“Penultimacy”

September 1, 2013

the Lord’s Supper at the Evangelical Lutheran church of St. Michael of the Communität Casteller Ring in Schwanberg

Louisville

“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 home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; 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.’” (Rev. 21:1–4 [NRSV])

A few weeks ago, I was in Germany for a conference of liturgists. We celebrated the Lord’s Supper at the Evangelical Lutheran church of St. Michael of the Communität Casteller Ring in Schwanberg. In the center of the sanctuary was this Table.

The remarkable thing about this particular Eucharistic table and the sanctuary floor atop which it sits is that both were made from granite stone from the city of Flossenbürg. Flossenbürg was the site of a Nazi concentration camp where thousands were executed, one of whom was the Christian martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged there on April 9, 1945. This Table faces the active flowing water from the baptismal font at the narthex of the sanctuary, as water flows outside into a wading pool.

Death never has the final answer. What became the death location for Bonhoeffer and so many others has been transformed into a new location for the worship of God’s people, the sustenance and nourishment of faith, a living reminder that death and life occur together, sometimes not in sequence, but together, side-by-side.

Just as it is with us. Living with Good Fridays and Easter Sundays every day; living with prayerful hope while experiencing real struggle in our personal lives, in ministry, in a broken and war-torn world.

St. John’s Apocalypse is about lived reality of the old order subsisting with the emerging promise of the new, the hoped for new heaven and new earth peeking through the patina of darkness, dearth, and death.

Our Christian brother, the late Tom Gillespie, who faithfully served as president of Princeton Theological Seminary from 1983–2004, was my dear friend. I was part of his last graduating class and I still recall his commencement address to graduates titled “There Be Dragons.” Gillespie told the graduates this:

“Pastorates are terminated. Marriages fail. Professorships flounder. Children disappoint. Wars continue. Injustice prevails. Poverty persists. Racism endures. The point is that sometimes the dragon wins. … No matter how hard you work, no matter how right you are, sometimes the dragon wins.

That is a true statement. But remember, the dragon wins only sometimes, not always. And, in the end, it is the dragon who is defeated—forever.”

Sisters and brothers, we live in, experience, and struggle with penultimate things. And so many times, the penultimate things obscures what’s really going on, what God is and has always been up to. Good Fridays come, and they hurt and they are hard. But thanks be to God, the power of the Easter resurrection is always upon us. The Lord our God—He is the First and the Last, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, the One who is, who was, and who is to come.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come!

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