12 August 2018

Heaven Can't Wait

Job 19:19-28 and John 14:1-14

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

“There is no heaven or afterlife...that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”  That’s what Stephen Hawking (1942-2018) thought, the brilliant theoretical physicist and cosmologist who died earlier this year.  “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop when its components fail.  There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers that fail, that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Heaven.  For some, it doesn’t exist.  This world, this life is all we have for a brief time, and then the lights go out forever.  For some, heaven is merely wishful thinking.  A fantasy. The remnants of a primitive mythology.  Something we tell ourselves to cushion the hard blow of our mortality.  For those whose lives are filled with unimaginable pain and suffering the prospect of a better place, a better world, a true Land of Promise, is what gets them through another day.  Consider the lives of enslaved African-Americans. 

After the American Civil War, in 1868, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844-1911) wrote a religious novel called The Gates Ajar.[1] It was the second best-selling religious novel of the nineteenth century.  The novel imagines heaven as being similar to the Earth, only better.  The dead have “spiritual bodies,” they see and live with loved ones, dwell in houses, raise families, engage in all kind of activities, and live in perfect bliss.  Phelps started writing The Gates Ajar in the last year of the Civil War, after the deaths of her stepmother and her fiancĂ©, who was killed at the Battle of Antietam.  It was written for the women who lost husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons in the Civil War.  It also spoke to the spiritual crisis many were facing with the advance of science and the erosion of the Christian faith.  The novel offered comfort that after death there was another reality.

The erosion of Christian belief and tradition continues in our day.  The materialist perspective of Stephen Hawking, and others like him, reject the notion that there’s a spirit or soul or some kind of consciousness that continues or is renewed or resurrected along with our bodies after we die.  I was surprised to learn this week that while belief in God is on the decline in Europe and North America, belief in heaven or some kind of afterlife is on the rise—even among atheists.[2]  The prolific English biographer A. N. Wilson, who has written biographies of Jesus, the Apostle Paul, Darwin, Hitler, and C. S. Lewis (among others), claims “Belief in the afterlife stems from the fact that that ‘Selfishness is at the core of ‘modern’ culture.’” Maybe we think so much of ourselves and our lives and our loves that we can’t imagine the universe carrying on without us.

On the other hand, there’s the remarkable account of Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Several years ago, his brain was attacked by a rare illness.  The part of the brain that controls thought and emotion—and in essence makes us human—shut down completely.  For seven days he lay in a coma.  Just as his doctors considered stopping treatment, his eyes popped open.  He came back—back from an extraordinary journey into another world, another dimension where he experienced the beauty and sheer goodness of the universe, a universe held in the love of God. He tells his story in his book, The Proof of Heaven.  Prior to this experience, Dr. Alexander didn’t believe in God.  He does now.

I was asked to talk about heaven.  Another simple subject to tackle in a sermon!  I’m no authority here. What do I believe?  I am definitely not a materialist.  I don’t believe the brain is a computer, nor is the body a machine.  With all my heart, I affirm the resurrection of the body, which includes spirit and body, like Paul’s notion of a “spiritual body.”  One of the most profound experiences of being a minister is the privilege to stand at the graveside in a cemetery surrounded by pain and grief and proclaim the gospel of love’s triumph over death. 

Many years ago, now, driving one evening from Mountain View, California north to San Francisco along Highway 101, as the fog from the Pacific Ocean slowly cascaded down over the hills heading toward the bay, struck by the beauty of it all, I found myself saying, “There is this world and there is a world beyond all worlds.  There is joy and there is a joy beyond all joys.  There is love and there is a love beyond all loves.”  And, there are times when that world, that joy, that love comes toward us, like the fog pouring over the hills, and breaks into our lives and touches us and our hearts break from the sheer beauty of it all, “things beyond our seeing, things beyond our hearing, things beyond our imaginings” (1 Cor. 2:9).  And so, agreeing with poet George Herbert (1593-1633) I shout with all my heart, and say:
O mighty love! Man is one world, and hath
Another to attend him.

Abbey Church, Isle of Iona
There are “thin places” in the world, where, as the Scottish minister, prophet, and mystic George MacLeod (1895-1991) used to say, a “veil, thin as gossamer,” is the only thing separating this world from another world.  You know you’re close to something else.  I have felt this several times in Scotland, especially in the Isle of Iona, which Macleod called “a thin place.” 

