Friday, January 22, 2010

Tears in Heaven

El Greco, The Opening of the 

Fifth Seal 1608-14 Oil on canvas

In 1991 Eric Clapton wrote the song "Tears in Heaven" following the death of his four-year-old son, Conor, who fell from a window of the 53rd-floor New York apartment. The words of the refrain are: "Beyond the door there's peace I'm sure. And I know there'll be no more tears in heaven."

This is the traditional view of heaven. How many times have I reinforced that view by reading these comforting words at funerals? "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:4) It's true, but not until the "new heaven and new earth" at the end of the book.

At the beginning of Revelation, John goes "beyond the door" (4:1) into heaven and sees the souls of martyrs on their knees crouched at the base of an altar weeping a traditional Jewish lament and asking God for vengeance on their murderers. "They were gathered under the Altar, and cried out in loud prayers, "How long, Strong God, Holy and True? How long before you step in and avenge our murders?" (6:10-11)

Christians who have met violent deaths crying in heaven? And asking for revenge? (Revelation 6:9-11) You won't hear this scripture text read at any funerals! But the visions of Revelation are much more complicated than funeral parlor homilies admit. To be quite honest, I don't like this scene in Revelation. It disturbs me. It doesn't fit my theological categories and moral sensibility. There should be no tears or cries for vengeance among "saints" in heaven! 

That is the problem with Revelation. It is art. It gives voice to those minority themes that don't fit our systematic theologies. No wonder it was the last book to make it into the Bible and why Martin Luther initially took it out of his canon. He considered Revelation to be "neither apostolic nor prophetic."  He said, "Christ is neither taught nor known in it." Luther recognized the difficulties of the Apocalypse.

But it teaches an important truth: heaven and earth are connected. Time and eternity are one. There is no final peace in heaven until there is peace on earth. It is all connected. There is not a two-tiered universe. You know ... the idea that this life may be a "vale of tears" but after death we will enter a tearless state of heaven. The "uni-verse" is by definition a whole.

We are connected to one another. We cannot live happy peaceful lives in America while our brothers and sisters are suffering elsewhere (for example, Haiti.) If one part of the body of Christ suffers, the whole body suffers. (I Corinthians 12:6) Death does not break the bonds of the Body of Christ. No one is saved until we are all saved. There is no true joy for any until there is joy for all. There is no justice until there is justice for all... on earth or in heaven.

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