The following is a link to our reading today:
As I grew older, I think my image of heaven became a little more sophisticated, but probably not by much. Basically when I envisioned heaven, I always envisioned it as a place that was a nicer version of the nicest place I had ever known on earth and it was filled with all the people that I loved and cared about. I think that this is how most of us arrive at our image of heaven.
There is another image of heaven that most Christians commonly hold. It comes from the Gospel of John. We heard the passage read this morning. It is probably familiar to you. I am sure you have heard it read at a funeral.
In the context of a funeral, this passage is very comforting, just as being told my grandfather was an angel in heaven was comforting to me when I was 6 years old. Death, the end of life on earth is the most painful loss that most of us will ever face. Death, our own and others, is a reality of life for all of us. As the saying goes, none of us gets out this lifetime alive.
Believing that there is something better after this life and that we will meet those we love again, can help us get through our most difficult times. And believing that we know how to get to that place—believe in Jesus and be a nice person—can help us to feel that we have some control over our lives and our world. Maybe we will all die, but if we just do the right things then we will get to go on to an even better life in the world to come. In the end we will have the hallmark movie ending that we all desire. This belief has even been used to justify the idea that the suffering of this lifetime doesn’t matter, because those who suffer will be rewarded in heaven.
The problem for me came when I learned, while studying Scripture in seminary, that all those passages that we so frequently quote to comfort ourselves in the face of death were not really about the life to come at all. Jesus wasn’t really all that concerned with what was to come. He wasn’t trying to teach his followers to simply hang on in the face of bad things because they would be rewarded in the life to come. Instead, Jesus was trying to show them God. Jesus was trying to tell those who walked with him that God was not who they thought God was.
He was trying to say to them,
“God looks like me. Who I care about—the poor, the sick, the grieving, the widow, the prostitute, the tax collector, the sinner, children, lepers, paralytics, the lame, the deaf, the mute, the blind, the prisoner, the criminal, the immigrant, the beggar, the possessed, the mentally ill—those are the ones God cares about. What I care about—feeding the hungry, justice for the oppressed, release for the prisoner, love, the sharing of power, forgiveness, healing, turning the other cheek, courage in the face of fear, openness, acceptance—this is what God cares about. And when you care about these things too, you too will come to know God. When you put love before power, giving before receiving, compassion before fear, forgiveness before revenge, justice before safety you too will be in the kingdom of God. For my house, God’s house is enormous. There are many rooms, and there is room for everyone.”
What I do think matters is what we are doing in the here and now between our birth and our death to help this place, our world, this earth move a little closer to being the world that God wants it to be. I do believe that God envisions for us a world in which all are fed, all are healthy, all are whole, all are loved, power is shared equally, no one has more than anyone else, no one goes without, no one is afraid, when we hurt each other we seek reconciliation not revenge, and love is always the ruling force. This is the world we will become a part of after this life, and this is the world that God wants all of us to work for in this lifetime on this planet.
I hope you will continue to take comfort in the belief that there is something on the other side of this life. I also hope that you will know that the next life is not the primary focus for those who call themselves followers of Christ. God is with us now. The kingdom of God is all around us. Resurrection is not just a promise for our future. Resurrection is something in which we can participate right here and right now. And when you understand that, your hearts will no longer be troubled, you will no longer be afraid.