Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
When I began to read and reflect on today’s scripture texts early in the week, the theme that sprang to mind for me was “heaven”. I read the line from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “our citizenship is in heaven” and I remembered that twice in the last year, members of the congregation have specifically asked me to preach about heaven.
I remember thinking at the time that I don’t know anything about heaven. What could I possibly say about heaven that would not be a product of my own imagination or someone’s wishful thinking about what the afterlife will be like? As much as I believe in life after death, and that God has something special prepared for us after our lives in this world are over, I don’t feel like I know anything concrete about heaven. And when I was asked, I couldn’t really imagine what I would say in a sermon on heaven.
Of course, many of you have heard me mention heaven from this pulpit before… but most often, the context for my mentioning it has been within a funeral sermon. Whenever I preach for a funeral, I check to see if the person who died had selected scripture texts for the service, and I preach on those texts. And if not, I invite the family to select their favourite passages or texts from the bible that they would like to include in the service.
Many of the favourite passages that get chosen point towards the hope of a heavenly reality where the faithful will live on in peace and joy, and in the presence of a loving God:
The psalmist declares his faith and trust in the Shepherd God who guides him through life and beyond: “… and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
The apostle Paul speaks of an amazing transformation when “the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable…”
And Jesus, in John’s Gospel, assures his followers that even though he will soon be killed, that he is “going ahead to prepare a place for us”.
Of course, there’s no mention of the word “heaven” in any of these passages. And yet, each one seems to hint at something beyond this life – a continuation, a transformation, a culmination in which the faithful rest in the loving, surrounding, comforting presence of God. They don’t give us any details about the afterlife, but they do give us the sense that it will be good, and that we will somehow finally be in the full presence of God where there is no more sorrow or suffering.
When I think about it, I realize that Jesus didn’t spend much time talking about heaven or worrying about whether his followers would get there or not. He was much more focused on teaching people how to live faithfully in the world… how to love one another. And he kept pretty busy during his ministry – showing them how to live and love one another too… healing people and casting out demons, spending time with the least and the outcast of society, and demonstrating God’s amazing love for them.
In our Gospel reading today, some Pharisees come to warn Jesus that he’s starting to get himself in trouble with the authorities. They tell him that he should be careful – that he should get out of town – because Herod wants to kill him. We’ve already seen that Herod is willing to have people killed. He ordered John the Baptist’s head on a platter to appease his wife and daughter. One can only imagine what he might do to Jesus if he decided he wanted to get rid of him!
But Jesus doesn’t seem at all worried or scared off by the Pharisees’ warning. He replies: “Go and tell Herod… Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’” It’s an interesting response: “Leave me alone, Herod. I’ve got things to do, and I don’t have time to be distracted by your threats. I have people to heal and negative energy to get rid of. And on the third day I finish my work.”
Long-time Christians may hear an echo in that language of a very central story in our faith. “On the third day, I finish my work.” Friday was the first day. On Friday Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. The second day was the Sabbath, and everyone rested. And then on the third day, some women went to Jesus’ tomb bringing spices to anoint his body. And they discovered that he was raised. He was alive!
Jesus had given himself fully to God’s work in the world. Strong forces had opposed him, and many people had turned against him, but he did not give up. Though they arrested him, and hurt him, and hung him on a cross to die, he stood firm to the end, dedicated to his loving purpose in the world. And those forces did not win out in the end… because “on the third day” Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to many people, and then he ascended into heaven where he lives in the presence of God forever.
There it is again… heaven… in the Gospels and in the Creeds of the Church… Jesus ascended into heaven. He is alive and in God’s presence forever. We can hardly imagine what that is like, but it does sound wonderful… being raised up beyond the struggles and difficulties of life in this world. No more stress. No more fear. No more worries… but only peace and joy and the fullness of God’s loving presence.
The Philippian Christians, to whom Paul was writing a letter from his jail cell in the mid-first century, would have probably found great comfort in looking forward to life in heaven with God. If we think our lives are difficult and stressful, we might at least be thankful that we no longer have to deal with the challenges that first century Christians endured. The Philippians would have been particularly upset and worried, having heard that their leader, Paul, was in prison because of his preaching. They imagined that the same thing could happen to any one of them, and it had them frightened.