I believe there are also “thin moments,” when you know you are near to that other world, or that world is impinging upon your world.  It’s a presence felt.  I felt it several times after my mother died.  And there are countless experiences in ministry when I have witnessed the holy moment of death and felt I was situated, standing between two worlds. This is some of what I believe, although it might sound like I’ve gone “away with the fairies,” as the Irish like to say. That’s me. 

From Stephen Hawking's perspective, there's no “fairy story” like the Bible. Depending upon which English version you use, and its translation of the Hebrew samayim and the Greek ouranos, there are about six hundred and seventy-five appearances of the words "heaven" or "the heavens" in the Old and New Testaments.[3]  It’s central to the Bible, yet it’s not easy define. 

What is heaven?  Where is heaven? Is it here in this life or in the world to come? In John’s Gospel, we find Jesus promising a future life with God, dwelling with Jesus and God. “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” (Jn 14:2). Jesus provides the way there.

Who gets to go to heaven? Does everyone go to heaven? 

When do we go to heaven?  At the moment of death?  On the cross, Jesus said to one of the thieves crucified beside him, “Today you shall be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).  Or, if we listen to Paul, the dead asleep, waiting for the last trumpet “when the dead shall be raised incorruptible” in a moment, in the twinkling of the eye (1 Cor. 15:52). Which is it?  Today or tomorrow?  

In Revelation, we have John’s glorious vision: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth;” he tells us, “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 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…” (Rev. 21:1-3a). Didn’t Jesus teach us to pray for the coming of this kingdom, that it might be “on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10)?  But what does this really mean?  What is life like “in heaven?” How do we know?  Throughout Jesus’ ministry we hear a lot about “the kingdom of heaven,” but how does this relate to the “kingdom of God?”

I can’t address all these questions this morning, but I want to stay with this last question regarding the relationship between the “kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of God,” because they’re, in fact, the same. I want to linger here because this is the starting point for a theological understanding of what we mean by heaven.  The kingdom of God is the kingdom of heaven.

If you place the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke side-by-side, you’ll see that most of the times Mark and Luke refer to the kingdom of God, Matthew replaces the word “God” with the word “heaven.”  For the most part, Matthew, writing to a Jewish community, steered away from referring directly to God.  This means, “heaven” doesn’t refer to a place, it’s a metaphor for God.  This misunderstanding led far too many Christians to think that the promised kingdom was in heaven, in some idealized perfect world. Some Christians need to get their heads out of the clouds and come back down to earth.  We need to remember that Jesus’ entire ministry focused on preaching the basileia of God—meaning the kingdom, or realm, even empire of God.  Jesus announced the liberating invasion of God’s basileia, which breaks into the earthly kingdoms of this world with holy justice for the poor and the marginalized, bringing release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind (Lk. 4:18), healing the sick and wounded, making space for the outcast, raising the dead, and bringing resurrection life to all the dead places in ourselves and our lives.  That’s the kingdom of God—and that’s what heaven is. All this is what God is bringing to us, this is what Jesus is bringing to us, for he is the kingdom.  And that’s why Jesus gave us so many parables of the kingdom, so that we would wake up and realize what God is doing all around us.  When Jesus summons us to seek first the kingdom (Mt. 6:33) he calls us to seek after what heaven wants, because heaven is on its way toward us.  The kingdom of God, the basileia, the realm of heaven is all around us.  Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote:
This World is not Conclusion
A Species stands beyond—
Invisible, as Music—
But positive, as Sound.

That’s what the kingdom is like, “Invisible, as Music—/ But positive, as Sound.”

In Mark’s Gospel, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, we have this significant text: “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mk. 1:14).  Did you hear that?  The kingdom of God has come near.  Not, “Repent because the kingdom of God is at hand,” but “The kingdom of God has come near,” therefore, change—change your life, change your ways, change your thinking. “Repent.”  And where is the kingdom?  In Jesus.  He brings the kingdom with him.  Jesus is “heaven,” he brings heaven with him to the world, in the flesh. Heaven is not “out there;” instead, Jesus brings the kingdom with him, to us.  We don’t earn it.  We don’t create it.  We strive after it only because it’s on the way. It’s always on the way toward us.  Heaven is the place from which God moves toward us, bringing Godself to us. We don’t move toward heaven, heaven comes toward us. In Jesus, the kingdom is always coming toward us; he brings heaven with him, so that it might be “on earth as it is in heaven.”

