“BELIEVING in heaven is the ultimate rebellion against the idea that this world is all there is” (Paula Gooder, Heaven). Our reading from Revelation reminds us that “heaven” is not a synonym for “the afterlife”.
As Gooder explains, God creates the heavens in Genesis 1 so that he can dwell close to his creatures. Revelation 21 promises a re-creation of both heaven and earth in which the two are “intertwined”. God will now make his home among mortals. In the words of John, “He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”
Revelation shows the struggles of the persecuted saints to be part of a cosmic battle in this current age. Events in heaven are already intertwined with those on earth. Joseph Mangina observes that “much of modern theology and piety can be reduced to saying ‘God loves us’ in various forms and tropes.” While this is true, when it is “divorced from any context allowing us to identify which God is meant, it is also utterly banal” (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Revelation).
In our own times, as a naïve progressivism looks increasingly implausible, Revelation offers some much-needed realism. It unmasks the radical nature of evil, and the consequent struggle between the death-dealing regime of “Babylon” and those who bear witness to the Lord of life. Against the impulse to anxious self-improvement, Revelation reminds us that “the new Jerusalem” is not built by human hands. It must be received as grace, as a gift “coming down out of heaven from God”.
Our Old Testament reading speaks of both the struggle of the saints — as they are “tested” like “gold in the furnace” — and their eternal destiny. Although “in the eyes of the foolish, the righteous seem to have been ‘punished’ and to have died, they are in fact in the hands of God and abide with him in love.” The saints in heaven now offer praise and intercession before God’s throne (Revelation 7.9-12).
For the New Testament, the saints do not only mediate God’s love during their earthly lives: they are a “cloud of witnesses” who “surround” the earthly Church (Hebrews 12.1) and cry out to God for him to come in justice and deliverance (Revelation 6.10).
Far from obstructing the relationship between the individual believer and Christ, the saints in heaven (along with those on earth who encourage, support, and pray for us) are mediators of his love and grace. In the words of our collect, we are all “knit together” in “one communion” in his “mystical body”.
The story of Lazarus shows the connection between the hope of eternal life and the conviction that God’s love is faithful. Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that they are not simply servants but friends (15.5). Here we see what it means to be a friend of God, as Jesus is “greatly disturbed” and moved to tears at the death of Lazarus.
Lazarus is one of the many holy ones whose friendship with Christ was not a matter of dramatic deeds or words. As Jean Vanier reminds us, Lazarus’s story is largely untold: “In this Gospel, Lazarus is present but he never speaks and is never described. In Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus visits this family in Bethany, the home is described as ‘the home of Martha’, not the home of Lazarus.” The man “seems to be a ‘nobody’ except to his sisters and Jesus, who love him deeply” (Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus by the Gospel of John). He stands among the innumerable company whose story is forgotten by humans but remembered by God. Today is no less a feast for such saints as this.
In the raising of Lazarus, Jesus’s resurrection breaks into the world of mortality and death. Like every saint, Lazarus is a witness to the new Jerusalem in the midst of Babylon. Precisely because they bear witness to the victory that is to come, the saints attract hostility and persecution. In one of John’s darkly ironic twists, Lazarus’s raising generates such interest in Jesus that the religious leaders plot to kill him (John 12.10).
The lives of all the saints are eucharistic; for they receive and mediate the sacrifice of Christ — bearing witness to the victory that he has won, and anticipating the life of the city that is to come.
See also a commentary by Rosalind Brown from 2012 on the alternative readings for the 4th Sunday before Advent here.