Time is one of the great mysteries of the universe. We can measure it, we can monitor its passing, we can speak of the past, the present and the future. But, to my knowledge, no scientist or philosopher has successfully defined what time truly is – what the essence of time truly is. And I’m very confident that none of us here has ever stepped outside of time. I’m yet to encounter anyone in Ashton (or anywhere else for that matter), who owns a fully functioning Tardis, able to travel back and forth between past, present and future!
You see, only God stands above and outside of time. Only he created it and sustains it. Only he can simultaneously see the beginning and the end of time. As an eternal, everlasting being, God has a unique perspective on the passage of time – on the start and finish of history. Thankfully, in the pages of Scripture, in the inspired words of the Bible, God reveals to us some of his knowledge of past, present and future. God’s word gives us a God’s eye view of history. And in today’s Bible readings we are given the privilege of seeing the beginning and end of the Church.
In our reading from Luke’s Gospel we see the Jesus convince the first eyewitnesses to his resurrection that he is really alive again, before commissioning them to take the message of the gospel from Jerusalem to all nations. And in our reading from Revelation we fast forward to the end of history, and are given a vision of the church in heaven. We are given sight of the people of God gathered around God’s throne.
And by showing us the church of the past and of the future, today’s two inspired texts help us understand our identity and purpose as the people of God today.
The Past Church
The vision of the Church’s past we are given today comes in chapter 24 of Luke’s gospel. He describes the appearance of the risen Jesus to his disciples on the evening of Easter day. He greets them with the words “Peace be with you”, but their initial reaction was one of being “startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.”
So Jesus proceed to convince them that he was fully alive and physically present, not a ghostly apparition. Verses 36 to 43 tell us that Jesus showed his hands and feet to his disciples, spoke to them, invited them to touch him, and even ate some broiled fish before their very eyes. He really was resurrected – really flesh and blood – not a hallucination. In verse 44 to 47, Jesus offers yet more evidence that he is really alive, by pointing them to the Old Testament predictions of his resurrection – predictions written hundreds of years earlier, yet now fulfilled in him.
Having convinced them of his resurrection, Christ gives his disciples their great commission, their marching orders! They are to be his “witnesses” to the ends of the earth. In the power of the Spirit, they are going to carry a message of “forgiveness of sins” to “all nations”.
And, as we read in the book of Acts, this was a mission that the first disciples took to with gusto. The church saw explosive growth in its early days. From its birth in Jerusalem, the early church spread across Judea, Samaria and around the Roman Empire. By the fourth century even the Roman Emperor, Constantine, was converted to Christianity.
The Future Church
So that’s the church of the past, at its very conception. But what about its future?
Its tempting to look around this country, and Western Europe more generally, and think that the Christian Church is a shrinking group of people, ageing rapidly and in terminal decline. But John’s God-given vision of the Church in Revelation chapter 7 is quite different (do turn to it if you can). In verse 9 John looks and sees “a great multitude”, a group so big that “no-one could count” it. From our standpoint in history, the Church may sometimes seem small or insignificant. But from God’s perspective, as he sees the whole church at the end of history, it is an enormous body of people that stretches as far a the eye can see!
The vision of the Church in Revelation 7 isn’t just amazingly large, its also amazingly diverse. The multitude is drawn “from every race, tribe, nation and language”. There is a lot of talk nowadays about the possibility or otherwise of a “multicultural society” – of achieving a society that is both diverse yet also united. We learn from today’s passage that a multicultural society is possible, and its called Christ’s Church!
Over the last decade I’ve been fortunate enough to attend churches in Africa, America and continental Europe, as well as in the cosmopolitan heart of London. It has been a great privilege to see Christians from every background, every walk of life, and to worship and serve God alongside them, as my Christian brothers and sisters. Just a foretaste of the multinational, multicultural flavour of Heaven described in Revelation 7!
Despite its size and diversity, the crowd of people John sees in his vision all have two things in common. We are told in verse 9 that they are all “dressed in white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.”
Palm branches are a sign of celebration and joy, like those waved by the excited crowd on Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. In Revelation, the crowd are celebrating their salvation. Verse 10 tells us that in a loud voice they are crying out together “Salvation comes from our God”.
This God-given salvation is signified by the white clothes that the crowd are all wearing. We’re told in verse 14 how these peoples’ clothes have been made white. Their robes have been “washed in the blood of the Lamb”. This may sound a strange image, an unusual laundry technique, but it symbolises the fact that it is Christ’s death on the Cross that enables us to be forgiven and justified in God’s sight. We join the people of God by putting on these clean clothes, by believing in Jesus – not by filling in an electoral roll form or just turning up on Sundays.
John’s vision goes on to present a glorious picture of what life in heaven will be like for God’s people. Not only will the Church have been cleansed from sin and guilt, they will receive great blessings from God. Above all verse 17 tells us that in the future there will be “No more death, no more grief nor crying nor pain.” In the world to come, Christ’s people will be immortal and impervious to suffering. In the new creation our resurrected bodies will have the same glorious qualities that Jesus’ own risen body possessed.
The Present Church
Our readings today give us a glimpse of the church’s past and its glorious future. Its beginning with a few eyewitnesses in Jerusalem and its culmination as a glorious multitude in the world to come. But what do these two passages teach us about the right attitude towards our Church today? Here are three implications:
Firstly, we need to be clear that it is faith in the risen Jesus that should define us and unite us. As Christ’s church in Ashton Hayes we are not just another community social club or a gathering of people with similar musical or artistic tastes. We are ought to be brothers and sisters united by faith in the risen Jesus as our mutual Lord and Saviour. Christian believers are nothing less than the adopted children of God, saved by the blood of Christ and empowered by his Spirit.
Secondly, today’s readings should lift our horizons. They serve to remind us that Christians in very different parts of the world, in very different situations, really are our spiritual brothers and sisters. So can we do more to support Christians overseas who are in need? For example, Christian Aid Week is just around the corner, and there are other charity’s like Tearfund and Open Doors, whose work we can and should support.
Closer to home, we must do more at St John’s to welcome people of every background into our Church family. What can we do to attract and retain the types of people who are perhaps under-represented here at present, like children, teenagers, working-age men or young mothers?
And that leads me to my third and final point. It is the responsibility – and privilege – of us all to tell people about Christ and welcome them into his Church. It should be our duty and joy to continue the mission that Jesus gave to his first followers on Easter morning. As individuals and as a church, let us be imaginative, flexible and brave in sharing our faith:
• Imaginative in finding new opportunities and ways to explain what we believe;
• Flexible enough to embrace changes that will make newcomers to our fellowship feel more welcome;
• And brave enough to speak of Jesus when we’re tempted to keep quiet.
Today’s readings have given us a vision of the church from its conception to its culmination. May we play our part in growing God’s church from a small gathering in Jerusalem to a multitude so large that no one will be able to count it!