"Crossing the Bar": Reconciliation in Light of Eternity
By Karl Neils, Senior Pastor, Seattle Vineyard Christian Fellowship
The last gift I received from Grandma Bea — indirectly, in this case, since she'd passed away four days earlier — was an acquaintance with Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, "Crossing the Bar." My mother had asked me to read the poem at Bea's funeral. Tennyson uses the image of the “bar” — the tricky waters where a mighty river enters the sea — as a metaphor for crossing from this life into the life to come, when, he concludes, “I hope to see my Pilot face to face.”
If we’re to believe the apostles and prophets, then our Pilot's is not the only face we will see on “that day.” John, for example, sees a vision where those from “every tribe, language, people and nation” are gathered in worship around the Lamb, redeemed and reconciled to God. But not just to God — for surely that reconciliation implies, even requires, a corresponding reconciliation to one another, a glad embrace. The promised New Creation can hardly be the New Creation if we still find there traces of hatred, unforgiveness, resentment, or even simple fear and mistrust. In that case, it would just be Fallen Creation, Take Two.
"Getting along" in heaven
All of which points to questions that have been bugging me (in a good way) for the past year or two. I have observed (or, rather, I've experienced) just how hard it is for us to get along, not only across historically or socially obvious dividing lines, but also in everyday relations among neighbors, friends, family members and church folk. How, I wonder, are we going to get from here to there? How is it that we expect the New Creation to be the New Creation if it’s inhabited by people that we (at present) don’t like, can’t get along with, or even view (perhaps with very good reason) as our enemies? Or, as one author asks, “How are we going to live eternally with those we can't stand now?”
Obviously, something will have to change, both in us and among us, for the New Creation to become reality. But I'm starting to suspect that it won't just be a God-waves-a-magic-wand sort of thing. As the breakfast-at-Galilee conversation between Peter and the resurrected Jesus suggests (John 21), there is not only continuity of identity on the other side of resurrection [Jesus is still Jesus], but continuity of relationship — including relationships with “unfinished business” (Jesus picks up right where they left off, pre-crucifixion: three more hard questions by another charcoal fire).
Is it possible that relationships not reconciled prior to death-and-resurrection will need to get resolved after the resurrection, in order for the reconciled parties can then enter, together, into “the life of the world to come”? Is there more to “crossing the bar” than perhaps we've reckoned with, at least in popular discourse? And what, if anything, does that suggest for how we live now — reconciliation in the light of eternity?
At the bar of grace
Earlier this year, a mentor turned me on to the writings of Yale Divinity professor Miroslav Volf. A Croat from the former Yugoslavia, Volf endured extended interrogations as a suspected “enemy of state.” The experience marked his soul with terror and left him with the temptation to hate — and the mandate to struggle with loving, in Christ's name — his enemy, the memory (and face) of his chief interrogator.
As a consequence, he developed a theology of forgiveness and non-violence that connects the theoretical and the personal. In "Love Your Heavenly Enemy," published in Christianity Today in 2000, Volf spotlights the dilemma present in our tendency to populate the New Creation with only those who we like and want to be with, calling it both “a serious personal challenge” and “an inadequately addressed theological issue.” How, he asks, “can those who have disliked or even had good reason to hate each other here come to inhabit together what is, in Jonathan Edward’s memorable phrase, ‘a world of love’?”
Volf proposes that we look more closely at what takes place between the general (bodily) resurrection and our entrance into “the life of the world to come” — namely, the Last Judgment. If the Last Judgment is a judgment of grace, with personal and social implications (i.e., have we shown mercy just as Christ has shown us mercy?), then, Volf suggests, it might look something like this:
“The divine judgment will reach its goal when, by the power of the Spirit, each person eschews attempts at self-justification, acknowledges personal sin in its full magnitude, experiences liberation from guilt and the power of sin, and recognizes that all others have done precisely that — given up on self-justification, acknowledged their sin, and experienced liberation. Having recognized that others have been changed — that they have been given their true identity by being freed from sin — one will no longer condemn others but offer them the grace of forgiveness.”
Forgiveness, given and received, paves the way for the final step, which is embrace. Volf continues: “Reconciliation will take place only when former enemies have moved toward each other and embraced each other as belonging to the same communion of love. With that mutual embrace, all will have stepped into a world in which each enjoys the other in the communion of the Triune God and therefore all take part in the dance of love freely given and freely received.”
Face to face
Volf paints a picture that is both sobering and hopeful, and points to the value of sustained reflection on these questions. If there's genuine continuity of identity and relationship in the New Creation, then “crossing the bar” will include not only the (full, final) transformation of our hearts but also the (full, final) reconciliation of real relationships with real people — loving my heavenly enemies as well as friends.
One of the simple (and, granted, sometimes simplistic) ways I’ve been taught to apply Kingdom theology is along the lines of the Lord’s Prayer — “as in Heaven, so on Earth.” I’ve often seen that emphasized in prayer for healing, along with (other) social and economic aspects of Christ’s “good news to the poor.” Increasingly, I’m intrigued by how that sort of thinking — and praying — applies to reconciliation, since the life to come is, of course, not just my eternity of reconciled, joyful delight in God, but is shared life with all those who enter Life: it's not only my Pilot I will see face to face.
Karl Neils is senior pastor of the Seattle Vineyard Church. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University, and an M.Div. from Fuller Seminary. Karl and his wife lead a missions partnership that works with Vineyard churches in Japan and South Korea, and they work extensively in an inner-healing ministry.
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