Thin Places

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

There is a question in the PCUSA study catechism which Kerry and I often used with our Confirmation classes.  It was a question that often made those confirmands chuckle.  I confess it has made me chuckle, too, to think that those writing the questions thought to include it.

“Won’t heaven be a boring place?”

Maybe it is a question you can relate to, too – even chuckle at.  Maybe you wonder what you can possibly do in heaven that will compare to an Eagles Super Bowl game, a Taylor Swift concert, or even a walk along the beach, especially when you have the beach to yourself.

Won’t heaven be a boring place?  It was easier to chuckle before someone pointed out to me that it really is a question that only the privileged would ask.

Think about it, do you think anyone who is worried about how they will feed their children would find existence where there is no more hunger – boring?  Do you think anyone who is drinking water that makes them sick would find a dimension where this is no more thirst – boring?  Do you think any youth facing bullying, any widow or widower crying themselves to sleep after their spouse’s sudden death, or any parent in Israel or Gaza or Ukraine burying their children killed in the crossfire of war would find a realm there are no more tears – boring?

I think we can safely say, “No!, No!, and No!”  Nor do I think the readers of this strange letter called “The Revelation to John,” or “Revelation” would find the picture of heaven here in chapter 7 boring.

Who were these first readers and hearers of Revelation 7?  Based on the evidence in the rest of Revelation and other ancient documents, these early disciples were Christians living in what was then called Asia Minor, now modern day Turkey, near the end of the first century, during the cruel reign of the Roman emperor, Domitian.  It was a tumultuous time of wars and famine for all.  But for Christians, it was even worse. 

In the words of one scholar, these Christians “were considered to be adherents of…a suspect group which met for its cultic practices in private homes…a sect that was widely suspected of being unpatriotic, a group about which wild stories were told.  After all, did they not speak of eating flesh and drinking blood…and was not their leader crucified by the government as a rebel and enemy?”1  As a result, they faced persecution, beatings, and even death.    

Imagine then, how this vision sounded to those Christians: a vision where “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing in the presence of God.”  A vision of a people who “will hunger no more, and thirst no more,” who will be led by the Lamb their shepherd “to springs of the water of life,” and who will have God “wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Boring?  That is not a word that exists in the vocabulary of the people in Revelation 7.  No, in light of all they have faced and gone through, when they experience such a heaven, they will sing with great joy, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!”

That is what the vision of Revelation 7 meant for the people then.  But how can it speak to us now?  To jump ahead 20 centuries, it helps to recognize three things that Christians can often get wrong about the letter of Revelation.

First, like the rest of the Bible, John’s audience were those living at the time it was written, not for us now.  In other words, Revelation is not intended to be a coded guidebook to the end of history as we know it which can only be understood in light of modern events, as some Christians have claimed.  No, Revelation is a letter written to first century Christians going through persecution. 

While we find the apocalyptic imagery of Revelation very strange, they were not so strange to them.  Scholars can find similar revelatory visions in other writings of that age.  To be sure, as with the rest of the Bible, this passage has relevance for us, but its relevance is best understood when we first understand its early church context.

Second, while Revelation speaks about the future, these visions of John are less about the future and more about the present.  John is not just sharing this vision with the Christians in Asia Minor to paint a picture of their future.  He wants that vision to bolster them now.  He wants them to find strength and encouragement in that future vision so that they can face the struggles and persecutions of the present. “You will get through this ordeal,” John’s vision is telling them.  And then, he is telling them, “listen to how wonderful it will be on the other side.”

Third, for many modern Christians, Revelation, with all of its strange imagery, is a scary book and one to run away from.  But for those early Christians, this was a comforting book, one to run towards in the midst of suffering and struggle.  Because it depicts God’s abiding love and justice prevailing.  It shows that the forces and powers in this world that bring great suffering do not triumph in the end.  They do not have the last word.  God does.

