An Old Joke and the New Jerusalem

I found this version of an old joke that you’ve probably heard before:

A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, “Religion?”  The man says, “Methodist.”  St. Peter looks down his list, and says, “Go to room 24, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.”

Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. “Religion?”  “Lutheran.”  “Go to room 18, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.”

A third man arrives at the gates. “Religion?”  “Presbyterian.”  “Go to room 11, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.” 

The man says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must I be quiet when I pass room 8?”

St. Peter tells him, “Well the Baptists are in room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”

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Thinking about that joke I remembered a passage from the Book of Revelation, where the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven “adorned as a bride for her husband” (21:3).  A little later in the passage John tells us:  “It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and [each gate was made of a single pearl]…. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west” (vss. 12-13).  And I smiled, wondering if there was a sign on each of those pearly gates, one that said “Methodists,” one that said “Lutherans,” one that said “Presbyterians,” one that said, “Baptists,” and so forth, all around the wall.

The joke, I thought, would be on all of us, when we dutifully entered through our respective gates and discovered that we were (in fact) all in the same place.  I hope we would only stare at each other for a moment before we all burst out laughing and said, “Good one, God!”

You know what’s funny?  In that passage there are actually names on the gates of the New Jerusalem.  “On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel” (vs. 12).  It makes me wonder if those twelve tribes sometimes had trouble getting along, if the tribe of Benjamin occasionally turned up its nose at the tribe of Dan, for example.  Would the twelve tribes be surprised when they came through their respective gates and found that they were (in fact) all in the same place?  Would they stare at each other for a long moment before they all burst out laughing? 

It doesn’t seem to be God’s intention to keep us separated.  He seems to want to bring his big, scattered family together in one place.  One of my favorite parts of this passage comes a few verses later, where John tells us that there wasn’t a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple; and it didn’t need the sun or the moon, because the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp; and the nations will walk by that light and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into that place, and the gates will be open by day, and there is no night there (vss. 22-25).

Did you catch that last part?  The “nations” will walk by that light (the word in Greek is the same one used for “Gentiles”).  The kings of the earth will bring their splendor into the New Jerusalem.  It doesn’t sound like it’s only going to be a place for God’s chosen people; it sounds like it’s going to be a place for all of God’s people.  And the gates will be open by day, and there is no night there, which means, of course, that the gates of that city will never be closed.

The New Jerusalem will always be open.

Welcome to Christiantown

I know a woman who doesn’t want to be part of any Christian denomination; she just wants to be a Christian.  She says, “I don’t want to be a Methodist (and you really have to hear her say it to understand just how much she doesn’t want to be one, even though she grew up in that denomination and married a Methodist minister), I want to be a Christian!”  She points to that passage in 1 Corinthians 1 where Paul says he has heard about some who are saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”  And then Paul says (and you would really have to hear him say it to understand just how much he is horrified by the idea), “Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?  Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor. 1:12-13).

This is this woman’s argument precisely: that Christ is not divided, that John Wesley (the founder of Methodism) was not crucified for her, nor was she baptized in the name of John Wesley.  She was baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.  She wants to be a Christian, dadgumit.

And so I told her about Christiantown, an imaginary place where people live together in perfect Christian unity.  I said that in Christiantown the Methodist family might live next door to the Lutheran family, but both families live in Christiantown.  There are lots of streets, with lots of houses, and lots of happy families living inside.  There are Baptists, and Presbyterians, and Catholics, and Pentecostals, and every other kind of Christian you can imagine, but what they have in common is a shared commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord.  No matter how much they love their respective families they know who was crucified for them, and in whose name they were baptized.  They know what makes them one.

I tell this woman that what she doesn’t want to be in Christiantown is homeless; she doesn’t want to wander the streets forever, looking in through the windows as families are sitting down at the supper table, as they hold hands and say grace with the glow of candlelight on their faces.  She needs to become part of a family.  She needs to find some Christians with whom she can enjoy that warm, nourishing fellowship, and with whom she can worship and serve the Lord.

So, I’ve encouraged her to visit some churches, and find a good one, and join it knowing that she is not abandoning her commitment to Christ, but only finding a home in Christiantown.  I hope she will do it, and I hope that family—whatever its name might be—will take her in.

She needs a home.

Baptists at the Bolshoi

bolshoisharpAs a follow up to the post below about what kind of Baptist I am:

I went on a mission trip to Russia several years ago with a group of Baptists from Washington, DC.  We were visiting some of the churches in Moscow to discuss potential partnerships and one of the pastors scored tickets to the Bolshoi theatre for an opera called “The Czar’s Bride.”  They were really good tickets.  We ended up in box seats just one box away from where the czar himself used to sit. 

As we were settling into our seats and taking in the opulence of that majestic theatre I noticed a man wearing the purple shirt and the clerical collar of a bishop.  I asked him about it and he said he was a Luthern bishop from Seattle.  “What about you? he asked.  “We’re all Baptists from Washington, DC,” I answered.  “What kind of Baptists?” he asked, and I sighed.  I’m sure he meant well but I hear that question so often, and often it is from people who want to pigeonhole in me in some way, who want to make up their minds about me on the basis of some religious stereotype.   So I took a quick look around at that impressive place, and all of us sitting there, waiting for the opera to begin.  And I said:

“We’re opera-going Baptists.”

Badum-ching!