I am a poor pilgrim of sorrow.
I’m in this world alone.
No hope in this world for tomorrow.
I’m trying to make heaven my home.
Sometimes I’m tossed and driven.
Sometimes I don’t know where to roam.
I’ve heard of a city called heaven.
I’ve started to make heaven my home.
My mother’s gone on to pure glory.
My father’s still walking in sin.
My sisters and brothers won’t own me
Because I’m tryin’ to get in.
In his book, The Spirituals and the Blues, the theologian James Cone explores the meaning of heaven in black slave spirituals like the one just quoted. He begins one chapter with these questions:
How was it possible for black slaves to take seriously their pain and suffering in an unfriendly world and still believe that God was liberating them from earthly bondage? How could they really believe that God was just when they knew only injustice, oppression, and death? What exactly was revealed in their encounter with God that made them know that their humanity was protected from the insanity of white masters and governmental officials? The answer to these questions lies in the concept of heaven, which is the dominant idea in black religious experience as expressed in the black spirituals.
How, James Cone asks, could God be good when the world was so evil? How could so much wrong be made right? How could God’s word speak of freedom, when black slaves knew only bondage?
The faithful Christians of Asia Minor – present day Turkey – who John wrote to in his apocalypse were likely asking the same questions. They had been told that Jesus had risen from the dead on Easter morning, that death had been defeated, that Jesus would come back to rescue them, and yet the world, as far as they could tell, wasn’t getting a lot better. Yes, their lives had been caught by God’s saving grace. Yes, they had felt themselves changed by the Spirit that indwelt them. Yes, they encountered the risen Christ in the love of the community that bore his name and in their shared life together. But Jesus supposedly came to redeem the whole world, not just individual souls, to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18). The Gospel, the good news, was supposed to be not only spiritual, but also social and political and environmental. God was supposedly not only transforming individual lives, but the very order of the cosmos, the very shape of reality.
But the world wasn’t getting better, especially not for followers of Christ. John wrote to those who were being oppressed, those in danger of being oppressed, and those who, if they stopped trying to serving two masters – Rome and Jesus – which John said they must not do, would surely end up being oppressed. It’s clear from the book of Revelation that some followers had already been martyred. Like black slaves in the antebellum south, the Christians of Asia Minor asked where God was. How was God working? How could God make this right?
And like the black slaves James Cone wrote about, John in our reading this morning looks to the future. In the vision depicted in our reading today, he looks and sees “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” We are back in the throne room described last week, with the throne and the One on the throne and the lamb who was slain and the 24 elders and the 4 living creatures and the sea of glass and the 7 torches and the myriad of angels, but now even more people have arrived. This great multitude of people that no one can count from all over, everywhere, people from different cultures and locations, who speak different languages, but they’re all singing a song together, somehow their different voices, different languages converge in one beautiful harmony. Like the apostles at Pentecost, they speak different languages, and yet the words come through crisp and clear: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Then there’s this kind of funny scene – I think it’s funny any way. One of the elders is like, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” He obviously knows the answer, but instead of just telling John, it’s like he wants to make John feel stupid, just to remind him he’s in over his head and he doesn’t really belong there. He’s just visiting. I imagine John being a little miffed when he says, “Sir, you are the one who knows,” I then imagine him calling this elder a name under his breath “you ____.” And the elder responds, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
These people are those who have suffered, who have been hungry, who have been thirsty, who have literally slaved under the hot sun and been burned. In this vast multitude are the martyred friends and family of the people John writes to. Also there are the black slaves who sang the spirituals James Cone writes about. And Emmett Till is there, and Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner and Sandra Bland. And Matthew Shepard is there. And the student killed in Colorado this past week is there, and the two students killed at UNC Charlotte, and all the Christians killed in their churches on Easter in Sri Lanka. And I believe the Muslims killed in Christchurch, New Zealand are there, and the Jews killed in the shootings in Poway and in Pittsburgh are there.
The good news of the Gospel is that life wins, that love wins, that death is not the end. We celebrate this all year, but especially now, during the season of Easter. In the book of Revelation, especially in our reading today, God promises through God’s vision to John, that all those who have suffered will be comforted, all those who have hungered and thirsted and suffered violence will join the heavenly banquet feast. They will at last be safe.
But isn’t there a danger in this message? In pushing justice and redemption off to the next life? Didn’t Karl Marx says religion was the opiate of the masses? Isn’t hope in a future heaven exactly what he was talking about? Doesn’t it lead us to complacency in this life? Well yes, there is that danger. But just because it’s complicated or risky, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the journey. Just because we must tread lightly, that doesn’t mean we should just stay home and cancel the trip. Any time we try to speak of God it’s risky. That just comes with the territory.