But never underestimate the forces at work within us and in the world that resist the coming of the kingdom, forces of hate and violence and fear and evil that wage war against all that heaven wants for us and for our families and communities and churches, for the world.  The crucifixion of Jesus was a powerful expression of our resistance against the coming kingdom of God.  We nailed the kingdom of God to a cross.  And God’s children are still being crucified by forces in this world that want to hamper and hinder what heaven wants. 

Still—we must say, Nevertheless!  Nevertheless, Jesus continues to offer us the kingdom, that’s the promise.  We never “possess” this kingdom, but it’s on the way, which is why we don’t give into despair.  Jesus tells us that we need not be afraid, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk. 12:32). That’s the promise.  Did not Jesus say in John’s Gospel, “Where I am, there you may be also” (Jn. 14:3)? This, too, is the promise. To be near Jesus is to be near the kingdom; to be near him is heaven. In fact, in John’s Gospel there are only two references to the “kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3, 5); he prefers to talk about “eternal life.” But even his use of “eternal life” should not be heard only not as a description of life after we die, but a quality of life here and now, a life touched by eternity, life touched by God. This suggests that we are already participating in heaven.  With grace-filled eyes, we begin to see what is going on all around us and through us.  Therefore, “we are called to be on hand for that which is at hand, but not in hand, an unprecedented glory of not being left orphaned but of being loved in a community of new creation beyond all that we can ask or imagine.”[4]  That’s why the Catholic mystic Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) could say, “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the Way.’” 

We are being loved into the kingdom, here and now. From a biblical perspective from a Christian perspective, this way of thinking about heaven in our midst is no fairy story, and it’s not “fake news,” it’s the real world.

Karl Barth
In 1916, as the so-called “Christian” nations of Europe were tearing themselves apart in war, Karl Barth (1886-1968), one of the greatest theologians the church has ever produced, was a young pastor in a small Swiss village and preached on the nature of heaven.  He discovered that the Bible doesn’t talk about heaven as an ideal or imaginary place, where what is hoped for will one day become the “real world.”  It’s the other way around. Heaven is always on the way toward us and here, if we have eyes to see.  And the “real world” is a world that is already being shaped by the inbreaking of God’s reign.  What we find in the Bible when we dare to look, Karl Barth said, is not primarily history, though some history is there, and not morality, though some morality is there, and not religions, though some religion is there.  What we find in the Bible, as Barth discovered, is “a strange new world,” as he loved to say. “It is a new heaven and a new earth,” Barth wrote, of a God who is heavenly, but heavenly “upon earth” and will not allow life to be split into a ‘here’ and ‘beyond.’”  It is “therefore, a new humanity,” he said, “new families, new relationships, new politics.  It has no respect for old traditions simply because they are traditions, for old solemnities simply because they are solemn, for old powers simply because they are powerful…The Holy Spirit established the righteousness of heaven in the midst of the unrighteousness of earth and will not stop nor stay until all that is dead has been brought to life and a new world has come into being.”[5]

All the way to heaven is heaven.

And we get to be a part of it all.

This is the “real world.” 

And this is no fairy story. 

Image: Heavenly Worship, a rendering of Revelation 4:6-11.  Medieval Retable, Hamburg, 1380. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

[1] My thanks to Dr. Cheryl Thurber, Ruling Elder at Catonsville Presbyterian Church, for this reference.  The full text of The Gates Ajar may be found here.
[2] See the Pew Forum’s latest statistics on religious belief in the United States. 
[3] Christopher Morse, The Difference Heaven Makes: Rehearing the Gospel as News (New York: T & T Clark, 2010), 2.
[4] Morse, 122.
[5] From Karl Barth’s address “The Strange New World Within the Bible,” delivered in the autumn of 1916, included in Das Wort Gottes und die Theologie (1924).  The English title, first published in 1928, is The Word of God and the Word of Man (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1978), 49-50.