Countless professors and mentors have warned me: never start a sermon with a joke. So I’m starting this sermon with that disclaimer, immediately followed by this joke:
A man died and went to heaven, and Saint Peter took him on a tour. He showed him the harps, the streets of gold, the cherubs. The man noticed that there were groups of people gathered in different spots, so he asked about them. “Those over there, sitting quietly and looking very serious—those are the Presbyterians. And those eating the big potluck meal—those are the Methodists. The ones with all the tambourines are the Pentecostals.” As he went on, the man noticed one group set apart from the others. “What about them over there?” he asked. “Keep your voice down,” Peter said. “Those are the Baptists, and they think they’re the only ones here.”
I tell this joke not only to rib my Baptist friends but also to point out a few modern assumptions about the nature of heaven:
1. Heaven is somewhere else.
2. Heaven is after you die.
3. Heaven is some ethereal, spiritual realm totally apart from reality.
4. Only certain people will be there, and we know who they will be.
This may surprise you more for some of those than others, but I want to argue that all of those are wrong, or at least they aren’t the whole truth. Here, briefly, is what I would like to say about heaven tonight:
1. Heaven is here.
2. Heaven is now…and later.
3. Heaven is real.
4. Heaven is for everyone.
So let’s get started.
Heaven is here.
First, let’s throw out some images we think of when we hear the word “heaven.”
Much of the popular imagery about heaven places it somewhere else, usually in a vaguely upward direction.
But notice what’s happening in the passage we just read from the book of Revelation. The new Jerusalem is coming down out of heaven.
OK, so yes, it sounds like heaven is another place, but in a sermon called “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” theologian Sam Wells said this: “The Bible doesn’t speak much about heaven as the eternal dwelling place of Christians. Instead it speaks of heaven as the place where God dwells.” The miracle of this vision in Revelation is that this equation changes, but instead of us going up to heaven to live with God, it is God coming down to live with us. “See, the home of God is among mortals; He will dwell with them.”
The idea is that heaven for us is not an escape from the world to a different one, but a restoration of this world. This idea is not new; we just seem to have forgotten it. Here’s what Rob Bell has to say about it in his book Love Wins:
“When we talk about heaven, then, or eternal life, or the afterlife—any of that—it’s important that we begin with the categories and claims that people were familiar with in Jesus’s first-century Jewish world. They did not talk about a future life somewhere else, because they anticipated a coming day when the world would be restored, renewed, and redeemed and there would be peace on earth.”
Here’s why this is important. There are some Christians who will tell you that it doesn’t matter how we treat the planet because we’re going to leave it someday anyway. This simply does not square with the image of a God who creates, who is creating and who promises to re-create.
How we think about heaven drastically affects our ethics, especially where creation is concerned—and creation includes everything, even our own bodies. If we believe that heaven is somewhere else, that our whole earthly existence is simply a shell that we leave behind at death, then sure, let’s not worry about pollution or obesity or global warming or starvation or animal extinction or disease or deforestation.
But the Bible witnesses to a God that cares deeply about this world, so much so that he became incarnate and lived among us and promises to do so again. If heaven is here, then our attitudes have to change, especially if we believe that heaven is not some distant future; heaven is now.
Heaven is now…
In Celtic spirituality, there is a concept that there are in this world “thin places,” places where the boundary between heaven and earth is very close. I think it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that’s what The Drifters were talking about in the song Madeleine sang for us. “Right smack dab in the middle of town, I’ve found a paradise that’s trouble proof, up on the roof.”
Have you ever experienced a thin place? It might have been a physical place—a favorite walking trail, a remote vacation spot, maybe even in a church. Or it might have been something that happened in a moment in time—in a meaningful conversation with a friend, an interaction with an animal, or a time when you saw something miraculous happen.
Experiencing heaven now is not just a spiritual thing; it can and should be very tangible. Tracy Chapman wrote a song called “Heaven’s Here on Earth” that expresses this. She sings:
Heaven’s here on earth
In our faith in humankind
In our respect for what is earthly
In our unfaltering belief in peace and love and understanding
Getting to heaven may not have much to do with believing the right thing or doing the right thing in order to ensure your post-mortem destination. It may be more about attentiveness to and gratitude for the ways in which heaven is breaking through right now.
