reign to the world and rejoice in the promise of everlasting life that overcomes death and the forces of evil. 

            It’s time for end talk. That’s what the Christian word “eschatology” means – talk about the end.  United Methodists consider that our life in the church is preparation for, and a foretaste of, the end.  In daily speech, we use that phrase “the end” in at least two ways. The word means final – the end of the game, the last chapter of the book, the ultimate ticktock of time.  The end in this sense is when it is all over and done with, finis.

            In another sense, end also means purpose – the result of the work, the meaning of the movie, the point of it all.  “End,” in this sense means how it all finally adds up, where it all eventually leads, telos. An early Protestant catechism asked, “What is the chief end of humanity?” to which the new Christian exuberantly answered, “to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.”  Our purpose, our end, is for no more utilitarian reason that the glorification and enjoyment of God.  We were made, body and soul, for praise.

To be sure, we shall end.  Nothing about us goes on forever.  Plato taught that we have an immortal soul, an inextinguishable spark within. Though most Americans seem to believe just that, United Methodists don’t.  You can write it over the lives of your wisest and most noble women and men, the years of youthful exuberance, our greatest human achievements and grandest attainments: This too shall pass.

Here’s a psalm we often read at funerals:

            You turn us back to dust,

            And say, “Turn back, you

                        mortals.”

            ….You sweep them away; they are

                        like a dream,

                        like grass that is renewed in the

                                    morning;

                        in the morning it flourishes and is

                                    renewed;

                        in the evening it fades and

                                    withers. (Psalm 90:3, 5-6)

Scripture tells us the truth: No nation, no institution (including the United Methodist Church!), no person goes on forever.  Work out at the gym, eat oat bran and wild rice until you pop, you will still, in the end, be a corpse. We are finite. Everything always ends at a cemetery. To know that we are mortal, bounded and finite, to see that this world — as stable as it may seem at the moment — is passing, this is wisdom.  Surely this is what the psalmist means by, “teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”  (Ps. 90:12)

But we just can’t bear to live within the limits.  Unwilling to be finite, we crave the infinite.  How can creatures so wonderful as we be content with mortality? Just eat this food, only believe this set of principles, follow this regimen twice daily, take this pill, give your life to this ideal, work hard for this boss, endow this institution — you will live forever.  The satanic promise to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (“You will be like God.”) is the lie of immortality.  One of the major tasks of Christian theology is to unmask our idols; and the promise of most false gods is godlike imperishability.

Wherein is our hope? Christians are enabled to be so brutally honest about the lethal human situation, so pessimistic about prospects for ultimate human betterment, because we are so honestly optimistic about the power of God in Christ.  We stand confident in the promise of everlasting life that overcomes death and the forces of evil.  Much of what we mean when we say “God” is ultimate vitality, eternal life, that state of being where something’s always and forever happening because God is life. If we hope to have life anywhere beyond the limits of this passing life, then we must somehow hitch on to God’s eternal life.

We believe that Jesus was not only raised from the dead but also, in an amazing act of love, reaches out and takes us along for the ride.  Determined not to defeat death alone, God raises us up for the mutual enjoyment of eternity. As John Calvin put it, “Christ rose again that he might have us as companions in the life to come.”[1] This is what we mean by “eternal life” — to be welcomed by God into God’s existence, to be subsumed into God’s story, to have a place in God’s reign.  And whenever God does that, then that is eternal life. Here. Now.  This is why God made us in the first place and what God has in store for us in the end.

Today, as the world seems to shake on its foundations and the future of our civilization is imperiled, many are curious about the end.  Yet those spurious Left Behind books were not written by a Wesleyan.  We’ve never been much on speculation about how or when the world shall end, hearing Jesus say, “About that day and hour no one knows.” (Matt. 24:36)   We take the words of the risen Christ seriously, “It is not for you to know the times or the periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”(Acts 1:7)  At our best, we’ve tried to fix our attention on the hopeful things of Christ here, now and leave tomorrow in the hands of a God who is not only the Alpha but the Omega too.

But that doesn’t mean that we Wesleyans believe nothing about the end – the end as point and purpose rather than as finality.  The Christian church begins in a cemetery, in God’s great surprise move on death in the resurrection of the body of the crucified Jesus. The Book of Revelation comes at the end of the Bible and the beginning of the church.  The Revelation seems to be the vision of a person whose world was coming apart, whose horizon was bleak.  It is a book of strange, even disturbing images and blood and battle and much pain.  Yet as so often happens in Scripture, St. John turns the pain into an occasion for hopeful singing and celebration.  St. John the Divine poetically says to a persecuted, struggling church: when our trials and tribulations are over, we will find in resurrection that it has been worth the effort and we will know the One who has led the way.  The Lamb — the slaughtered, crucified and bloody Lamb — will be positioned at the center of heaven, ruling from a throne.

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 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 is seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”   (Revelation 21:1-5)

It’s a poetic, visionary, celebration of the theological claim — God has triumphed.  God has at last got what God wants when“every knee should bend,…and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Phil. 2:10-11)  Jesus shall not only return, triumph, and be revealed, He shall reign.  And what about us? The glorification and enjoyment of God, for which we were created, which has been only a momentary and episodic pastime here, shall there be our fulltime job.  We shall forever whoop it up in the choir (see Rev. 19).

—  Will Willimon, from United Methodist Beliefs: A Brief Introduction, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2007.

 

[1] Calvin, Institutes 3.25.3.

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2 thoughts on “We Believe in the Coming of God’s Realm and Reign to the World

  1. I enjoyed reading the Wesleyan perspective on end times. My only comment is we should be ready every day for His return. After all, St. Paul said, “We shall not all die, but we shall all be changed.” S. Lee

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  2. Morning Bishop Willimoni: You were recently quoted in the Mobil Al, Press Register as saying that the issues of sexuality in the church in “not helpful, and not interesting” and that United Methodist who are unhappy with the Disciplines stand on homosexuality in the church, “if unable to change it” would be a good reason to become something other than United Methodist? Isn’t that sort of like saying that the Pharisee’s might well have said to Jesus that if he’s so unhappy with the “Law” perhaps he ought to consider becoming Christian. Have missed out days in the old South Carolina Annual Conference. Peace to you and yours, Philip Chance. Phlpchance@aol.com.

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