He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” -Luke 23:43
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.” 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.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
“God is a Methodist” -Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers (1942-1950)
In Luke 23:43, moments before he dies, Jesus speaks these words to one of the two men who are also hanging from crosses, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.” Paradise is a powerful word. It is an etymological fact that the root of the word “paradise” (the same term Jesus used) comes from an ancient Persian word meaning an “enclosed park or green”. Today, we play fast and loose with the term “paradise”. Anything can be a “paradise”. In short, we abuse the word. Paradise is personalized, whatever we want it to be; a product of our own personal desires. However, the Bible says God has a hand in the creation of paradise. It’s almost, as if, we work together.
When I read Luke and follow “paradise” through the Bible and examine its origin, I am more convinced than ever the “enclosed park or green” is nothing like I’ve pictured or been led to believe. To tell you the truth, Paradise is only a short walk away. If you look, Paradise isn’t difficult to find.
I think Jesus is describing a baseball field. I hear “enclosed park or green” and I see a baseball park. When it’s all said and done, Jesus is saying to the man on the cross, “when this day is over, you and I are going to a baseball game.” What an amazing statement! Like our open ceilinged cathedrals of sky, where pop flies, home runs, and base hits allow us the opportunity to play a game of thoughtful intention; Jesus’ paradise draws us closer to each other and God.
The French Benedictine Abbé, Ernest Dimnet once wrote, “Architecture, of all the arts, is the one which acts the most slowly, but the most surely, on the soul.” This is especially true of baseball parks, unconscious and unaware of their utilitarian nature; they subtly work upon our souls and draw out our prayers. We pray for runners to steal second, outfielders to catch, and players to be called safe. At their best churches do the same. We help elicit words for others; those hard to speak in other places; in language to strong for polite company and reserved for God alone.
The ballpark helps to define the experience of the game itself. We know as much about the storied histories of the baseball stadiums as we do the teams they represent. Names like Ebbets Field, Camden Yards, Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, and Fenway Park tell stories in and of themselves. We know our own community baseball park is a special place. It is like the paradise Jesus is describing. A Wednesday afternoon, watching a game, eating a hot dog and cheering the team is a tiny glimpse of the community created by the kingdom of God. Now we have new questions. Are we able to connect these parts of our lives? Do we understand our baseball games as more than stops on our young people’s journeys toward maturity? Do we understand them as something bigger than ourselves? If you answer yes, it’s possible to see why Jesus told the thief, “Today, you’re going with me to a baseball game.”
Do we want to watch something fun with Jesus where we all come away victors, in one way or another? Jesus makes us this offer. Can you imagine a more warm and inviting offer? What would a baseball game with Jesus look like? Where is such a game described?
For box seats along the first base line in “Paradise Park” or “Eternity Field”, you will need to go to the end of the book. It’s at the corner of “ninth inning” lane and “Patmos” alley; on the backstreets of the Bible itself. The baseball park, the “enclosed green” in which Jesus is inviting our participation is described in the first six verses of Revelation 21.
The writer of the Book of Revelation has, like the man on the cross before him, been invited to see paradise; God’s baseball stadium. Immediately, we are struck by the word new. A new heaven, a new Earth, and “the sea is no more”. Wait; is this some kind of environmentalist manifesto? What’s wrong with the old heaven? We normally understand the “new Earth” idea and “no sea” as results of ecological malfeasance. This isn’t the case with John’s version of events. In Jesus’ ballpark, it’s about making all things new. Even in baseball, new places make history.
Construction began on Baltimore’s Camden Yards in 1989. The Orioles played their first season in the new stadium in 1992. In less than one presidential term of office, Baltimore created history. It’s difficult to talk to an Orioles fan without using the words “Camden Yards”. I’m not sure I can remember talking about the Orioles without making the association between the team and place. You don’t need to be in a place as old as Wrigley Field to know something new happens every time someone different comes to bat.
Umpires aren’t angels. Charged with the difficult responsibility of keeping the beautiful fair, their words bring the baseball field to life. In verse 5, the angelic home base umpire enlivens paradise with a single word, “look”. “Everything is about to begin”, he says. It’s the ancient Greek equivalent of “play ball”. An imperative command for all gathered to be alert, prepared, and ready for what comes next. “Look! I’m making all things new.” This is new game on a new field.
This is to be a memorable moment. Baseball, like our faith, is made for living memories to be recalled and shared. Baseball is full of significance beyond batting averages and RBI’s. Christianity isn’t just an accumulation of facts to be shared like trivia. I know Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses to the Cathedral door in Wittenberg in 1517. Dates are good to know. However, it’s equally important to know the content of the argument plus the date of the event. While a date may frame our memory and offer context, it takes more than a series of numbers for the game to mean something. The content, the game itself, changes lives. This is why we pay attention to the human drama before us.
The baseball game transcends time. By its very nature, it is apocalyptic. Baseball is a revelatory, kairos event which isn’t bound by humanity’s linear limitations of light, dark, life, and death. The designation of innings is for records which demand to be remembered in writing well beyond the last out and the final pitch. The episodic nature of the game lends our minds to think in terms of both chapter and verse. We must read and re-read what we’ve seen. Our souls seek a retelling of memories beyond the instant replay of televised games and Sunday morning services. Baseball, like the gospel isn’t confined to the self contained Paradise where it’s witnessed.
The angel is asking John to, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true”. This angelic umpire says these events, the game, and the place matter more than the stats. Don’t take a picture with your phone, snap a selfie with Jesus, or say you’ll do it later. Write something down. You’re in the best place you’ll ever be and the events unfolding before you matter more than you’ll ever know. If you don’t pay attention, if you move your glance for a moment; you’ll miss something. How many times have you turned away, only for a moment to ask, “What was that last play?” Write these things down, says John. Remember, what you are seeing today is a glimpse of eternity. It is green, a park, simple, and unfolding in a way for everyone to enjoy. This is baseball with Jesus, who, according to Branch Rickey was a Methodist. It’s nice to have that in common. Baseball, Jesus, and Methodism: what a trifecta!