But like those candy squares that are impossible to chew, heaven is both now and later. Many theologians talk about this idea of “the already but not yet.” Here’s what that means: the kingdom of God has come—Luke 17:21 says, “The kingdom of God is among you”—so that’s the “already.” At the same time, this kingdom has not yet been fully established—we know this because we continue to live in a world where sin and evil are realities—so that’s the “but not yet.”
So there is a sense that even though heaven is now, even though Jesus has come, we are still waiting. Heaven is now…and later. Heaven is already…but not yet.
Heaven is real.
In talking about heaven as something close to home both spatially and temporally, we come to a conclusion that heaven is a little more concrete than we might have thought. Heaven is real.
When I think about the realness of heaven, two stories come to mind. The first is The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis. This book is Lewis’ imagining of what the journey to and into heaven is like. Those who want to go get on a bus and arrive in a land where things seem a little strange.
At first the narrator thinks that all the people have become ghosts, but he realizes that they are as they have always been—rather, “It was the light, the grass, the trees that were different; made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison.” He tries to pluck a daisy, but even when the effort causes him to break a sweat, he cannot even twist the stem. He tries to pick up a leaf and gasps to discover that it weighs more than a sack of coal. Many of the newcomers find that walking on the grass there is like walking on spikes.
However, the narrator eventually runs into what he calls “solid people,” and they assure him that the longer he is there, the more he will get used to it. This new land is more real, more substantial than he is accustomed to, but over time, he himself will become more real if only he will bear the initial discomfort.
The other story that comes to mind when I think about the realness of heaven is from the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. You may have heard this exchange between the Rabbit and the Skin Horse before:
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Here’s the point: in order to take part in the reality of heaven, we have to change. Our attitudes and actions have to change in order for us to find heaven now, and even more will have to change in order for us to live in the new Jerusalem later. 1 Corinthians 15:50-53 says this:
“…flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”
Here’s a game I bet you’ve never played unless you went to seminary: “What will my resurrection body look like?” No one knows. But something must fundamentally change in order for us to take part in the reality of heaven.
My sophomore year of college, Sam Wells preached a sermon at Duke Chapel called “Refiner’s Fire.” It is to this day one of my favorite sermons. In doing away with the Catholic idea of purgatory, Protestants lost something. I’m not saying that we should go back to the idea of purgatory as this place of limbo or heaven’s waiting room, but I do think we need to revisit the idea of the refiner’s fire, and that’s what Sam Wells did.
In this sermon, he suggested that rather than thinking of people as either good or bad, we ought to recognize that there is good and evil in all of us. I suggested as much in my sermon about hell and the devil a few months ago. But if there is evil in all of us, and if evil cannot persist in heaven, then how does this work?
Wells offers this solution: the refiner’s fire burns away all that does not glorify God. He points out that for some people, like Mother Teresa or Saint Francis, there might be very little burned away. For someone like Hitler or Stalin, on the other hand, what enters into the new Jerusalem might be unrecognizable. But because there is not only evil but also good in every one of us, we can never say that anyone is beyond redemption.
Heaven is for everyone.
Because the best news is that heaven is for everyone. In The Great Divorce, Lewis’ heavenly bus route is open to anyone who wants to go. Some people start out farther away than others. It is said that folks like Genghis Khan or Julius Caesar are light years away, but if they wanted to, they could certainly come. I imagine that such a journey would require a profound change indeed, but here there is no Saint Peter checking credentials at the pearly gates; the way is open to all who allow themselves to be loved into reality.
We do eventually have to come down from the roof. But we do so with the hope that this world will be restored, with the assurance that the kingdom of God is among us. Heaven is here. Heaven is now…and later. Heaven is real. And heaven is for everyone.
And that’s something worth saying “ooh baby” about.
Sarah S. Howell