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.

My Way vs. Your Way on the Way to Our Way

Listen to Holy Conversation #1: Baptism (October 22, 2008) (mp3)

 

I started last night’s “Holy Conversation” with a story about a time, early in my marriage, when I decided to surprise Christy by washing the dishes.  I filled one basin with warm, soapy water and the other with clean, scalding water.  And then I washed all the dishes, starting with the cups and saucers, ending with the pots and pans, washing them in the warm, soapy water, rinsing them in clean, scalding water, well on my way to surprising Christy when…she came home early.  She asked me what I was doing.  “I’m washing the dishes,” I said, magnanimously, waiting for her praise.  “That’s not how you wash dishes,” she said, patiently.  “You just turn on the tap, let a little warm water flow, and wash the dishes under the stream.  That way the water is always clean and you’re not washing dishes in (she looked into the murky wash basin) that.”

 

For years I’ve been telling that story to couples as an example of how conflict can crop up in a marriage when you confuse “a” way with “the” way.  I was doing dishes my way, the way my mother had taught me.  And Christy did them her way, the way her mother had taught her.  It didn’t dawn on me until years later that I did dishes the way I did because we didn’t have running water when I was growing up.  Washing them under that warm stream Christy recommended wasn’t an option.  We had to haul water, heat it on the stove, and pour it into basins.  Often there are good reasons for doing things the way we do them, or at least, there were good reasons.  What Christy and I had to figure out for the sake of our marriage was a way of washing dishes that was neither my way nor her way but our way, together.  And we did.  These days we simply load the dishwasher, push the button, and move on to other things.

 

That little parable served as preface to last night’s meeting in which a crowd of some 400 people engaged in conversation about the Baptist way of making disciples (baptizing believers by immersion), and the other way (baptizing infants who are later confirmed as believers).  Former Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and others, stood up and talked about their experiences while lifelong Baptists sat and listened.  Some of the experiences were funny, like the woman who remembered that when she finally decided to be immersed a girl who was baptized along with her wore a swim cap, so as not to ruin her gorgeous new hairdo.  Some of them were humbling, like the man who said he resisted being re-baptized, but when he finally submitted out of a sense of obedience found it to be one of the most meaningful experiences of his life.  Some of them were powerful, like the young man who remembered his confirmation in the Methodist Church, and the sure sense that in that moment he had received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Some of them were sad, like the woman who told us her Presbyterian way of being Christian had never been accepted in 25 years of Baptist churchgoing.

 

What I’m hoping for in these holy conversations is that we will talk to, and listen to, each other long enough to come up with a First Baptist way of receiving members that is neither my way nor your way but our way together.  I’d like to think we would continue to make disciples as we always have—baptizing believers by immersion—while opening the door of membership to let in those who have been discipled in other ways. 

 

I’ll have to wait and see how things turn out, because one of our Baptist ways (and one I affirm wholeheartedly) is a congregational form of government that doesn’t permit the pastor to make the church’s big decisions.  Instead, as in a healthy marriage, we talk about these things, listen to each other, and make our decisions together. 

 

That’s just our way.