Tile: In heaven as it is on earth
Texts: Isa 51:1-6, Ps 138, Matt 16:13-20
Date: August 21, 2011
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
This past summer I’ve been teaching a class at the Durham prison, a class on autobiography. We read and discussed memoirs like Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott and the Autobiography of Malcolm X, among others. The assignment for the students was to write their own autobiography, a short account of an important moment in their lives.
This past Thursday, when we met for our last class, each student read from his story. Jacob started his by describing an early childhood memory, of looking out the front window, watching the cars drive by, wondering, waiting, trying to figure out why his dad wasn’t coming home. That was just the beginning of a long string of abandonments, of loved ones leaving him. As I heard him share pieces of his story, I couldn’t help but think how prison was just one more episode in a series of abandonments—deserted by society, abandoned by family, divorced by his wife, ditched by his friends.
I should say, Jacob would be quick to claim responsibility for his crimes, and admit regret about the decisions he made that put him in prison. He wouldn’t blame his dad, or his ex-wife, or his friends, or society, for his situation these days. But, nonetheless, as he told me his story the other night, as he revisited those moments of loneliness, and as the prison gate locked behind me on my way out, I couldn’t help but feel like I was part of a world that has abandoned him—that, in this society we’ve created or inherited, we end up looking a lot like Jacob’s dad, leaving him behind as we go about our lives, without him, letting him wait, starring out the fence, waiting for the world to remember him, to not abandon him again, and again. After Jacob finishes his time, once he is finally released, he will find out that our society hasn’t finished punishing him; he will learn that our world will continue to hold his crimes against him—whenever he tries to find productive work for his hands, to earn a living, every time he fills out a job application, he will have to mark the box that indicates that he has committed a felony. If the statistics are right, most likely his application will be among the first to end up in the trash—abandoned by our economy.
I think this is something that all of us are afraid of—a fear of abandonment, of being separated from the people we love, being left alone by the people we thought cared about us, being left to ourselves, lonely, without anyone to walk with us and talk with us, to ask us how we’re doing. We afraid of being told that we are not needed, that we are undesired. All of us want to be wanted—and this is the case for the work we do with our hands and minds; we want to be productive, constructive, helpful. This is also the case in our relationships; we want to be a friend and have friends, people to care about us and for us to care about in turn—to know that we don’t need to struggle alone, and to know that we have people in our lives who will celebrate with us when we receive good news.
When we find ourselves abandoned by the world around us, it also becomes easier to feel abandoned by God—that, somehow, God has also left us alone, alone in the cosmos. That’s why God’s Word to the prophet Isaiah is such good news. Everything around the people of Israel seems to say that they have been abandoned by God—deserted by the God who chose them from all the nations of the earth to be God’s people. During the time of Isaiah, they live as a people enslaved by foreign kings. So, they can’t help but wonder: Has God abandoned us? Did God turn away, leaving Israel behind? This is God’s reply to the people’s fear of abandonment:
“I will bring near my deliverance, my salvation has gone out and my arms will rule the people; the coastlands wait for me, and for my arm they hope…. My salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be ended.” (Isa 51:5-6)
God promises nearness—“I will bring near my deliverance,” God says. In Isaiah, God comforts the people with vows of nearness, of being close by. Earlier in the book, in chapter 46, God assures the people of Israel that she is their mother: “Listen to me…all the remnant of the house of Israel,” God says, “you, who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb” (46:3-4). How can a mother forget her child, God says, “or show no compassion for the child of her womb?” (49:15). At the end of Isaiah, in the last chapter, God says: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you” (66:13).
The good news in Isaiah is that God promises to be near her people, as a mother who will not abandon her children. From within God’s embrace of love, we hear the words of the Psalmist, from Psalm 138:
“Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me… Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.” (Ps 138:7-8)
The Psalmist doesn’t ignore the troubles around him; he can feel the wrath of his enemies. Yet he continues to trust in God’s love, to trust in the God who promises never to abandon her children: “Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.” In this prayer, we hear the words of someone who trusts in God’s love, someone who has faith that God will always be there. Even though everyone else may abandon him, the Psalmist knows that God’s love is steadfast, unfailing, always close at hand.
This is the good news: that God will not abandon us, that God’s love will always embrace us. We hear this good news echo in the words of Isaiah’s prophecy and in the prayers of the Psalmist. And we also hear it in the words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, when he tells Peter that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church, because the church is the presence of Christ on earth. In the church, God’s life and our lives are bound together, inseparable. Jesus says it this way:
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt 16:19)
When we usually talk about the relationship between heaven and earth, we talk about how God will transform earth into heaven. After all, Jesus taught us to pray the Father, saying, “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” But, here, in Matthew 16, Jesus seems to shift the emphasis: “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” It seems as if God, through Jesus, has so bound his life to ours that what we do here on earth, as the church, sets the course for what happens in heaven. Our earthly lives gives shape to what God’s reign looks like. Heaven is at stake in the life of the church, because God’s life is on display; we are at work, in the present, writing the story of heaven, spelling out what the life of God feels like, describing with our lives the heights and depths of the love of God.
In a few moments we will celebrate Communion. At the Lord’s Table, we find ourselves binding on earth what is bound in heaven, and loosing on earth what is loosed in heaven. As we come together, we show on earth what it will be like in heaven—that we are bound together as Christ’s companions, declaring the steadfast love of God with lives, as we walk together, as we eat from the same bread and drink from the same cup, and as we are sent out into the world to share God’s communion. As people around us are abandoned by society, deserted by loved ones, we find ways to show that the gates of hell cannot overcome God’s work of communion, that God draws near to the forsaken.
The good news is that communion with God is something we are empowered to offer the world. The good news is that God wants us, that God needs us, to extend the fellowship of the Holy Spirit into all the earth, to find communion with Christ among those who have been abandoned.