Rev. Teri Peterson
After This Life
1 Thessalonians 4.16-18, Revelation 7.9-17, 21.3-6a, Matthew 13.33
10 August 2014, Faith Questions 8
1 Thessalonians 4.16-18
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Revelation 7.9-17, 21.3-6a
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing,‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdomand thanksgiving and honorand power and mightbe to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,‘See, the home of God is among mortals.He will dwell with them;they will be his peoples,and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.Death will be no more;mourning and crying and pain will be no more,for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
Jesus told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
When you hear the word heaven, what comes to mind?
For many people, the mental image of heaven is a shining city built on fluffy clouds, with gates of pearl, streets of gold, angels and harps, peace and light, contentment—a place of beauty, wonder, and rest, infused with the presence of God, as a reward for those who are good during this life, or sometimes as a reward for those who suffered a lot in this life. The colors of heaven are sun-kissed white and blue and gold.
Of course, these images come to us mostly from medieval artwork, from Dante’s Divine Comedy, and from greeting cards. Since they are about what happens after this life, they are by definition a work of hopeful imagination. Part of what it means to be human is to not know for certain what God has in store when these bodies complete their earthly journey. We don’t know what heaven looks like, or where it might be, or what it will feel like, or who will be there. Those things are the purview of the creator, not the created.
We do know that God does not break promises, and that God’s promise is for life beyond what we can see and peace that passes all understanding. We know that scripture tells us that nothing, in life or in death, can separate us from God’s love—there is nowhere we can go where God is not already present. We know that God is the God of the living, and that our knowledge of what constitutes life is sadly limited. So it’s a fairly safe bet that God will keep this promise: that those whom God loves will indeed rest in peace and rise in glory. As for the physical location or interior decoration or musical choices, unfortunately we’ll have to wait and see.
There is a bit of a cottage industry in Near Death Experiences, though. We long for certainty, for a sense of control, and the reports of people who see a warm light, or who visit heaven and see their loved ones and then wake up on earth again, give us a glimpse of what we hope for. To be caught up in the clouds with Jesus and with those we miss so dearly, to join the multitude from every nation in praising God in the city square, to be in a place where every tear is wiped away—who doesn’t want that? We cling to reports that it is true, because it is so hard to trust a promise we cannot see. It is comforting to know that someone has seen, it makes believing a little bit easier, and somehow makes powering through this life without the people we love seem more worthwhile.
Interestingly, the early church didn’t focus much on the afterlife. It’s a rare topic in Jewish scripture, and a rare topic for Jesus. Paul talks about it in the context of communities who believed that Jesus would return very soon—and who worried about people who died while they were waiting. And the early church knew that Revelation was a book mostly written in code designed to allow them to tell their story of persecution, and to give them hope in the midst of horror. It wasn’t until the middle ages that images of an afterlife became common. When Christianity had taken over the European continent, and Charlemagne had become the first Holy Roman Emperor, and the vast majority of people were living as serfs, in abject poverty, with incredible suffering as their day-to-day reality—that is when the Church began to teach most about the afterlife, especially as a reward or consequence for this life. It was a way to remind people that though things were terrible, better days were ahead. That use of God’s promise as a way to manipulate people into accepting horrible conditions persisted right through the transatlantic slave trade and even beyond. In fact, it is still in use as a way to suggest that people living in poverty or suffering abuse are earning a reward in heaven, which lets the rest of us off the hook for solving problems of injustice or helping our neighbors.
It is never okay to use God’s promises to manipulate people or to perpetuate injustice. It is never okay to use God’s promises as an excuse for inaction in the face of suffering.
The promise of life abundant is for you, and for your children, and for all who are far off—everyone the Lord our God shall call. The reading today from Revelation gave us a glimpse of people from every tribe gathered together, of a world with no hunger and no thirst and no sorrow. Notice the reading didn’t say anyone had earned it—God is the one who sets the table and invites whomever God pleases. All things will be made new—some things little by little, some things all at once. And that promise is both for now and for after. And God keeps promises—every time. Some of those times, God uses us to fulfill the promise for others. Some of those times, miracles happen. Some of those times, we get a glimpse of what is to come, and sometimes we trudge through in faith.
Is anyone wondering about those first 800 years, before the afterlife became a way to placate people in the midst of this life? What did the early church teach about heaven?
Based on artwork and writings, it seems that they taught something much like what Jesus says in that one verse we heard from Matthew—the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into flour until all of it was leavened. When a person was baptized, they came up out of the water and the first image they would see was of the Garden of Eden—of paradise, which they were now entering. In baptism, we die with Christ and rise with him, into the kingdom of heaven. Their calling as Christians was to be the yeast that makes this world into paradise. The gathered church was living already in the kingdom of God, in paradise that seems invisible, but all can see the results. Yeast gets all mixed in, and we cannot separate it from the flour, but we can see it working. In the same way, the promise of heaven: we cannot separate it from this life, but we can see it working.
At the end of the movie Heaven is for Real, the pastor and father whose child had a near death experience and visited heaven preaches a sermon in which he asks the question: IS heaven for real? He answers it by saying yes, it is, and we get glimpses of it every day: in the smile of a stranger, in acts of kindness and justice, in the touch of loved ones. It’s just that we’re too busy living as if heaven is not for real, as if we have some level of control over God’s promise, and we miss those glimpses. And here’s the kicker: what we believe determines what we see. Do we want to see God’s promise at work in small yeasty ways right now? Or do we want to think God’s promise is only for after this life?
Jesus said that the kingdom of God is here, is at hand, is nearby. After his ascension, the disciples stand staring up at the clouds, and I imagine their longing was similar to ours—take us with you, let us see the kingdom that is coming, show us our loved ones, set our feet on lofty places. Yet the instructions from the angels start with “why are you standing here looking up?” They are supposed to go back to the city, full of people created and loved by God. God is handling the city in the clouds, and sending us to the city on the hill and plain.
What if heaven is so close we could touch it, but we’re so busy looking forward to it that we’re missing it? Instead of constantly looking toward the sky, let’s try trusting God’s promise—for a future with hope, for our welfare not for our harm, for life abundant both now and after, for all the tribes gathered together at one table, for peace that passes all understanding. We may just catch a glimpse of heaven.
May it be so.