A friend of mine here in Oman wears a T-shirt with a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost.” One of the things I have learned from my time living in the Arabian Gulf is that there are very few straight lines from Point A to Point B, metaphorically, literally, emotionally, psychologically, theologically, and politically. This is nothing new. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years in this region before arriving in the Promised Land. Jesus wandered the countryside of Judea and Samaria for three years before arriving at the cross and the empty tomb. I have come to understand that even as we wander, it is helpful to think about where our wanderings are leading us and what our destination is, even if there isn’t a straight line to where we are going. Knowing our destination helps give meanings to our wandering and directs what we do while we wander.
For much of my childhood, and even into my adult life, I was taught that the goal of faith in Jesus was to go to heaven when we died or when this world ended. Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, I was taught that Christians needed to rescue people from this world and help them reach the next. The goal of missions was to have people join our church, say a prayer of belief, and be saved from the trials of life and the evils of the world.
However, I am convinced that heaven is not our goal. Our journey through life is not meant to lead us to heaven but to paradise on earth, or earth remade in the likeness of heaven. Jesus teaches us to pray: “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The prayer is not to lead us away from where we are, but to have heaven here, to be real and manifest to all of creation.
The final images in the Bible are not of us going to heaven, but heaven coming to earth. The culmination of the Bible is not escape from this world, but a remaking of heaven and earth where the distinction and separation of the two no longer exists. Revelation 21:1-5 says:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the homeof God is among mortals.
He will dwellwith them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”
If our destination is a new heaven and new earth recreated into something new, our goal as Christians is not to help people escape this world, but to show the world the transforming power of God. This work began in Jesus, as firstborn of this new creation. Our mission is to point to the power of Jesus, the power that will remake both heaven and earth into something new.
My greatest distress in life comes from seeing the disparities between the world we live in and the new creation we trust is coming. When I see these disparities, I am reminded that it is our Christian mission to confront the places where God’s will is not being done on earth. We do this best by living into our roles as ambassadors for Christ, as agents of the new creation found in Jesus Christ. In this way we don’t offer an escape from this world, but become incarnations of the new creation for the world to see and hear.
The apostle Paul writes, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (II Corinthians 5:17) or perhaps “If anyone is in Christ, there is new creation.” New creation surrounds them and exudes from them. This has implications for our mission. At the very least it means that our goal is not to save people from this world, but to share how Jesus has reconciled and is reconciling this world to the heavenly realms. Our work is to have new creation shine through us and work to make the communities we live in resemble the world that is to come, when heaven comes down, and all is made into the Kingdom of God. Our goal is not to give people a way out, but to show that the Kingdom of God is already breaking into our world, and one day that work will be evident to all. Jesus has bigger plans than saving individual souls, he came to redeem all of creation and make all of creation new. Revelation 21 continues:
“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
The image here is not of any one nation or tribe in the new creation, but every tribe and nation. There is no temple, no religion, no Muslim, Jew, or Christian, there is only God and the Lamb. There is not one nation, but all nations will come under the banner of God, and any glory they have will be brought into the glory of God. The barriers that once kept us from seeing the fullness of God will be torn down and the things that kept us from God will not be allowed to enter. The things that kept us from God and new creation, the abominations, like greed (taking more than you need), gluttony (consuming more than you need), lust (selfish infatuation without consideration for the other, or treating people as objects to be used for selfish gain, not subjects to be loved), wrath, envy, pride, or sloth (indifference), just to name a few, will not be a part of the new creation.
As a Christian, I believe in the already and not yet of the Kingdom of God and new creation. Until the day described in Revelation comes to pass, our struggle is to live in the eddies formed where the worlds/realities mix, not yet fully in one or the other. This is one of the meanings of the cross, being suspended between heaven and earth. If we are to take up our cross and follow Jesus, as the Bible commands, we too must live between the worlds/realities of the here and now and the world/new creation that is to come. We are to struggle with the things that are not of the Kingdom of God, while working to concretely show the things of God that are central to the new creation. These central things of the Kingdom of God are given to us in the final chapter of Revelation:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (22:1,2)
The things that are central to the new creation are life and healing. Life for all people, and healing for all nations.
If our goal is not to punch our ticket to heaven and escape this world, but to live into the reality of the new creation, the role of Christian mission needs to be more than just teaching people to say a prayer or understand a truth. The goal is to have people see new creation in us, through us, and around us.