The vision here in chapter 7 was a real gift for those Christians living back in the first century in Asia Minor.  How about us now?  Close your eyes now…I mean it…close your eyes and picture this:

People too numerous to count.  From all over the globe.  All nations, all skin colors, all languages.  Everyone standing in the presence of God and singing with great joy and gusto.  With your eyes closed, keep looking: see a vision “of life overflowing with [abundance] and grace and joy and love. Hunger has ceased as has thirst. The heat of the day no longer beats down on our shoulders as we work. Grief and pain and hopelessness and despair are vanquished as easily as we wipe a tear from a child’s eyes. Death has been defeated and so also the many ways we have invented to divide ourselves.”2  You can open your eyes now.

Isn’t that a vision worth holding on to, worth revisiting?  In a world like our world right now, with too much hate, too many people suffering and dying, couldn’t we all use a good dose of Revelation 7? 

In our personal lives, when we are facing our own struggles and struggles, doesn’t it help to hear that we will get through this great ordeal?  Doesn’t it help to hear  that when we do come out on the other side it will be far better than anything we might be able to imagine?  The gift that this passage in Revelation gives us is not an escape from our reality; no it is a vision of God’s reality, the reality that will ultimately prevail.

We often talk about heaven being “up there,” which can lead to a sense that God is “up there,” distant and removed from our everyday lives.  Or we tend to think of heaven as “up ahead,” something we only reach at the end of life, when we die.  We may well wonder what good those heavens do for our life now.

But here is a different way of thinking about heaven, the way that our Celtic Christian ancestors in Scotland and Ireland thought about heaven.  Instead of thinking of heaven “up there” or “out there” in the future, they thought of heaven as a reality that exists beside us, in the present.  The curtain is drawn so we cannot see that other side.  But sometimes, these Celtic Christians believed, the curtain could be as “thin as gossamer.”  They would call those places and times when heaven seemed a little closer and a little more visible, “thin places.” 

From that perspective, Revelation 7, is a thin place giving us at least a momentary and blurry vision of what life looks like in heaven rather than on earth. 

Worship can be a thin place.  Here, just as in Revelation 7, all God’s children gather in the presence of God singing.  The distinctions that matter so much out there in the world, do not matter here, at least through God’s eyes.  Here we confess our sins and hear words of forgiveness.  Here, we believe God actually speaks to us through the Word.  And here the bread is broken and cup is shared with us all in a feast that links us not only to those stretched across the globe, but also to the great cloud of witnesses stretched across time, including those we dearly love and miss.

Here and there, now and then, we encounter thin places: places and times when we catch a momentary glimpse into not only what is meant to be, but also into what will be.  Perhaps, it may be when new life comes into the world, or when grudges are set aside and reconciliation takes place; or when resources are shared rather than hoarded; or where we find strength and wisdom from the example or words of those who are no longer with us.  As John’s vision was for the people who first received his letter, so these thin places are meant to be for us a gift from God to give us comfort and encouragement in the midst of our struggles and ordeals.

Yet these thin places are not only intended by God to give us comfort and solace; they are also intended to give us stamina in our discipleship, to help us find a second wind.  They are a reminder that nothing we do in accord with God’s will is done in vain. Hunger and thirst for fame or fortune? – we will never be filled.  But hunger and thirst for righteousness?  Then we will be satisfied.  Be humble, be merciful or peacemakers?  The world tells us that is the path of naïve fools who will never find success.  But the Bible tells us that it is the humble, the merciful, and the peacemakers who will ultimately prevail – because that is the way of God.

Sam Wells, the rector at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London, talks about a conversation a group had with a Catholic priest in Northern Ireland several years ago when there seemed to be no end to the violence and vengeance between Catholics and Protestants in that country.  For years, this priest had been working with others for peace in Northern Ireland with seemingly nothing to show for it.  He was asked, “how can you keep on doing this work with so little success or progress?”

He paused and then told the group, “better to try and lose in the cause that will ultimately prevail than win in a cause that ultimately will be defeated.”3

The author of Revelation couldn’t have said it any better.

  1. M. Eugene Boring, Revelation, Interpretation Bible Series (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989), 11. ↩︎
  2. Eric Barreto, “On Scripture: Not Just About the Future,” ↩︎
  3. Paraphrased from sermon by Rev. Samuel Wells heard at Duke Chapel. ↩︎