June 15, 2008
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church
I always love to ask the question: what do you think of when you think of heaven? I usually get some of the most interesting answers.
When I ask Sunday school students, they often talk about a heaven in which they get to have all their wishes come true. Or they get to meet their dead goldfish. The older students talk about heaven as being a place in which they can play video games all day long—in which they actually get to be a part of the video game. Another student talked about a princess heaven—in which she gets to be a princess for all eternity.
Adults have similar views of heaven. Most of us were raised with those images of fluffy clouds, of floating around in some blessed sky somewhere, strumming harps. We have often been told of our own “personal” heavens—we hear people talk about: in MY heaven, it will be like this or that. In MY heaven, it will like the happiest day of my life. In MY heaven, there will only be the people I loved in this life.
This kind of thinking has played heavily into popular culture. One of the most popular books in the last few years is a novel called The Lovely Bones by Ann Seebold. In fact, it is so popular it is currently being made into a film that is being released next year. The story, which takes place in 1973, is told from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl named Susie Salmon who is brutally murdered at the beginning of the book and goes on to narrate the rest of the book from her own personalized heaven.
From her own heaven, she can see the crime scene, the place where her body was hidden. The girl can see her parents and family mourning over her and she can see what her killer does. For her, heaven is sort of like here, except it’s everything she wants there. What’s interesting about all of these popular views of heaven is what is missing from them.
One very important thing is missing—and that is, of course, God. No where in Seebold’s novel is God even mentioned. For the author Seebold, who was raised an Episcopalian and is currently non-religious, she defended her “God-free” heaven:
“To me, the idea of heaven would give you certain pleasures, certain joys - but it's very important to have an intellectual understanding of why you want those things. It's also about discovery, and being able to come to the conclusions that elude you in life. So it's from the most simplistic things - Susie wants a duplex - to larger things, like being able to understand why her mother was always slightly distant from her.”
It’s an interesting take on heaven. And no doubt many of us have similar views of heaven. We imagine it will be a place in which we can sit around with our loved (and without those we don’t like or care for), doing what we do best. Every so often, as I plan funerals with family members, I try to discourage them for giving eulogies at funerals because, more often than not, someone will get up and say something like: “I sure hope when Joe and I are together in heaven, we’ll crack open a beer, light up a cigarette and watch the game on TV.”
The fact is, none of these images of heaven are consistent with what scripture tells us about heaven. Now to be fair, scripture is evasive at best when referring to heaven. And it is hard to find a consistency in views of heaven. Even in our Gospel reading for today, we find an image of heaven that might seem, at first glance, a bit puzzling.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the apostles to preach this message: “the kingdom of heaven is near.” No doubt we frown when we first hear those words. I would bet the disciples certainly did. Like them, we can easily look around at the world around us and fail to see the kingdom of heaven drawing near. After all, we are surrounded by news of war. We have been hearing about violent crimes—random acts of violence right in our community—and we see a world that is, at times, unfair and frustrating. We look about and, like Jesus, we see the “harassed and helpless” in our midst. We might even see the harassed and helpless staring back at us from our mirrors. In all of this, it is hard to see the Kingdom of Heaven being close at all.
But if we listen closely to what Jesus commands the apostles to do, we find a see-sawing motion. He tells them to heal the sick. Raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. We find Jesus telling the apostles to make negative things positive. There are sick people; heal them. When you do that the kingdom of heaven draws near.
People have died; raise them. If you do it, the kingdom of heaven is near. People are suffering with leprosy; cleanse them. If you do, heaven will be in our midst. Demons have come among us; drive them out. If you do, heaven will be there.
For us, these images of demons and leprosy don’t mean so much to us anymore in this modern time. But we can easily replace these images with others. For us, the message is just as clear. When people are sick, pray for them, visit them, comfort them. If you do, you will bring heaven to them. There are people who have died—not just died physically, but have died spiritually or emotionally. Go to them, pray for them, help them. In doing so, you will help them to find life and by helping them find life, they will know what heaven is. If people are suffering from an uncleanliness instilled on them by society, go to them. Touch them. Show them love. In doing so, they will be cleansed and, in their cleansing, they will know heaven. When evil in whatever form comes to you and makes life difficult, don’t succumb to it yourself. Chose good over evil. Choose the light over darkness. And if you do, heaven will be with you. The Kingdom of Heaven will break through. And when it does, we will see it.
These are the real glimpses of heaven we get in this life. And probably the most striking aspect of this is the fact that heaven is not a personal thing. It isn’t about me, personally. It’s about us, as a whole. We can’t see this vision of heaven clearly. There are no details. There are no specifics.
All we know is that everything we hope for and hope in, everything we long for, every deep desire we have, everything good and positive, is fulfilled there. We know this, because Jesus tells us that this is so. There is something awaiting us. We can’t comprehend it. We can’t, in this moment, even begin to wrap our minds and spirits around it. But, as Jesus shows us in today’s Gospel, we can catch glimpses of it. And more importantly, we can be responsible in helping others catch glimpses of it.
We might not know for certain what heaven is like or what it will be like for us. The fact is, we don’t need to know now. If we simply believe and have faith that heaven is the place in which God dwells, the place to which Christ leads us and the place which Jesus commands us to preach as being near, that is enough. We simply need to trust in God that it will be more incredible, more spectacular, more stunning than anything we can possibly even begin to imagine. And we know that we have been given the power here to bring heaven close. We know, through the promises of Jesus, that something does in fact await us. We might not fully be able to comprehend it here and now. But we know, deep in our souls, that it is there.
I have always been fond of the statement by the French Jesuit and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who said, “We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a physical experience.” This life—this existence—is only a part of the larger, greater experience of our lives. This life is only part of the path that brings us closer to God again and again. And while we are here—while we are making our way through this physical human experience—we are able to bring glimpses of the Kingdom of heaven and bring that kingdom closer, not only for us, but those with whom we are having this experience.
So, let these words of Jesus settle into your hearts: The kingdom of heaven is near. Take these words with you today and live them out in your lives. Bring the kingdom of heaven near to those you know in your life. Be the conduit through which the Kingdom of heaven is made known. And, if you do, you will find the Kingdom of haven drawing near to you in your own life.