My experience these last nine years in Oman has taught me things about Christian mission and living in this “already-not-yet” in-between time. Here are a few:
- We need to practice receiving hospitality and engage the other on their terms.
Jesus commanded the 70 disciples (Luke 10) to go out ahead of him and receive the hospitality of strangers, to greet them in peace, and to stay wherever that peace was returned. This was to prepare them, and us, to be guests in God’s house.
For much of the past era of Christian missions, we have often been perceived as colonialists who come to other religions and cultures proclaiming that “we know best.” We have not received hospitality as much as tried to transform other cultures and religions.
If we copy Jesus’ disciples’ first mission expedition, we must learn to be guests. In fact, for us to practice living in the Kingdom of God, we must practice being guests. Being guests puts us in a position of vulnerability, and lets our hosts know that we are not coming to conquer or overthrow, as many “Christian” colonialists, and the missionaries who accompanied them, did. Instead, we need to engage on a human level. This demonstrates that the power of our message of peace and hope is in something other than ourselves and our own power. Being guests demonstrates to our hosts that our reliance is on God and the hope of God’s Kingdom.
Our energy should focus on moving out rather than drawing in, and we need to have an attitude of humility rather than arrogance. We cannot have an attitude of crusaders, instead we need to have the attitude of servants and of ones who have a crucified mindset.
- We need to prioritize creating a safe space over doctrinal purity or religious difference.
When the angel tells John that nothing unclean will enter the city, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, he isn’t talking about doctrinal purity tests or keeping people out that don’t follow our particular religion. Instead, the angel is speaking of keeping out those things that are antithetical to the Kingdom of God, that make the world a place of death and chaos.
We need to create spaces and places where justice, healing, and reconciliation are hallmarks of our work, and where we can welcome people into the new creation. Just as there is a tree for the healing of the nations at the center of the new creation, we need to center our work on justice, healing, and reconciliation.
- We need to act in ways that build up the communities to whom we are sent, and to help that community resemble the Kingdom of God.
In Matthew, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is like yeast, and we are to be salt. Our task is not to make everyone Christian. Our task is to help the community rise, contribute to is substance, and give it flavor. Out task is to help the community to which we are sent grow in such a way that what is created is beautiful and lovely and able to sustain all members of the community. In this way, when the Kingdom of God fully comes, these life–giving communities are ready to be integrated into the new creation even as they are made new by God.
It is not our responsibility to make converts, as only the Holy Spirit can truly convict one’s heart. Nor are we called to make everyone like us. If everyone was salt, we would have inedible bread. Until the new creation fully comes, the Kingdom of God is like yeast. Therefore, we are free from the need to base the success of our mission on how many people become Christians, are baptized, or are visible members of the church. Instead, the success of the mission is based on how we help the communities we serve better experience the Kingdom of God and the new creation. The measure of our mission is how we help people live into the peace and hope that is found in the person of Jesus Christ, even if they don’t believe in Jesus like we do. Hopefully, others will join us along the way in proclaiming the good news that is the Kingdom of God and work with us to show the world the New Creation found first in Jesus. However, conversion is not the measure of our faithfulness to our calling.
- We need to work with whoever wants to live out the ideals of God’s Kingdom and new creation, whether or not they are part of our religious tradition.
Jesus told his disciples that “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). In my work with and among Muslims and people from other religious traditions, I have found many of them more willing, eager, and prepared to work for what I would name as the Kingdom of God than many of my Christian counterparts. Every Muslim I know would proclaim Jesus as a prophet. Most of them affirm that he ascended into heaven and will one day return to be a part of the final judgement. They would also look to his life as an example of how to live and his teachings as a guide to be followed. (The main point of difference is that they do not claim that Jesus is God and would assert that Jesus never made that claim either–but that is another essay.) Many Muslims I know have share with me similar notions of justice, healing, and what a reconciled community looks like.
If we are to follow Jesus’ example, we are not to stop people who are healing, working for justice, working for peace, and working for reconciliation just because they don’t believe exactly what we believe or are not part of our particular faith tradition. If they are doing things that point toward the new creation, we should find ways to work with them for the things that are the hallmarks of the new creation. When we are working in communities that are not our own, we need to let others take the lead in determining how we can best participate as we point others to the new creation and the work of Jesus in the world.
For those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, we are the bearers of his message of hope that the new creation is both already among us and is coming in such a way that all will see it and live in it someday. In this way we may wander without being lost, and journey with faith because we know the destination.