There’s a tendency in churches to either talk exclusively about heaven (and maybe hell too) or not at all, to make the Christian message all about the future, or all about the present. Both extremes have their pros and their cons. First the pros:
Those churches that are more socially active and justice-minded often stress the implications of the Gospel for today, rightly reminding us that Jesus became incarnate, entered into the real world, healed real wounds, challenged real leaders, died on a real cross, and rose bodily on the third day. On the other hand, those churches that focus more on the next life have a robust faith in work of God, admitting that they cannot save the world but God will and in a sense already has through the death and resurrection of Jesus. They don’t give into despair, because their hope is not based on present day circumstances but on eternity.
But both of these perspectives have their downsides as well. Those churches and Christians who focus solely on the present will often find themselves overwhelmed and burnt out. Socially active but spiritually depleted. Despite their strivings, the injustices continue to persist, the strong continue to dominate the weak, the powerful oppress the powerless. They do their best to follow the example of Jesus, but in the end, they are not Jesus. They cannot, on their own, change the world.
Those who focus solely on the future and on the life to come often become desensitized to the injustices that the other group fights so hard against. This world, in their mind, is a lost cause. Their primary concern is their personal morality and winning souls for the next life, while failing to take Jesus’ life and teachings seriously in this one. They are too busy looking up for Jesus in the sky to bother with a cup of cold water for the thirsty, clothes for the naked, freedom for the incarcerated, and the flourishing of all of God’s people today.
But when the two come together, when the future we believe in and hope in shapes our activity in the world, when our faith that God alone can save the world, but God has invited us to join God, given us the responsibility of embodying the hope promised, then, then we’re on to something.
James Cone says that African American slaves understood that God’s future turned the present on its head. Tomorrow upends today. He says, “…black slaves were not passively waiting for the future; they were actively living as if the future were already present in their community.” And if the future was already present, then injustice today could not stand. Far from waiting for the next life to be free, instead of waiting for heaven to claim their dignity, black slaves demanded freedom in the present, dignity and respect now. “To accept the future of God as disclosed in the present,” Cone says, “means that we cannot be content with the present political order. God’s [future] arouses discontentment and makes the present subject to radical change.”
If we are truly committed to God’s future, depicted in our reading today as people from across all social and cultural boundaries raising their beautiful, unique voices in praise, all of them equal, all of them valued, all of them children of God, then we must rally against anything contrary to that vision – any ideologies, laws, structures, and systems that divide up and prioritize some over others. We cannot wait passively for God’ future, for God’s future has come crashing into today. God’s kingdom has already broken into the world, and we are those who live in it now, knowing one day all will live in it. One day, as our reading says, the lamb who was slaughtered, Jesus Christ, will shelter all people, there will be no more hunger or thirst or exposure. No more exploitation. No more abuse. No more violence. So we, as the people of God cannot allow those things now. If it’s not a part of God’s future, it cannot be a part of our present.
But where does all this hope come from? How can we really believe that God’s future has come crashing into today? How can we believe in John’s vision? All of this hope for the future and for the present is rooted, of course, in the past. It’s rooted in Jesus. It’s rooted in Easter. Throughout Revelation, the Lamb stands at the center, but the Lamb is always the Lamb who was slaughtered. He reigns in the present and the future, but he always bears the marks of his past. Everything John writes about, the entire vision, is made possible by Jesus Christ.
This truth also came through in black slaves’ spirituals. Cone says, “These songs make clear that the future is not simply a reality to come. It is a reality that has already happened in Jesus’ resurrection, and is present now in the midst of the black struggle for liberation.” We can live into God’s future now, in the present, because Christ defeated death in the past.
Are you beginning to see why God is so often referred to in Revelation as “the one who is and who was and who is to come,” and “the Alpha and the Omega?” The story of God encapsulates all of time, and we find ourselves living in a present that is constantly invaded by both the past and the future. Time collapses around us. The cross and the resurrection so close that Paul says we have already died and risen with Christ. The future so close that Jesus says the kingdom of God is among us now.
We are caught up in the Triune life of God, who is now, but also who was, and who is coming. In the words of the poem by Anis Mojgani from last week, we are almost home. But when we get there, when we arrive at the throne of God, we’ll realize that we’ve always been home because God has already made God’s home among us. When we stand beside the lamb, we’ll realize that the lamb was always already standing beside us. When we raise our voices to sing a new song, we’ll realize it was the song we were always trying to sing, we just didn’t have all the words yet.
All the same, let’s sing now the words we know, letting the saints of the past fill in the words we’ve forgotten, letting the saints of the future fill in the words we’ve yet to learn, letting our voices converge across time and space to sing the new song that is heard as a single harmony by the One who is and who was and who is to come.
 James Cone, The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation, 86.
 Ibid 92.
 Ibid 94.
 Ibid 93.