And so, the general tone of the letter is one of encouragement. Stand firm, Paul tells them. Even though there are threats all around you, stay faithful, and you will make it through. It reminds me of Jesus’ response to the warning of the Pharisees. They said: “You better stop preaching like you’re someone with authority! King Herod is starting to get angry, and he says he’s going to kill you!” But Jesus can’t be put off that easily. Even if he is scared of what Herod might do, he doesn’t show it. He stands firm, and continues his work.
Not too long ago, I heard about a minister who had just arrived in his new congregation, and he wanted to get to know the people and see where they were at spiritually. So this minister circulated a short questionnaire for the members to fill in. And the first question was this: “If you were to die today, would you know for sure that you would go to heaven?”
I was taken aback when I saw the question because I never would have thought of asking that question. I’m not even sure how I would answer it if someone asked me. I might say something like this: “Well, I love God. Not always very well or consistently. And I’m fairly sure that God loves me… not because I’ve earned that love, but just because of God’s amazing grace. I’m not worried about what will happen to me when I die. I guess I can trust God and wait for whatever that experience will be like. I have the feeling that it may be quite wonderful… the thing people call “heaven”. I don’t really know… but I’m pretty comfortable with letting that be a mystery for now.”
Sometimes I hear people reflecting on the state of the world that we live in as if there is absolutely no hope for us and for this world. “People have lost all sense of morality,” they say. “The world is going to hell in a hand basket!” And then I often get the impression that they’re just trying to hang on until this life is over and they finally get to go to heaven (which will be amazing!) Sometimes our Christian religion is presented as if it has nothing to do with our lives today in this world… but its simple purpose is to make sure that as many people as possible get “saved” so that when they die, they will get to go to heaven.
I wonder about the purpose of a survey question that asks if people are “sure” that they’re going to heaven. If some of the people said, “No, they’re not sure whether they will go to heaven” then I suppose the minister would plan to work on getting them all saved. And if they all said, “Yes, we’re sure” then perhaps he would rally them all together to go out and get more people saved.
As you can tell, I don’t think it’s the right question to ask, because I think that the Christian faith has so much more to it. Our faith has more to do with how we live in relationship with God and our neighbours today, and not so much to do with getting an insurance policy for what happens to us when we die.
When Paul wrote to the Philippians to encourage them, he didn’t just tell them to hang on a little longer because when they died, they would get to go to heaven. He told them to “stand firm” and to join in imitating him, even as he worked to imitate Christ himself. He did not tell them to wait because one day they would live in heaven with God. No, he told them that they were already citizens of heaven.
A citizen is not a visitor, or a tourist, or a guest. A citizen is someone who belongs to a particular country, and Paul knew that Christians belong in the presence of God, in the kingdom of God… We are already citizens of heaven.
Though Jesus didn’t say much about heaven, his teaching was full of talk about the kingdom of God. The kingdom wasn’t something reserved for the next life, and Jesus proclaimed both that the kingdom had arrived, and that it was growing. It was growing all around through Jesus’ ministry and through the love and care and service of those who followed Jesus’ way.
When we get all worried about our own lives, about our own salvation… I think it becomes a distraction that takes our attention away from working on our true purpose as God’s followers in the world – the purpose of helping God’s kingdom of love and justice and peace to grow in our world today.
I find the words of the psalmist today very encouraging. Even in the midst of difficulties, he stands firm: “I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” God’s goodness is not reserved for after we die, but it is available for us today, as we participate in making God’s kingdom here on earth. Think of those familiar words that we pray together every Sunday: “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
In our Christian lives, may we follow the advice of Paul, and stand firm in the Lord, remembering that we are already citizens of heaven. Let us know that we are surrounded, even now, by God’s presence. And let us join in Jesus’ work of healing and helping and serving today and tomorrow. Let us trust that on the third day, Christ will finish the work. Amen.